If you want to start a lively conversation, ask a group of people what they’re most afraid of.
Answers might be hesitant at first, because grown men are a little embarrassed to admit, for example, that they’re afraid of the dark and women might think they’re playing to gender stereotypes by confessing a fear of creepy insects. After one brave soul comes clean, though, the dam will collapse and you’ll hear an astonishing outpouring of secret terrors. This is a gold mine for mystery writers, who can use phobias to add depth to characters and a little something extra to scary scenes.
Most of us start by giving our own fears to our characters. Easy to understand, easy to write. If you’re anything like me, you can harvest from your own phobia collection for a long time before you have to look elsewhere. I’m scared of almost everything. The only times I laugh at Adrian Monk are when he calls for a wipe after shaking hands or compulsively straightens and rearranges objects. I’m not afraid of germs, and if you could see my desk you’d know I’m not a neat freak. In every other way, I’m right there with Monk. Heights, depths, open places, closed places, spiders, deep water, fire, darkness -- they all terrify me. And my fear of failure (clinical name: atychphobia) goes way beyond terror.
My phobias are ordinary, though, common and rarely entertaining. For something exotic that I might afflict on a poor character, I can go to a site like The Phobia List, which offers page after page of clinical and popular names for all the things that freak out humans. Maybe I could work alliumphobia – fear of garlic – into a mystery. But no; that one’s better suited to vampire stories. How about allodoxaphobia, fear of opinions? Don’t we all know somebody who suffers from that and makes everybody around them suffer too? The world is also overpopulated with hedonophobes, those unfortunate souls who are afraid of feeling pleasure.
Some phobias raise baffling questions. How does an otherwise sane person develop aulophobia, fear of flutes? And bolshephobia, fear of Bolsheviks, seems like a big waste of time and psychic energy these days. I can’t even begin to understand bibliophobia, fear of books. How does anyone function with optophobia (fear of opening one’s eyes), or phagophobia (fear of swallowing), or nomatophobia (fear of names), or levophobia (fear of things to the left of the body), or phronemophobia (fear of thinking)?
But back to the question of phobias that can be used in mysteries. Iatrophobia, fear of doctors, is fairly common, but in extreme cases it would make murder by slow poisoning easy, because you could count on the victim not to summon his courage and seek medical care for his weird symptoms. Phasmophobia, fear of ghosts, offers the possibility of scaring somebody to death. Rhytiphobia, fear of developing wrinkles – poisoning again, with the toxin concealed in a face cream that must be applied lavishly. Pteronophobia, fear of being tickled by feathers, is too funny not to use, but offhand I can’t come up with a suitable scenario. (I’ll bet Donna Andrews could.) Any phobia that isolates the victim – and they are too numerous to list – would make the killer’s job easier and lessen the chance of detection.
Give a phobia to your sleuth and you can make it an obstacle that he or she has to overcome in solving the crime. Overdo it and your character may be dismissed as a Monk wannabe – and we know there can only be one Monk.
Two stories that use phobias to great effect are the Hitchcock film Vertigo (heights) and Nevada Barr’s novel Blind Descent (caves, water, darkness, tight spaces – all of which scare me). Lisa Gardner’s new thriller, Say Goodbye, is so loaded with spider stuff that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish it. And one of the creepiest scenes I’ve ever read is in Tess Gerritsen’s The Sinner, when she sends Medical Examiner Maura Isles and Detective Jane Rizzoli into a dark attic to investigate strange thumping noises. It’s not that any great violence takes place. It’s the situation that makes me shudder. Will you ever catch me crawling around in a dark attic? I don’t think so.
Okay, I’ve come clean about my innermost fears. Now it’s your turn. What are you afraid of? What books or movies have given you nightmares because they touched on your phobias? In case you’re thinking of moving on without answering, I’d like to point out that I also suffer from severe athazagoraphobia – fear of being ignored.