If pimples, balloons, or premature burial terrify you, rest assured you’re not alone.
Every summer on our holiday in Orkney there is a moment of panic. We’re standing on a towering cliff—looking over a sea channel at the Old Man of Hoy, perhaps—and I’m consumed with the desire to throw myself on it. It’s not suicidal. I just want to feel the wild breath of air against my cheeks: I want to fly. I’ve never met anyone who shares this compulsion, but The book of phobias and manias assures me that it is quite common. Indeed, it has a name: acrophobia. Kate Summerscale understands this perfectly: “The whirlwind of vertigo”, she says, can “look like the vertigo of desire”.
A new Summerscale book is always a treat. She does copious amounts of research, then manages to shrug it off and take flight in both forensic and conversational prose. Mr. Whicher’s suspicions and The bad boy explore the Victorian murders, and The Haunting of Alma Fielding revives an investigation into a poltergeist on the eve of World War II. So Phobias and manias, which buries itself in our deepest fears and desires, can seem like a departure. But it’s not. Summerscale again found herself bewitched by what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “all things against, quirky, detached, strange”. Its subtitle – “A History of the World in 99 Obsessions” – might echo Neil MacGregor, but it sounds more like an Oliver Sacks book, with touches by Roald Dahl.
It’s listed in alphabetical order, like a small encyclopedia: ornithophobia (fear of birds), osmophobia (smells), ovophobia (eggs) etc. And at the end of each entry is a list of obsessions that might fall broadly into the same category. So if you suffer from glossophobia (fear of public speaking), you might also want to read about erythrophobia (blushing) or gelotophobia (fear of mocking).
Some of the traits she studies are familiar: arachnophobia, dipsomania, egomania. Some are weird. In 1374, the inhabitants of the banks of the Rhine fell into choreomania, dancing for days until they were exhausted. Some are dead. Then there are phobias that are surely more spiritual than authentic: the fear of palindromes, aibohphobia (it’s a palindrome, you will have spotted it), or even the horror of long words: hippopotomostrosesquipedaliophobia).
But most of the conditions Summerscale dives into are truly tormenting, and these are the ones that linger in the mind. Taphophobia is a fear of being buried alive, and it flourished in the 18th century when it was quite common for people to be declared dead too hastily. “Several coffins were dug up and opened to reveal corpses with torn fingernails, torn knees and bloody elbows.” No wonder Chopin left instructions for his body to be opened before burial.
Almost as worrisome is dermatillomania, a condition which affects around 3% of the population, causing sufferers to attack hairs, moles and pimples uncontrollably. A 1999 study described a woman “who so compulsively picked her neck that she exposed the carotid artery.”
“Some terrors are scarcely imagined than felt,” says Summerscale, and she allows us to inhabit even the most unlikely conditions. On koumpounophobia, the fear of buttons, she writes: “Buttons are to clothes what teeth are to bodies: pieces that can come off, fall off. And perhaps a dangling or detached pimple does not just imply loss but exposure: inadvertent opening.
The further you go through the book, the more you start to spot phobias in everything you read, hear, remember. At the same time, I was reading the wonderful book by AN Wilson confession, in which he describes his overwhelming fear of water (aquaphobia) in prep school. He could have been cured by mild exposure treatment, instead of which the sinister director’s wife repeatedly ordered him to climb onto a high diving board, pushing him with an umbrella until he dived. The smell of chlorine and the sight of his local lido fill Wilson with horror to this day.
Reading the article on agoraphobia, I thought of the poet George Mackay Brown, an acute sufferer, who could sometimes barely walk down the street for fear that houses would collapse on top of him. When he was shortlisted for the Booker, urged by his editor to travel south for dinner, he found himself unable to leave his apartment. He is perhaps the only author to have responded to a prescreening from Booker by asking his GP for antidepressants.
And when it came to claustrophobia, I had to reach Robert Macfarlane underground earth. I challenge anyone to read without heartbeat the story of caver – and too soon corpse – Neil Moss in Derbyshire in 1959.
Many household names have been living with phobias for years: Johnny Depp with coulrophobia (fear of clowns), Oprah Winfrey with globophobia (balloons), Helen Mirren tokophobia (childbirth – so bad she could never have a ‘children). All of these conditions and many more Freud – often quoted – attributes to sex. Of pyromania he wrote: “The shape and movement of the flame suggest the phallus in action. But psychologist Adam Phillips is more intriguing. Phobias, he believes, “vivify the world around us, giving it meaning and drama”: a phobia is “a way of making ordinary places and things overwhelmingly charged.”
My only concern about this book is where it will live. It is enough to look at the “Sources” to see that this is a serious work of scholarship. But I’m afraid the AZ format and quirky (albeit rather wonderful) illustrations will relegate it to the guest room or the toilet: a book to dive into, not read properly. It would be a shame, because to get the most out of it, you need total immersion. “When I first started researching,” Summerscale admits, “I didn’t think I had any particular phobias…but by the time I was done I had talked about almost all of them.” She told me about a few too. But I stopped before pantophobia – the fear of everything.