Top 10 phobias and what they reveal about the strangeness of life | Mental health

High 10 phobias and what they reveal in regards to the strangeness of life | Psychological well being

We are all pushed by our fears and wishes, and generally we’re in thrall to them. The American doctor Benjamin Rush kicked off the craze for naming such fixations in 1786. Till then, the phrase “phobia” (which is derived from Phobos, the Greek god of panic and terror) had been utilized solely to signs of bodily illness, however Rush used it to explain psychological phenomena. “I shall outline phobia to be a concern of an imaginary evil,” he wrote, “or an undue concern of an actual one.” He listed 18 phobias, amongst them terrors of grime, ghosts, docs and rats.

Over the following century, psychiatrists developed a extra complicated understanding of those traits. They got here to see phobias as lurid traces of our evolutionary and private histories, manifestations each of natural instincts and of wishes that we had repressed. They recognized dozens of irrational fears, amongst them fears of public areas, small areas, blushing and being buried alive (agoraphobia, claustrophobia, erythrophobia, taphephobia).

To be identified as a selected phobia, a concern have to be extreme, unreasonable, and have lasted for six months or extra; and it should intrude with regular life. Although these fixations are extra conscious of remedy than different anxious problems, most individuals don’t report them, selecting as a substitute to keep away from the objects that they concern. This makes it tough to measure their prevalence, however current research counsel that one girl in 10 experiences a selected phobia, and one man in 20. Many extra of us have milder aversions that we generally check with as phobias: a powerful dislike of public talking or of visiting the dentist, of the sound of thunder or the sight of spiders.

An illustration of a spider hanging from a thread, its body in the shape of a number 4.
Hanging by a thread: many buildings in East Asia skip all flooring and room numbers that embody 4. Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer

Once I started researching the topic, I didn’t consider myself as having any specific phobias – aside, maybe, from my teenage dread of blushing and a permanent anxiousness about flying – however by the point I’d completed I had talked myself into virtually each one. Some terrors aren’t any sooner imagined than felt.

The causes of those situations are disputed. We are able to grow to be phobic after a shock, or simply by witnessing the concern of others. Freud proposed {that a} phobia was a suppressed dread or need displaced on to an exterior object. “Phobia particularises anxiousness,” observes the literary scholar David Trotter, “to the purpose at which it may be felt and identified in its particularity, and thus counteracted or received round.” Evolutionary psychologists argue that many phobias are adaptive: our fears of heights and snakes are hardwired in our brains to stop us from falling from heights or being bitten by snakes; our disgust at rats protects us from illness. Evolution might assist clarify why ladies are disproportionately phobic, particularly within the years through which they’ll bear youngsters: their heightened warning protects their offspring in addition to themselves. However phobias can also appear extra widespread in ladies as a result of the social surroundings is extra hostile to them, or as a result of their fears are extra typically dismissed as irrational.

All phobias are cultural creations: the second at which each was recognized – or invented – marked a change in how we thought of ourselves. After we resolve {that a} specific behaviour is irrational, we mark out our boundaries, indicating the beliefs on which our society is constructed. These borders shift over time, and in a second of collective disaster – a warfare, a pandemic – they’ll change quick.

Phobias could also be oppressive, however additionally they enchant the world round us, making it as scary and vivid as a fairytale. They endow objects or actions with mysterious which means and provides them the facility to own and rework us. They exert a bodily maintain, like magic, and in doing so reveal our personal strangeness.


A concern of clowns, generally known as coulrophobia, turned prevalent within the US within the Nineteen Eighties, after newspapers revealed photos of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy wearing a clown swimsuit. The concern turned a form of collective hysteria, with “stalker clowns” noticed in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Kansas Metropolis, Omaha, Nebraska and Colorado, and it unfold even additional in 1986 with the publication of Stephen King’s It. The supernatural jester in King’s bestselling novel is a malevolent being who takes on the form of no matter a baby most fears. His fastened grin hides a soul filled with horrors.

