More accurately, it never left.
Do you remember where you were at 11:11 on 11/11/11?
I was sitting in a high school assembly. I don’t remember what for, who was talking, or whom I was sitting with. But I remember the sound of a bunch of phone alarms going off at the same time all across the auditorium. After a few seconds, it hit me: people had set alarms for 11:11 in order to make wishes.
Just to be clear, I did not attend a school full of superstitious people. It was a STEM magnet school, kind of like Peter Parker’s high school in Spider-Man: Homecoming, only we lived there; the sort of place where telling people you gave any credence to horoscopes would probably earn you a comparable look to saying you gave credence to Santa Claus.
Yet at least a few of them set alarms for 11:11 nonetheless.
The roots of wishing at 11:11 are a mystery, but it seems fair to assume it’s rooted in numerology—the use of numbers (and names converted into numbers) to, in the words of the Encyclopedia Britannica, “interpret a person’s character or to divine the future” via a system that assigns particular metaphysical and preternatural significance to various integer values. The term can also refer more generally to the study of the “hidden meaning” of numbers.
Though the term “numerology” only goes back to 1907, the general ideas behind it (in Western thought, at least) trace back to Pythagoras of right triangle a2 +b2 = c2 fame, who purportedly said that “all is number” and “the world is built upon the power of numbers” and really, really meant it.
Since Pythagoras’s day, the “proof” of this power has come through the perceived pattern and repetition of numbers to a degree that believers say exceeds the bounds of random chance. Though numerology might be generally considered astrology’s lesser-known cousin, numerology crops up in modern thought a lot more than it might first appear, frequently in subtle ways. It can often even wear a mask of legitimacy. One of the reasons that the scientific method is so careful and specific about how information is collected from data and the sorts of tests and thresholds results have to meet in order to be deemed significant is because of how easy it is for even the most rational minds to slip into numerological territory. After all, numerology is also about finding patterns in numbers.
Just look at Wilhelm Fliess, a German physician who lived around the turn of the 20th century. As forensic biologist Mark Benecke explains in an article for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, Fleiss was convinced that “each and every repetitive growth or decay process in human, animal, and plant life was deconstructable and understandable” through various equations and tabulations revolving around 23 and 28. He spent decades of his life and untold hours of number-crunching attempting to prove this. Though he remained convinced until his death, his arguments, controversial in his lifetime, have been completely and repeatedly disproven. The only thing that has really kept Fleiss from fading into total obscurity is his close friendship and extensive written correspondence with Sigmund Freud.
Which finally brings us to movies.
Movies love having repeated arc numbers.
Every once in a while a film will actually give its favorite numbers a special meaning within the narrative, but a lot of times it’s just a number that shows up repeatedly within a film or series or across a creator’s oeuvre in a variety of contexts: George Lucas’s beloved “1138” (apparently derived from his college phone number), Douglas Adam’s “42” of origins unknown, now a relatively ubiquitous science fiction reference point, and Kevin Smith’s “37” are just a few examples.
But some repetitive movie numbers are just a little bit weirder. Take the fake phone number 555-0134. Marla Singer’s number in Fight Club and Teddy’s number in Memento, it has also appeared in the films Harriet the Spy, Someone Like You, and the TV show Millennium. Numbers gain significance through such repetition, even without being given a specific meaning. They become open-ended symbols, if you will. Their “power” remains mysterious.
Numbers with mysterious power—though few films actually suggest numbers have divinatory capabilities, there is something at least vaguely numerological about arc numbers. And that’s without even getting into films like Darren Aronofsky’s π, Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, or Joel Schumaker’s The Number 23, that explicitly explore numerology and how easily the boundaries between mathematics and numerology can be blurred.
But switching gears to more typical numerology—divinatory readings done through adding up the digits of people’s birth dates and converting the letters of their names to numbers and doing the same thing—a stroll down history lane reveals that numerology and the movies go way back. Broadway and Hollywood Movies magazine considered a numerological profile of Clark Gable worthy of being their December 1932 cover story.
Earlier in 1932 that very same magazine felt the need to publish a rather irritated-sounding PSA about how they were the first one to run celebrity numerology articles and deserved due credit:
“Now several [other] publications are tumbling all over each other to copy our idea. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but if you want to get it first you’ll have to read the right magazine, one with the courage to tell the truth. We don’t use soft soap for printing ink!”
