Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What are you afraid of?

Sandra Parshall

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.


Darlene Ryan said...

The origin of phobias fascinates me. This summer I was amazed to see my neighbor's smart, competent sister reduced to a state of panic when a cat walked up on the deck. Neither she nor anyone else in her family knows where her fear began.

Sheila Connolly said...

Love that "fear of being ignored." Should one seek treatment?

I've watched people who are afraid of food, poking the dish in front of them in a restaurant and asking "what is this? I can't eat this."

My husband is terrified of public speaking (another common one). He rehearses his speech out loud for days, and then he can't sleep at all the night before. (BTW, he's afraid of not getting enough sleep too.)

I guess my biggest fear is of being rejected--I've been dumped from jobs often enough to recognize that. So what am I doing in the writing business?

caryn said...

I am afraid of public speaking-even if I know everyone in the crowd. I also have a fear of sorts of crowds. It's not the crowd as such, its the trapped feeling that I get at say a political rally or Macy's the day after Christmas. That same fear also carrys over to small places. It's not that I'm afraid to be in a small place or a crowd, I can't handle the feeling of not being able to get out when I want to. So things like elevators and flying in and of themselves are okay and I use elevators and fly regularly, but there is an underlying unease always that I'm trapped-especially if the elevator is crowded or the flight has to sit on the runway for a long time.
Caryn in St. Louis

Barbara D'Amato said...

Like Caryn, I am fearful of spaces where you an't get out. Especially anything that gets tight around me. So in HARD LUCK I had Cat Marsala crawl through increasingly smaller air ducts at City Hall to get away from a gunman. It still creeps me out to think about.

Sandra Parshall said...

Caryn, I share your fear of public speaking. Very few things scare me more. I think it's a mixture of different terrors -- fear of failure, fear of other people's negative opinions, fear of imperfection. And tight spaces -- oh boy. I can't even have an MRI in a closed cylinder. I tried once and freaked out. A lot of people must share my feelings, because a company developed an open MRI, which is bothersome but not terrifying.

Loving cats and dogs as I do, I'm sorry for people who fear them, but I can sort of understand. I think that many times such fears go back to early childhood, when parents warn kids not to approach strange animals that might bite or scratch them.

Rachel's mother in my first book is a psychologist who treats phobias -- and she's also an expert at manipulating her two daughters' fears to suit herself.

Jan Brogan said...

Hi Sandra,
I saw your post on DL and had to swing by. I spent twenty-five years and multiple therapy attempts struggling with a severe plane phobia and finally conquered it completely. I used to be a health reporter and learned about EMDR therapy, which I highly recommend.

On a lighter note, Darlene's comment about the origins of phobia made me think. There was actually logic, albeit a messed up logic, to my plane phobia, but my son, a 6 foot 3 strapping young man, fearless in other ways,is reduced to panic by the sight of a crab.

It's not like he ever had a traumatic experience with a shellfish, and when he was little, I even got him a crab puppet to try to humanize the crabs. NO go. It was like this fear was planted in his head at birth. Nothing can wrench it free.

Sandra Parshall said...

A fear of crabs is one I haven't heard before!

I'm afraid I don't know what EMDR therapy is. I wonder if anyone reading this has ever tried hypnosis to cure a phobia.

noonstar said...

I'm afraid of spiders!

This phobia was exacerbated on a visit to an aunt and uncle in Florida. We returned from a movie and turned on the kitchen light. On the white wall was a black hairy specimen, which with the legspread was the size of a salad plate. I freaked, and spent the rest of the night sitting up in bed with my arms about my knees, with the overhead and the bedside lights on.

I am told that these creatures are called housekeeping spiders and Floridians think highly of them because they are voracious consumers of insects. Floridians are welcome to them.

Over the years my phobia has decreased considerably, and I no longer fear the everyday little brown type. But I can't guarantee my reaction to big-bellied patent-leather black ones -- and gender stereotypes be damned!

Leona Griffin

Sandra Parshall said...

Leona, I am terrified of spiders. I was once making the bed when I found a big hairy spider in the sheets! It raced across a pillow -- MY pillow -- and down behind the head of the bed. My husband, bless him, got down on the floor, slid under the bed with a flashlight, found it after a good bit of searching, and dispatched it. I figure that where there's one spider, there are more, so for a long time I was afraid of a spider crawling onto my face when I was in bed. Now that I'm thinking about it again, I may not get to sleep tonight at all.