Tiny bugs

Illustration of a line of insects
Creepy crawlies: excessive circumstances of acarophobia embody the concern that minuscule creatures have invaded the physique. Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer

Acarophobia is an excessive concern of tiny bugs (akari in Greek), which may develop right into a perception that minuscule creatures have invaded the physique. Some acarophobes gouge out their very own flesh in makes an attempt to dislodge imagined bugs. “I discovered him stripped to the waist,” wrote Luis Buñuel after visiting Salvador Dalí in a Parisian lodge within the Nineteen Twenties, “an infinite bandage on his again. Apparently he thought he’d felt a ‘flea’ or another unusual beast and had attacked his again with a razor blade. Bleeding profusely, he received the lodge supervisor to name a health care provider, solely to find that the ‘flea’ was in actuality a pimple.”


On the flip of the twentieth century, many Inuit males in Greenland deserted the kayaks through which they hunted seals, having grow to be paralysed with concern out at sea. In some coastal districts, multiple in 10 of the grownup males had “kayak phobia”, a major problem in a colony that, because the decline of whaling, had grow to be depending on seal looking.

An illustration of a kayak as the grim reaper
Grim reaper: kayak phobia was a major problem amongst Inuit males in Greenland. Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer

Some have speculated that the phenomenon was a type of agoraphobia, whereas others argue that it stemmed from sensory deprivation, a lack of orientation provoked by the nonetheless, featureless panorama of the North Atlantic. However the Inuit had their very own rationalization. In accordance with folklore, the phobia was brought on by a tupilak, a monster despatched to kill a hunter by a jealous rival. Medical doctors interpreted kayak phobia as a person pathology, however Greenlanders thought it emanated from social tensions. For them, the difficulty expressed by a phobia was not private however communal.


An illustration of a frog, it’s long tongue reaching up to catch insects.
Going inexperienced: batrachophobia is horror at a frog’s gleaming eyes and pores and skin, and the pulsing sac at its throat. Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer

A few of us are horrified by a frog’s gleaming eyes and pores and skin, the pulsing sac at its throat; its webbed ft, excellent stillness and sudden, vaulting leap. The aversion is called batrachophobia, after the Greek batrachos (frog). Within the early Nineteen Eighties, a younger girl in Michigan was mowing the riverbank close to her home when she out of the blue noticed bloody chunks of frog spewing from the machine. She afterwards had nightmares about frogs; she hated to listen to them croaking by the river; she fled if she discovered one in her home. Her visceral horror on the pulped amphibian flesh appeared to have coalesced with a responsible dread that the creatures would possibly search revenge.

The quantity 4

Tetraphobia, or a concern of the quantity 4 (tessares in Historical Greek), is widespread in East Asian nations, as a result of in a number of languages (amongst them Mandarin, Korean and Japanese) the sound of the phrase “4” is similar to the sound of the phrase “loss of life”. Many buildings in East Asia skip all flooring and room numbers that embody 4 – 4, 14, 24 and so forth – and a few Hong Kong accommodations soar from flooring 39 to flooring 50. In Taiwan, South Korea and China the numbers of ships and plane hardly ever finish in a 4.

A research revealed within the British Medical Journal in 2001 confirmed that Asian-Individuals have been 13% extra more likely to die of coronary heart failure on the fourth day of the month than on another day. The discovering appeared to substantiate that concern might be deadly.

Clusters of holes

An illustration of cheese with holes in it and grapes and a knife with scared faces
Say cheese: some scientists consider that irregular bumps and holes might set off the disgust reflex. Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer

An aversion to clusters of holes or bumps was recognized as a phobia in 2003, when a picture of a seemingly maggot-infested feminine breast was circulated on the web. Those that reacted most strongly realized they shared a horror of such patterns. Some created on-line dialogue teams, and in 2005 one participant invented the phrase trypophobia (from the Greek trupē, or gap) to explain the trait.