It was not just the fan magazines that were bitten by the numerology bug, but the stars themselves as well. While we all know stories of actors changing their names or using stage names for the sake of marketability (Marilyn Monroe) or because their name was already taken (John Hawkes), a Warner Bros. directory of “Stars, Players, and Directors” published in 1937 includes no less than two examples of actresses who reportedly changed their names for numerological reasons. Sheila Bromley’s biography begins, “When the numerologists were halfway through with Sheila Fulton, she was Sheila Manners: when they were all done, she was Sheila Bromley.” A similar scenario is described in the case of Anne Nagel, who was apparently was not superstitious “except for adding an “E” to her name Ann, the better to conform with numerology.”
Covering the whole history of numerology and number symbolism in films and television is the makings of an encyclopedia-sized book as opposed to an article. With that in mind, now that we’ve laid out the groundwork, let’s narrow our focus to the number 11. It’s November, tomorrow is the 11th, and if Stranger Things were a weekly television show, we would all be really excited about seeing episode 3 right now. Eleven is also a particularly significant number in numerology—at least when looking at what sources related to what I’ve previously described as “typical” numerology. Going into other texts on number symbolism, the picture painted regarding the significance of the number 11 is sparse and somewhat contradictory—which, of course, only makes it more interesting.
According to the Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained (as well as a number of online sources I came across), 11 is considered a “master number” because it’s a repeated digit integer. This is significant enough that it gets special treatment. When calculating numerological profiles, the digits of larger numbers are repeatedly added until they are reduced down to a single digit—unless they add up to 11. Instead of being added again to end up with 2, it remains 11. This is also the case for the other two master numbers, 22 and 33.
So, what traits are supposed to be associated with 11? Going back to the Chambers Dictionary, 11 represents intuition, as well as “illumination, psychic awareness, and idealism.” It’s associated with “old souls” and therefore linked to reincarnation and the existence of previous lives. On the less positive side, the influence of 2, 11’s “root number,” makes those associated with 11 prone to inner conflict—“an 11 may walk a fine line between greatness and self-destruction.” They also tend to be full of “nervous energy” and prone to “intense emotions.” Though several numerology websites elaborate further in sometimes contradictory ways, the features mentioned above seem relatively consistent. Outside of describing personality traits, a numerologist consulted by USA Today for an article published on 11/11/11 described the number 11 as a kind of doorway, and therefore a good starting date/time, because it consists of two 1s and one signifies beginning.
It’s when looking at texts that more generally describe the significance of the number 11 that things get confusing. In Numbers: Their Meaning and Magic, first published in 1912, author Isidore Kozminsky cites one 17th century astrologer who classes the number as “prosperous,” and a lot of other figures who have far more negative things to say. He quotes occultist Francis Barrett, who refers to eleven as the “number of sins and the penitent” and a Wescott (perhaps Brooke Foss Westcott) who says that 11 is “a number with an evil reputation among all peoples.” Kozminsky also claims that 11 used to be known in Jewish folklore symbolic of Lilith, Adam’s evil demonic first wife and ret-con rationalizing why Genesis features two seemingly conflicting origin of womankind stories. He then lists the occult symbols associated with the number 11 as a clenched fist, a muzzled lion, and “Force” as pictured by a young girl closing the jaws of a lion. The chapter on 11 concludes by saying that its a number of “violence, power, bravery, energy, success in fearless ventures, liberty, [and] the knowledge of how to ‘rule the stars.’”
Annemarie Schimmel’s much more recent book on number symbolism, The Mystery of Numbers, published in 1993, also touches on more negative than positive connotations and that 11 was a number connected to sin which often featured in Medieval theological works as “the 11 heads of error,” but then goes on to discuss the Muslim Brethren of Purity, who apparently regarded it as a “mute” number. What that is supposed to actually mean is not clarified, but it hardly seems to align with Kozminsky’s violence and power thing.
Beyond these two books, though, it is quite difficult to find sources about the historical symbolism of eleven, especially in comparison to numbers one through nine.
Of course, no discussion of 11 and numerology would be complete without mentioning 9/11, but putting together 9/11 and numerology leads down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole to an alternate universe that I have no particular desire to visit, so I’m going to just leave it at that.
Below, I’ve listed some numerological elevens—that is, 11 or numbers whose digits add up to 11—in movies and TV shows and looked at how they connect (or don’t) with the characteristics listed above. There are some interesting connections, but admittedly it basically feels like finding shapes in clouds. (Then again, that’s a fun thing to do.)
