What are you afraid of? Understanding the history of fears and phobias

The range of phobias is extensive. From acrophobia (fear of heights) to zoophobia (fear of animals), it might be safe to say “You name it, someone is afraid of it.”

 The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is to have no fear at all. – Reb Nachman of Breslov.  breslov.com  (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is to have no fear at all. – Reb Nachman of Breslov. breslov.com
(photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

A phobia is defined as “an extreme or irrational fear of, or aversion to, something.” The form -phobia comes from the Greek word phobos, which means “fear” or “panic.”

Phobias have existed since the dawn of human history, when mankind first faced the elements and struggled to survive. In fact, the fear of dawn is a phobia in itself. Heliophobia is the fear of the sun, sunlight or any bright light.

The range of phobias is extensive. From acrophobia (fear of heights) to zoophobia (fear of animals), it might be safe to say “You name it, someone is afraid of it.”

While illustrious figures such as Henry David Thoreau, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill have asserted that “there is nothing to fear but fear itself,” try telling that to people who are stopped dead in their tracks by their paralyzing phobias. Especially those who suffer from phobophobia, or fear of fear itself.

So let’s take a look at some of those phobias and put a name to the fears.

 Fear of rain is called ombrophobia. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Fear of rain is called ombrophobia. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Taking a look at phobias and putting a name to the fears

It is said that the two most prevalent fears are the fear of death (thanatophobia) and the fear of public speaking (glossophobia). The fear of public speaking is so common, that some researchers have estimated that as many as 77% of the population has some level of this fear.

Fear of animals

Another very common fear is the fear of snakes, or ophidiophobia. Perhaps dating back to the Garden of Eden, many people are repelled at the sight of what are regarded as repugnant reptiles. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) described that experience in her poem, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.” The last verse of the poem reads:

But never met this fellow

Attended or alone

Without a tighter breathing

And zero at the bone.

For ophidiophobics, the 2006 film Snakes on a Plane would be nothing short of a horror movie. The fear of reptiles in general is called herpetophobia. But those slithery critters are not the only creatures in the animal kingdom that strike terror in the heart.

Next in line is the fear of insects, or entomophobia. High on that fear factor scale is arachnophobia, or fear of spiders. Just ask Little Miss Muffet.

Fear of ants is called myrmecophobia.

While many animal lovers have dogs and cats as beloved members of their households, not everyone is enamored of canines and felines. Fear of dogs is called cynophobia, while elurophobics have a primal fear of cats. If it were raining cats and dogs, such phobics would definitely run for cover.

The expression “raining cats and dogs” is believed to have originated in England in the 17th century. City streets were not well maintained in those days, and heavy rain would sometimes carry along the bodies of dead animals. Seeing the carcasses in the streets after a downpour, people might have thought that it had actually “rained cats and dogs.” Another suggestion is that stray cats and dogs often sought shelter on thatched rooftops. In a heavy torrent, they often fell through the flimsy roofing material and literally became part of the deluge.

Fear of weather conditions

Be that as it may, weather conditions of various types are another source of fear and trepidation. Fear of clouds is called nephophobia. Fear of rain is called ombrophobia. Fear of thunder is called tonitrophobia. And the combined fear of thunder and lightning is called astraphobia. In colder climes, the fear of snow is termed chionophobia.

In the classic film The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale may well have developed lilapsophobia , or fear of tornadoes and hurricanes.

While Dorothy sang of an idyllic land that she dreamed of “somewhere over the rainbow,” there are people who are deathly afraid of those colorful arced phenomena. In his 1802 poem “The Rainbow,” Wordsworth opened with the line: “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.” For the venerated poet, the sight of a rainbow filled his heart with joy. But for someone suffering from iridophobia, seeing a rainbow would cause heart palpitations of a very different nature. Why?

According to one account from an iridophobic, “I’m scared of rainbows because they are mysterious and weird. The way they appear and then evaporate... They’re HUGE. They look like they’re watching you. The way they’re a big massive arc stretching over entire cities. I can look at them from inside – they don’t scare me when I’m inside. But they do if I’m outside, especially if I’m by myself. I will panic and look for shelter like a bomb is going to fall.”

Fear of colors

The fear of rainbows is closely associated with chromophobia, the fear of colors. For people with this phobia, the color palette is totally unpalatable. To be more specific, xanthophobia is the fear of the color yellow; leukophobia is a fear of the color white, while melanophobia is the fear of the color black. People who have porphyrophobia would most likely not want to pick up Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel nor see the film made from it, as they suffer from the fear of “the color purple.” Similarly, pteromerhanophobics would probably not be fans of Erica Jong’s 1973 novel, as they have a “fear of flying.”

Fear of things that others find wonderful

In the epic poem Endymion, published in 1818, John Keats begins with the line “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.” While that may be true for a vast majority of the population, some of the things that we regard as beautiful – like rainbows and pretty colors – are a source of intense trepidation for others.

For example, selenophobia is the fear of the moon. Cibophobia is the fear of food. Anthropophobia is the fear of flowers. Botanophobia is the fear of plants. Dendrophobia is the fear of trees. Globophobia is the fear of balloons. And lepidopterophobia is the fear of butterflies. On a more pervasive level, venustraphobia is the fear of beautiful women, while philophobia is the fear of love. One explanation for the fear of beautiful things is that people may fear beauty’s power – its essential wildness, vanity, and sensuality. They may distrust “a thing of beauty” because what is beautiful, wild and free can also be dangerous.

Fear of 13 and long words

Something that has long been regarded as dangerous is the number 13. Deemed by many cultures to augur bad luck, it is generally avoided as much as possible. The origin of the fear is widely debated, but all agree that it dates back millennia. One postulation is that there were 13 people present at the Last Supper – Jesus and his 12 Apostles. Some say that his betrayer Judas was the 13th to join the table. Hence, the nefarious association. The term for the fear of the number 13 is triskaidekaphobia.

That’s quite a long word. In fact, there are people who have a fear of long words as well. They would certainly be great advocates of the advice that George Orwell offered in his essay, “Politics and the English Language.” He said, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”

As irony would have it, the term for the fear of long words has got to be the longest word I have ever seen: Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia.

Well, that’s just cruel! What more can I say?

Have we come to the end of this exploration into some of our innermost fears? I’m afraid so. ■