The unique web meme turned out to be a composite of a lotus-seed pod and a girl’s breast, however this made it no much less repulsive to true trypophobes. The phobia will be provoked by any conglomeration of tough round shapes: in sponges, barnacles, crumpets, cleaning soap suds, honeycombs, the pitted again of a Surinam toad. Some scientists consider irregular bumps and holes might set off the disgust reflex, which developed to guard us from pathogens, as a result of they’re harking back to rashes, sores, cysts or the pustules of infectious illness.


In 2013, Jeremy Paxman accused the BBC of pogonophobia – a satirical time period coined within the nineteenth century to explain a hatred of beards – after he appeared on Newsnight unshaven. He claimed the company was as averse to facial hair because the dictator Enver Hoxha, who banned beards in Albania in 1967. Early cave work point out that even our Neanderthal ancestors eliminated their beards, maybe to do away with parasites, utilizing clamshells as tweezers or flints as razors.

Roald Dahl loathed beards, denouncing them as “bushy smoke-screens behind which to cover”. In Dahl’s The Twits (1980), Mr Twit has an enormous beard matted with outdated cornflakes and scraps of Stilton and sardines. “By protruding his tongue and curling it sideways to discover the bushy jungle round his mouth,” observes Dahl, disgustedly, “he was all the time capable of finding a tasty morsel right here and there to nibble on.”


In 1879, the doctor Johannes Rigler gave the identify “siderodromophobia” to a brand new sickness suffered by railway staff. The phrase was a translation of the German eisenbahnangst, or “iron-road-angst”, into the Greek sideros (iron) and dromos (monitor) and phobia (concern). In accordance with Rigler, the violent jolts of prepare journey may convey on bodily and psychological breakdown.

An illustration of a terrified woman sitting in the middle of a circular train track with a train going round it
Flawed tracks: a nineteenth century doctor claimed the violent jolts of prepare journey may convey on a breakdown. Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer

Freud thought his railway phobia started on an in a single day prepare journey from Leipzig to Vienna when he was two. He speculated that he had seen his mom bare on this journey, and had developed the phobia by displacing on to the prepare each his pleasure – “my libido was stirred up in the direction of matrem” – and his concern that his father would punish him for his need.

Freud later argued that boys have been aroused by the pounding, juddering movement of railway journey. Those that repressed the fantasies related to these sensations would possibly, like him, purchase a phobia of trains. As an alternative of inducing pleasure, the tremble of the locomotive would convey on nausea, anxiousness and dread.

Phone calls

Medical doctors at a Parisian hospital made the primary analysis of téléphonophobie in 1913. Their affected person was seized by anguished terror when she heard a cellphone ring, and upon answering a name she froze and have become virtually incapable of speech. In these early days, the phone may appear a sinister, intrusive machine.

An illustration of a phone with the receiver off the hook and a long tongue sticking out between teeth from the earpiece
Flawed quantity: a survey in 2019 discovered 76% of respondents felt anxious once they heard the cellphone ring. Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer

In some respects, the scenario has been reversed. Many people are afraid of being separated from our telephones, an anxiousness jokily dubbed “nomophobia” in 2008. However now that we use cell phones in so many various methods, cellphone calls themselves have grow to be scary once more. In a survey of 2019, 76% of respondents born previously twenty years of the twentieth century stated that they felt anxious once they heard the cellphone ring.


Hypnophobia – from the Greek hypnos, sleep – is a morbid concern of sleep, normally brought on by a terror of desires or nightmares. The situation was recognized in a medical dictionary in 1855, and vividly dramatised in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Avenue in 1984. On this movie, youngsters are visited at evening by a disfigured and insane baby assassin who has the facility to kill them as they dream. “No matter you do,” ran the tagline, “don’t go to sleep.”

The E-book of Phobias and Manias by Kate Summerscale is revealed by Wellcome/ Profile, £16.99. Purchase it for £14.78 at


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