The bottom line: numbers are weird. The usage of numbers in movies and television is arguably even weirder. Perhaps it all means something or perhaps it doesn’t, but more than one person has gone more than a little insane trying to put all the pieces together. Proceed with caution.
“11” Numerology Case Studies
Usage: Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown)
The show may be trying to call Eleven “Jane” now, but while “Jane” has the pleasant but relatively bland meaning of “God is gracious,” even many of the seemingly incompatible definitions of 11 fit with Eleven’s character. Powerful, brave, and capable of violence? Absolutely. “Young girl closing the jaws of a lion”? Turn “closing the jaws” to “obliterating” and “lion” to “evil demon creature from a parallel dimension” and it’s a match. Psychic awareness? How about super-fancy psychic powers. Success in fearless ventures? See demon story. “Evil reputation”? Definitely an issue she has to deal with, even if it’s largely undeserved. Mute? Check, at least at the beginning. (I knew there had to be a reason I couldn’t convince myself to get on board with the whole “Jane” thing…)
Number: 528491 (5+2+8+4+9+1=29; 2+9=11)
Usage: Combination to open a safe
528491 is the number Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) comes up with at gunpoint in the first dream layer which he ultimately uses to unlock the safe at his dream-father’s bedside. Inside is the alternate will outlining the plan Fischer needs to take to heart in order for the inception to be successful. Thankfully for Cobb, Fischer does. As such, the number is an integral part to the whole inception scheme. How well do the connotations of 11 fit? Well, “power” definitely applies. Fischer at least thinks he’s being illuminated and gaining the liberty to create a legacy of his own. Success remains to be determined, especially considering the film doesn’t really give any indication whether or not Fischer is a good businessman when Leonardo DiCaprio’s not messing with his head. Considering that inception/extraction is a crime, some of the negative connotations of 11 listed above also arguably apply, but admittedly overall this is not a narrative or a character where the various connotations of 11 fit particularly well.
Doctor Who Seasons 5 – 7
Usage: Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith)
While fans have long referred to various iterations of the Doctor by numbers in order to tell them apart, once Steven Moffat took over the reigns from Russel T. Davies—that is, at the start of Eleven’s term—the number of references to the Doctor’s number skyrocketed, as can even be seen in the title of the Eleventh Doctor’s first episode, “The Eleventh Hour”. If we look at Kozminsky’s “violence, power, bravery, energy, success in fearless ventures, liberty, [and] the knowledge of how to ‘rule the stars,’” we find a good description of the Doctor, who happens to be an alien known as a Time Lord, so the ruling-the-stars bit is accurate in quite a literal way. Looking at the specifically numerological side, “illumination, psychic awareness, and idealism” also seem quite appropriate, especially since the Eleventh Doctor was, at least at times, one of the more child-like iterations of the Doctor, and not just because Matt Smith remains the youngest actor to have taken on the role. The old soul/reincarnation bit also works, for obvious reasons. On the other hand, the “mute” thing doesn’t fit. At all.
Usage: Here is a video. And that’s only a partial list.
In this case, the usage of 47 can be traced back to Joe Menosky, who wrote for both The Next Generation and Voyager and graduated from Pomona College, where 47 is kind of a big deal. It even has its own society. However, with this in mind, 47 is used primarily as an inside joke and therefore kind of thrown in randomly wherever there’s room, so there’s not much there in terms of thematic consistency.\
The Collected Works of J. J. Abrams
Usage: Fringe (numerous), Alias (numerous, including Room 47), Super 8 (Building 47), Star Trek XI (Enterprise built in Sector 47, Nero destroys 47 Klingon ships), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Precinct 47, location of the thermal oscillator) *Weirdly, 47 is not one of the many arc numbers in Lost.*
If Abrams has addressed why 47 is his number of choice, the knowledge has remained quite obscure. I found one reference to a Tumblr post that has since ceased to exist which apparently said that Abrams claims it represents “the mysteries of life” in a bonus feature on an Alias DVD collector’s set, but I couldn’t find further mention of such a quote elsewhere, so take that with a grain of salt. If it is true, though, it would befit the “psychic awareness” connotation quite well.
Usage: The IMDb trivia page for the film is basically just a list of references to 11.
Considering the film’s reincarnation-centric rationality-vs.-spirituality narrative, this is the only film on the list where the use of 11 was definitely intended to reference the numerological “master number” connotations.
Other Noteworthy Uses of Eleven: Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, Ocean’s Eleven