There’s a lot of fear about these days. Whether there’s more fear about these days than there was in palaeolithic days is difficult to say, especially if you suffer from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia (the fear of long words). We just keep hearing that there’s a lot of fear about these days, so it must be worthy of attention.
In the United States, for example, 9.1 per cent of the population suffers from a specific phobia. Add xenophobia and homophobia and that figure rises to a staggeringly speculative 87 per cent.
Homophobia – literally a fear of men – is, of course, more of a prejudice than a fear. And it’s not a prejudice against men but against homosexuals, so it’s a complete misnomer really, not to mention an unwitting example of the condition it describes, given that homo is hardly a term of endearment.
Words like homophobia and xenophobia highlight the fact that phobias come in a sliding scale of actual physical or mental agitation, from the mild wariness of triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13), which was the Word of the Week this time last year (spooky!), to the bowel-flushing terror of arachnophobia (spiders), glossophobia (public speaking) and (acrophobia) heights.
That’s right, acrophobia. How often do you hear that word? The word we normally associate with the fear of heights is vertigo. Vertigo… Vertical… It’s an easy mistake to make. “Do you have vertigo?” “Only as far as the bus stop.” ©The Goons.
But vertigo is not a phobia (the clue’s in the name), it is a dizziness, sometimes but not exclusively brought on by finding yourself on the brink of an abyss. It can just as easily strike while waiting for the lift at Covent Garden underground.
In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock threw petrol on this fire of confusion by producing a film called Vertigo about a bloke, Scottie, with a fear of heights. Not helpful, Alfred. Scottie also suffered with vertigo, but anyone not paying full attention will have picked up the fact that the bloke didn’t like heights, remembered that the film had some funny Greek or Latin name, put two and two together and come up with nine. Or maybe even higher.
The fashion for fear has produced a number of new phobias: coulrophobia (fear of clowns), globophobia (fear of balloons), phobophobia (fear of Martian moons), koulourakifenestrophobia (fear of cookie windows popping up every time you open a sodding website), grecophobia (fear of desperate attempts to turn things into Greek). It’s all so complicated, it makes you hanker after the simple days of agoraphobia and claustrophobia. At least you know where you are with claustrophobia.
But peculiar fears are nothing new. Mozart suffered a fear of sudden trumpet blasts. In an effort to cure the condition, his dad, bless him, hired a trumpeter to follow young Wolfgang around and frighten the life out of him with occasional, unexpected fanfares. A rather crude example of exposure therapy, but Mozart senior was not entirely parping up the wrong tree. Exposure therapy is still the most recommended treatment for phobias.
I recently tried to face my fear of heights by going up a scaffold on the outside of an 18 storey tower block in Wandsworth. It worked. My acrophobia quickly gave way to thanatophobia – the fear of death.