The 13th Floor

I recently returned from a geology conference out in San Francisco. I had a great time at the conference, in general. I was stranded in Utah for a night due to bad weather and a missed connection, but even that wasn’t so bad. While the San Francisco Delta people reminded us that we would not be compensated in any way for the flight delay because weather is “beyond their control,” the Utah Delta people handed over a voucher for a free hotel stay and even some money towards dinner and breakfast. Everyone in Salt Lake City was very friendly and hospitable. The Mormons may have some whacky religious beliefs, but they’re very nice people in general.

One thing I noticed right away about the hotel in San Francisco is that there is no 13th floor! Really. The elevator buttons go B-L-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-14-15-16. Using my critical thinking- and counting- skills, I quickly realized that there actually is a 13th floor. [Cue Twilight Zone music] The 14th floor is really the 13th floor! And the 15th really the 14th! And the 16th really the 15th! [End Twilight Zone music]
I went up and down the elevator a number of times during the 4 days I was in San Francisco. On two occasions, I noticed that a man in the elevator with me pressed the button for the 14th floor.

Each time, I could not resist saying to the man, “Do you realize that you’re actually staying on the 13th floor?”

Each time, the man laughed and said something along the line of, “I know. I noticed that, too! Fortunately I’m not superstitious.”

I discovered that both of the men were scientists and attending the same geology conference. I felt relieved that both men laughed off the superstitious 13th floor. However, I’m now wondering about the general population. From now on, whenever I go to hotels I’m going to see if they skip the 13th floor and, if they do, I’m going to continue to point out to people traveling to the 14th floor that they are really staying on the 13th floor.

I wonder how many buildings in the world skip the “unlucky” 13th floor. Many, I imagine. In China, I bet many buildings skip the “unlucky” 4th floor.

But, really, I have to wonder- how does skipping the “unlucky” number in labeling the floors remove the bad luck? Doesn’t the universe (or God or whoever supposedly makes luck) know that the 13th floor is the 13th floor, even if you call it the 14th floor?

As strange as it may be to skip the 13th floor, I have to say that this (see picture below) is the strangest elevator I have ever come across- apparently there’s a button to take you sideways! This is an elevator I encountered in Singapore, by the way… but I did have to wonder if Charlie and the great glass elevator were nearby.


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. I’m actually pleasantly surprised when I see a building with a 13th floor. As silly as it sounds buildings are still made without thirteenth floors.

    I recall one building that had a 13th floor but it was not open to the public. It wasn’t a floor, per se, but rather a maintenance floor that wasn’t even full height. Taller than a crawl space, but shorter than the standard 8-10 foot from floor to ceiling panels.

  2. I used to work in Vegas at the Wynn hotel/casino, and they actually skip not only the 13th floor, but the 4th floor AND the entire 40-49th floors. Massive superstition there, and I asked about it and it was attributed to their large amount of high rolling Asian clients.

  3. @vbalbert: I recall one building that had a 13th floor but it was not open to the public. It wasn’t a floor, per se, but rather a maintenance floor that wasn’t even full height. Taller than a crawl space, but shorter than the standard 8-10 foot from floor to ceiling panels.

    And if you went onto that floor did you become John Malkovich?

  4. I love the fact that in Australia, the Elevator buttons would read, B-G-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-14. The G is for Ground Floor and the one above the ground floor is always the FIRST floor, not the second as in the US.
    So however you look at it, NOT having a 13 is just plain silly. Different countries don’t count the levels the same way. Hahahahahaha…

  5. I work in hospitals. Skipping the number 13 is very common in them. Many of them not only mislabel the thirteen floor but also skip using the number 13 for patient rooms or bed numbers. As far as I know, no one every asks to be put in room number seven.

  6. I have noticed this for years, and I’d have to say that I’ve noticed about 60% of buildings not having a floor 13. I’m always pleased when I see one with a 13th floor.

    Speaking of that, I’ve noticed that planes don’t have a row 13 either. Now, I haven’t flown much, so someone will inevitably prove me wrong, but on some planes I’ve been on, the rows skipped from 12 to 14.

