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Friday, February 13, 2015

The Fear of Fear Itself

By Kathleen Rice Adams

It’s Friday the 13th. You may as well walk under ladders, cross paths with black cats, break mirrors, and ignore chain emails with reckless abandon, because today’s an unlucky day anyway.

Nowadays, much of the western world looks at Friday the 13th as a day of bad luck. That hasn’t always been the case. In fact, there is no record of the superstition before the latter half of the 19th Century, and the notion didn’t become widespread until the 20th Century. It still isn’t universal: In Hispanic and Greek cultures, Tuesday the 13th is the day for bad luck. In Italy, it’s Friday the 17th.

Superstitions arise from fear—of an object, a place, a person, an idea… You name it, and there’s probably a related superstition born of someone’s bad experience, coupled with his or her refusal to shut up about it. When a fear becomes so extreme that a person can’t cope, the fear becomes a phobia.

Most people have heard of triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13. Whether they can spell the word is another matter.

Friday the 13th is such a fearsome date, there are two words meaning “fear of Friday the 13th”: friggatriskaidekaphobia and paraskavedekatriaphobia. One is based on a Norse root word; the other on Greek. If you can pronounce either, you’re braver than I.

Sadly, very few phobias have short, easy-to-say names. That, in itself, can provoke a phobia: hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, or the fear of long words. Seems to me there ought to be a name for fear of the word that means fear of long words.

Is there a word for the fear of fear? Yep: phobophobia. Fortunately, that term is short and fairly simple. Subjecting a phobophobe to hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia would be crueler than necessary. (I really do think there should be a word for the fear of that word—or at least the fear of typing that word.)

There are a ton of phobias (no wonder folks become phobophobic!), but in the interest of preventing pinaciphobia—the fear of lists—I’ll name only a few.

Pteronophobia is the fear of being tickled by feathers. Evidently no one is afraid of being tickled by anything else, because there is no term for a general fear of tickling.

Chromophobia is the fear of bright colors. I’m surprised anyone escaped the psychedelic ’60s without developing this one.

Eisoptrophobia, or the fear of your own reflection, must be especially vexing for narcissists.

Nomophobia is surprisingly common—or maybe not so surprisingly. It’s the fear of losing your cell phone.

Didaskaleinophobia is the fear of going to school. Don’t tell your children.

Both caligynophobia and androphobia are rare in romance novels, thankfully. The former is fear of beautiful women; the latter, fear of men.

Likewise, few characters in romance novels—particularly heroines—suffer erythrophobia, or the fear of blushing.

Another rarity in romance novels is peladophobia, or fear of bald people. It’s difficult to be afraid of something that doesn’t exist.

The flipside of that coin is being afraid of that which does exist. That’s panphobia, or fear of everything.

Pteridophobia is the fear of ferns. Anthophobia is fear of flowers and stems. People who are afraid of all plants are botanophobic. If any of those people take over Congress, the environment’s goose is cooked.

Anatidaephobia is the fear that somewhere in the world, a duck is watching you. No, I did not make that up.

Someone did make up this one, though: luposlipaphobia, or the fear of being pursued by timber wolves around a kitchen table while wearing socks on a newly waxed floor. We can thank Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, for that one.

What are you afraid of? Tell us in the comments. I’ll bet there’s a word for it.

I wonder if there’s a word meaning fear there’s no term for your phobia...


  1. Thanks for a fun read to start the day!

  2. You're welcome, Alisa! Glad you enjoyed it. You're up awfully early this morning. :-)

  3. Thanks for the witty and informative blog this day Kathleen. Such long, big words! Yikes even if I had the phobia, I couldn't tell the doctor because I couldn't possibly say it or for heaven's sake write it. I guess the closest I've come to having a phobia is when I fly I have to have the window seat or I can actually feel myself starting to panic. Sadly the first time I discovered this I was on plane loaded with passengers and the person sitting next to me refused to trade seats. That was the longest two hour flight...Happy Friday the 13th....

    1. Happy Friday the 13th to you, too, Barn! I understand the fear of flying (aviophobia). I've gotten to the point I just won't do it anymore. Why invite the stress?

      Thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed the post. :-)

  4. Kathleen,

    I've learned to deal with my claustrophobia, but there was a time in my younger years when it was a serious situation for me. I really hate/despise/loathe spiders) and other crawly critters, but I'm not phobic about them. My attitude toward them is "dead is good". ;-)

    However, I do suffer from Coulrophobia---but not the rodeo kind. *grin*

    I do find the *legend* of Friday the 13th and the fall of the Knights Templar to be an interesting and fascinating story.

    1. Ooh -- the Knights Templar! I'd forgotten they were put to the sword on Friday the 13th. Let this be a lesson to us all: Don't piss off the Pope.

      I'm not afraid of small spaces (unless they're filled with villains ;-) ), although I imagine Cheryl Pierson's potential heroes are, what with her locking them in a small room so they can't escape before their turn to show up half-dead in one of her stories.

      I've never really understood the fear of clowns (except John Wayne Gacy). Now arachnophobia -- yeah, definitely. I have to leave the room -- possibly the entire state.

  5. Hi Kathleen. Loved the post, but never dreamed there were so many unusual phobias. Of course, I didn't attempt trying to pronounce those long, long words and with my dyslexia I'd never be able to spell them. If I have to choose my one phobia, it would be a fear of caverns and caves. I can't handle the idea of being trapped underground. I guess it's a good thing I don't live in a city with subways. Thanks again for the post.

  6. Agnes, speluncaphobia is actually quite common. I agree the thought of being trapped underground is frightening. During a family vacation when I was a pre-teen, we visited some out-of-the-way, touristy little cave (can't remember where it was now), and the lights got turned off while we were down there. The owners were ready to close for the day and didn't realize we hadn't left. Daddy thought it was great fun. Me? Not so much.