Yes, spiders eat insects. But really, I don't care what they do for a living -- they're creepy! And I hate to tell you this, but one of the most deadly spiders in the world is the hermit, one of those "little brown ones."

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

EMDR is a powerful therapy involving right-left stimulation (alternating eyes, ears, or touch) that somewhat mysteriously releases and helps the person process feelings, along with skilled "talk therapy." It's been very effective in treating post traumatic stress disorder. Info at, the top professional association for EMDR practitioners. For me, the thing about phobias is the completely irrational nature of the feelings of dread--great material for suspense! Mine? I'm not telling. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

I found the name of Jan's son's phobia:

Fear of crabs (the sea-creature, not the disease). From the Greek root kabouros, meaning crab, and phobos, meaning fear.

Even the most obscure fears have names.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, it sounds as if EMDR therapy works in much the same way as hypnosis. They both allow a person to call up buried emotions and get at the roots of their fears.

KD Easley said...

Mine are pretty common. Fear of public speaking. I can NOT stand up in front of people and give a talk regardless of how well I know my material. Now if everybody wants to sit down on the floor and gather round, I can talk all day.
My other one, fear of making phone calls to strangers. My job requires that I do that a lot, but my heart flutters every time I dial the phone.I don't know what I think the person on the other end of the phone is going to do to me. LOL

Shannon said...

I, too, and deathly afraid of tight spaces...things that I cannot get out of. I have learned to fly but I always take something that dopes me up just a little bit to take off the edge. I'll ride in an elevator with somebody I know but never alone (I was trapped in one, once. That was enough.) I'm so claustrophobic that when I die I refuse to be buried underground. I will be cremated and my ashes dispersed somewhere. (I know this is against the law but I have friends in high places.)
I am also afraid of soulless people. The people my husband deals with regularly. As the wife of a police officer, I have learned that there are truly bad people out there and hearing about it never really makes it easier to be a cop's wife, but I deal with it. The scariest book I've read in a long time that dealt with my phobias would have to be SHADOW MAN by Cody McFadyen. The psychopath in it had me checking windows and doors for a long time!

Cher'ley said...

Heights is my fear, but I didn't develope it until adulthood and I've had to overcome it to certain degrees. I used to walk across the tops of bridges and across the railings without a fear in the world until 3 days after I had my son I went climbing a fire tower. I kept joking about my sister-in-law, who I thought would freeze up, well...when we got to the top the door was latched and I couldn't move. I couldn't go up nor down.

One time in a Chinese restaurant, I was glad I was examining my food (which I don't really like it mangled together or touching much), I had a live squid on my plate. My party passed it around, each taking a little jab, not believing it was alive until we'd all proved it to ourselves. LOL.

I think we all have a few fears, but I don't know that they are all phobias. Like when I get up high, I get really sick, my pulse rate explodes and my hands sweat like a waterfall. But, I've had to tarp flatbed truck/trailer loads and I had to do some roofing work, so I made myself do those things in spite of my fear.

Gosh, sorry this is so long. But also, I love Monk. LOL

Jan Brogan said...

Hi Sandra,
Thanks for the name of my son's phobia -- I'm copying it down for him.

I tried hypnosis therapy for my plane phobia -- at a pretty prestigious place - the Hypnosis Clinic at Mass General -- and it didn't even make a dent.

EMDR is much different. One theory (from a Harvard researcher) is that it puts your brain in a place similar to the place that processes emotions durng sleep. When I was first assigned to the EMDR story, I balked -- calling it snake oil. But even before it worked for me, I was convinced by all the research and results that it was terrically economical and effective form of therapy -- it took me about six sessons. I think it's a miracle -- especially for anyone experiencing trauma.

Sandra Parshall said...

Maybe EMDR could help me with my fear of public speaking. I'd be willing to try almost anything. Joining Toastmasters actually made it worse!

Julia Buckley said...

I've never been on a plane. I don't even know if I'd call this fear: I just know, absolutely, that I cannot get on one. I feel confident that I am meant to stay on the ground.

If I ever really need to go somewhere far away, I'm not sure what I'll do.

I am also afraid of heights and of water (I don't like my face to be in it--and yes, I did have a couple of near drowning incidents).

I am also afraid of letting my children out of my sight for an extended period of time, which I suppose is the fear that I have lost control (which of course I never really had).

I'm wrapped up in illusions and neuroses. :)

Donna Andrews said...

I love it, Sandy; you've given me a whole idea for a plot.