    My SO also tells me that there was a theater once that had skipped row 13.

    13 is so my favorite number now.

  7. I am usually more surprised in a hotel if there is a floor 13 than if they go right to 14.
    I think if there’s a row 13 in airplanes it might be airline specific. I fly WestJet most often and they have a row 13. I have heard people saying they’d never sit in row 13 on a plane. I always think that if row 13 goes down, it doesn’t look good for rows 12 or 14 either.

  8. A few months ago I was in Shanghai on business and I stayed at a newly built 5 star-like Holiday Inn. I noticed that there was no Floor 13, but also no 4,14,24. In any building I never saw a floor ending in 4! What I was told was that 4 was a bad number in Chinese culture, so when they built the Holiday Inn they included western superstitions as well.

  9. Italy is a very superstitious country. But with numbers things go a bit differently. 13 is actually considered a lucky number! So there are “lucky objects” featuring prominently “13”.
    Unlucky is 17.
    Then Friday is also regarded as a generally bad day, so that any Friday 17 of a particular month is supposed to be a “bad luck” day.
    AFAIK, there have been no studies to check the reality of all this.
    Here (I mean Europe) generally buildings have a 13th floor (and in Italy a 17th as well).

  10. I think we should all keep a bunch of small “13” stickers with us at all times, so that we can fix these broken labels when we see them :-)

    Maybe some skeptic online store could produce and sell them.

  11. We’re looking at this from the wrong angle.

    It’s not the building / airline / whatever being superstitious.

    It’s the consumers.

    If a lot of people refuse to be booked on the 13th floor, sat in the 13th row, or placed in hospital bed #13, it makes sense to just not use that number.

    Sure, we all know that the 14th floor is really the 13th floor, and that fact is all too obvious when you’re in the elevator. But when you’re at home and you get your airline tickets or you’re in the hotel lobby and get your room number you’re not going to complain about the assignment.

  12. The co-location of various floors in a building being unlucky and geology reminds me of something.

    Perhaps the actual geologists can fill me in on this, but when I was briefly working in a geophysics lab (studying vibrations in the earth caused by detonations in nearby strip mining operations) I was told that the third floor of a building is at about the right height to have a resonant frequency about the same as most earthquakes.

    So in an earthquake, the third floor of a tall building is the worst place to be. Is that close to right, or were the geologists just screwing with the physicist?

  13. When I was in Egypt, not only did I have a hotel room on the 13th floor, but it was actually room number 1313. I’m sure they have plenty of superstitions, but not the same ones we have here.

    So my dad jokingly (I think) mentioned something about our plane crashing and I wondered how that would work for all the other passengers. Would it just be our seats that crashed, or would their neutral luck cancel out our bad luck? And then I realized that if you are superstitious, you have to worry about the luck of everyone else on the plane. Even if you personally avoided all 13s and ladders and black cats, if anyone else on the plane had bad luck that day, they would take you down with them.

  14. @bluescat48:

    There are many complex psychological reasons why superstitions exist, and it’s mainly because people aren’t naturally rational and can never be completely rational (not even you).

    And one of the biggest factors is that true randomness doesn’t seem random to humans. That’s why all my D&D friends insist on “lucky” dice and think I’m brave for using any old set that’s available.

    This isn’t necessarily the place for long-winded explanations about Type I and Type II statistical errors and other psychological biases, but those are really interesting topics and you should read up on them. It’s a little more complex than just plain stupidity.

  15. Even Microsoft is in on this. Most people know Office products by the year, but behind the scenes, they are known by a number. Office XP was verison 10, Office 2003 = v11, Office 2007 = v12 and Office 2010 is version 14. They skipped version 13…

  16. At TAM I noticed that the South Point Hotel cleverly disguises the lack of a 13th floor by having two sets of elevators. One set heads to floors 1-12 but the second set starts at floor 14.

    Perhaps we should start labeling floors with the alphabet to simplify things. Are there and unlucky letters?

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