    Glad you liked the post! :-)

  7. Kathleen, I saw an interesting article the other day about studies on phobias and memories that were generationally passed down. SO interesting. I tend to really believe it, too, because when my daughter was very little, maybe a year or two old, we took her to a parade and she about strangled me when a clown came near to us. (My mom didn't like clowns.) We lived in a small town and there were a couple of parades every year, so the next year when we went, she was 3 and the same thing happened. She held on to my neck and pressed her cheek up next to mine. I was saying, "It's just a clown." Always polite, she whispered into my ear, "MOMMY I DON'T LIKE CLOWNS!" and she still doesn't even to this day.

    I don't like being underground, either, Agnes. That makes me shudder.

    Great post, Kathleen. You always come up with something wonderful!

    1. Thanks, Okie! Turns out, lots of folks are afraid of clowns.

      I think you're onto something about genetic memory. There have been studies that indicate that's a very real phenomenon. Also, the collective unconscious is an accepted (at least in some circles) psychological theory saying all humans have dormant memories of the history of mankind. It's interesting stuff!

  8. Kathleen,
    A very appropriate post for today. I remember once reading about a man who feared bananas. I laughed, of course, but it was terribly traumatic for him. Then I felt bad. Grocery stores would be so difficult to navigate. I have a fear of heights that's managed to ruin a few outings with the family for me. And my husband is convinced I was never a beetle in a previous life because I have a hard time in enclosed spaces--not claustrophobia exactly, but I don't like pressure all around my body when I lie down. We all have something strange about us!

    1. True phobias can be extremely serious for the people who suffer from them, and I don't mean to make light of that in the least. Some of these things are just bizarre, though. I suspect some of them may more dislike or discomfort than phobia.

      I just looked: Bananaphobia does exist. My first thought was "surely not." I'm feeling bad now, too.

  9. I'm still smiling, and Friday the 13th is one of the luckiest days for me. (At least in my own mind). Although I do, I am not very fond of flying. In fact, I'll walk if that is an option rather than take a plane. (SIGH).

    What a fun post. Doris

    1. Doris, I'm glad to hear you consider Friday the 13th lucky! That's two folks I've heard from today who feel that way. The other said her unlucky day is Thursday the 12th.

      You know, I'm with you on the flying thing. I flew for years and years and years because of my job. I won't go anywhere near an airplane anymore. We'll walk together the next time we have to be somewhere across the country at the same time, okay?

  10. I'm afraid of compressed gas. I hated the old Coleman stoves with Naphtha. I forgot them two years running when camping with Cadets (the senior Girl guide version) and ended up doing all the cooking for the group over a campfire. (I could have the fire banked, built up and the water boiling for tea before anyone was up.)

    We didn't get a gas grill until my son was old enough to light it. When it caught fire, we replaced it with a charcoal grill. So maybe it isn't a phobia. The term only applies to irrational fears. ;)

    1. LOL, Ali! Sounds like your fear of compressed gas is completely rational. I don't know about you, but I never liked propane grills anyway. Food always tastes better cooked over wood or charcoal, at least to me.

      I could not find a word for fear of compressed gas. Maybe you need to invent one? Wait...that's probably not a good idea. I've seen what can happen when you get creative. ;-)

    2. I have to accept the challenge.

      Propanophonophobia - the fear of propane (or other compressed gases - including the air in balloons) exploding and making a loud noise. I think the fear of a gas BBQ exploding and killing you or at least blowing the eyebrows off your son is quite rational.

      Phonophobia, the fear of loud noises, isn't made up.

    3. I have only myself to blame...

      Propanophonophobia is sneaking right up on the length of The Word Whose Name We Must Not Speak (mostly because we can't figure out how to say the mile-long thing). It's very un-Canadian of you to incite a phobia no one can pronounce, you know. ;-)

    4. Canadians are polite. That doesn't mean we can't be devious.

  11. I have a fear of dropping my car keys in the gap between the floor and the elevator. I think about it EVERY time I get on one. I mentioned it aloud to a lady riding with me and she said, "That actually happened to me once!" Not comforting.

    1. As a child, I was deathly afraid of falling through the cracks in the escalator and I would practically jump over the gaps in elevators. I also got carsick on public transportation and routinely lost in department stores. In short, I was a thoroughly delightful child to take shopping.

    2. Vonn, as much as I hate to say this -- because it's probably not at all safe for the rest of us -- you're going to have to join Ali on the "there's no name for my phobia" bench.

      I know I'm going to regret making that suggestion...

    3. Ali, you should've told us about your childhood much sooner. We'd have been prepared. ;-)

  12. Aren't people just the weirdest and funniest living things on Earth? The stuff we love and the things we're afraid of are comical and befuddling. So, if a person has a phobia of being tickled by feathers, I guess they are afraid of hiccups from laughing followed by a heart attack or something? Weirdness!
    I have a friend who believes Friday the 13th is a lucky day rather than the reverse. Could it be that Friday the 13th is so grateful that someone isn't hating on it that it shows some appreciation to that person with some awesome luck? I have no idea, but there ya go.
    I'm afraid of heights--but that's self-preservation. What if I walked out on that glass loop over the Grand Canyon and the glass started to crack? See? Now that's something to be scared of.
    I enjoyed your blog on weird phobias, Kathleen. Sorry I showed up late.

    1. Sarah, I don't care when you show up -- early, late, or in between. I just enjoy reading your take on the topic du jour. You always have the most creative way of looking at the issues. Who else would express sympathy for Friday the 13th?

      I agree with you about heights! It's not a phobia -- it's common sense. :-D