This is another piece I originally wrote for my characterisation advice book (which I finished the first draft of at the start of last month and am now editing – so if anyone wants to complain about or compliment any self-publishing platforms, etc, now’s the time). Ultimately, I decided that the amount of space I would require to flesh this out into something which covered all the bases for considerate discussion was just too much for an already large section of the book. It also, like Scrap Pile 1 – Life Without Smell, felt a bit too personal as a description.
Having a phobia is like living out your days in a horror movie, but one which everyone else is convinced is a comedy in which you play the clown.
Phobias. Those things that people claim to have when they want to get out of something they don’t like having to do, which often gets confused with merely being really scared of something, and which has a long, proud history of terrifying authors so much that they go on to traumatise the rest of the world into sharing that phobia by portraying the thing they are afraid of the way they view it in their works. (For example, J.R.R. Tolkien, who nearly died of a spider bite in his youth, made giant spiders into a nightmarish thing for his readers long before the B movies portraying such things would manage to, and the chilling layer of casual racism in the works of H.P. Lovecraft wouldn’t be nearly as frightening if it hadn’t been based on Lovecraft’s own phobia of everyone who wasn’t a white, antiquarian from Providence or a cat.) But the thing is; for all that authors who have phobias are good at portraying their fear as something that can terrify the audience, most authors who don’t have phobias have difficulty portraying characters that do have phobias. This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly it’s problematic because there is huge potential for drama, plot complications, and horror in correctly portraying a phobic reaction which is otherwise wasted. Secondly; because phobias are genuine anxiety disorders and it is hugely offensive to those suffering from real phobias to portray it (and thus teach the audience to believe) in the typical way seen in pop-culture – that is; something which requires a deep breath or two and a snarky comment about why the obstacle had to be that, then “will power” allowing the so-called phobic character to save the day and, having done that, continue on without any adverse affects.
Phobia does not merely mean being “very scared of”. Phobias are anxiety disorders; they are abnormal fear reactions and can range from the debilitating “cannot function in normal society” to the mild “behavioural coping mechanisms of avoidance and low-level paranoia” and “moderate panic attack” (panic attacks, by the way, are also not just being worried; they are a serious medical problem that has symptoms matching those of a heart attack – with the only major difference being that instead of actually dying you just think you’re going to). Abnormal fear. Abnormal. ABNORMAL. Not every lifelong fear of something is a phobia. You, and your characters, can just be really, really fucking scared of something. And this is an important distinction, because the over-use of the term phobia, caused by misuse in screen and page making it a popular buzzword, results in real suffers being denied the aid and compassion they need. The idea that (heroic) will power can allow a phobic person to overcome their problem during the climatic moments of a story has lead the majority of people to believe that someone having a phobic reaction can simply suppress it (“deal with it later”) or “get over it” and that they ought to “stop being a wimp” about it. That’s disgusting. It’s also extreme cruelty by ignorance, because the key difference between someone who is really, really fucking scared of something and someone who is phobic of something is that the former can suppress their fear and get over it, while the latter can’t. Can’t. Not won’t: can’t. Cannot. Is unable to. Telling a phobic person to “get over it” or “stop being a wimp” is kind of like telling a person with no legs to “get over it” and “stop being a wimp” about being asked to run a marathon without artificial limbs. It’s inappropriate, it’s degrading, and it’s fucking stupid of the person making those unreasonable demands. Also, full disclosure here, I do have a phobia (which I believe qualifies as mild, but I’ve never done an in depth comparative study on the matter).
Now, while I’ve mentioned several of the major reactions, I should specify that there is a fine line (the; can get over yes/no line) between being really, really fucking scared of something and being phobic, and because humanity comes in an infinite variety, the human mind has an infinite variety of ways of fucking itself over and therefore symptoms can come in wildly differing forms – and at different strengths in a person’s life. This means that on some occasions a person may have more or less trouble coping with a phobia or getting over a fear and that, while it is easier to illustrate phobias with examples, no set of examples is going to accurately cover every phobic person’s experience of their problems. With that in consideration: let’s take Arachnophobia as an example, as it’s one of the most common fears and one of the most common phobias.
Scenario: In order to rescue their Love Interests who have been tied up by the Evil Overperson, our brave heroes must cross a room full of spiders.
Hero 1 is an Arachnologist and loves spiders, so has absolutely no problem with this and does his best to not hurt any of them as he passes.
Hero 2 is a completely average and normal person. He takes a few deep breaths to steel himself for this because only someone insane or an arachnologist would not be at least a little afraid of walking through a room full of spiders, and then rescues his love interest.
Hero 3 is really, really fucking scared of spiders. He lets out what he will later deny was a scream at the sight, takes a lot of quick breaths before steeling himself to enter, gets a little sweaty and half-way through a spider gets a bit too close to his face so he gets angry and panics and starts yelling at them to get away while using his torch to set them on fire. He manages to rescue his love interest, but complains that he really needs a shower ASAP because of the spider webs.
Hero 4 is arachnophobic. First he screams at the sight, then begins mentally bargaining with himself (does he really love the love interest that much? Can he find someone else to go in there and rescue his beloved instead? Wouldn’t it be safer to just blow up the room and hope his beloved isn’t too badly scarred …but that’ll fling spiders everywhere no no nononono abort!). By this point Hero 4 is hyperventilating and getting dizzy from the lack of oxygen that causes, he’s crying and shaking, but also sweating, and his entire chest feels tight. He thinks it’s quite possible that he’ll enter the room of evil monsters from hell only to faint in the middle of it and then they’ll eat him or lay their eggs in him or worse crawl all over him, and that just makes him more terrified. Hero 4 covers himself in as many layers of clothing, and if possible a hazmat suit, as he can – once he’s discovered there is absolutely no one around to help him and he’s discovered that screaming at his love interest to free herself isn’t actually going to achieve anything – and attempts to use his torch and some flammable materials to set as many spiders on fire (and, to his horror, sends the rest fleeing in the direction he needs to go) as possible before he has to go in. He has to convince himself to not turn back with every single step and thus a short walk takes three times longer than necessary. He eventually frees his love, only to nearly set her on fire because of a spider crawling on her, and practically runs out of the room full of spiders. Then he strips of all his cloths and starts tugging at his hair, or possibly chopping it off, because even though his beloved assures him that there are no spiders left on him there might be. At this point he actually goes even more to pieces and switches from crying to bawling because room full of spiders. For the next two weeks he mistakes every itch (and he’s constantly itchy), tickling hair, and touch of fabric against his skin for a spider, and claws at himself because of it, and every night he has horrible nightmares about them crawling all over (and inside) of him and his beloved.
Hero 5 suffers from severe/debilitating arachnophobia. He can’t make himself go in to the room full of spiders. He wants to go in and save his love interest more than anything, but he literally cannot make himself do it. He’ll live with the grief and guilt for the rest of his life, but he can’t go in. He spends the next month jumping at every shadow, with his mind’s eye decorating each room he enters with spiders, and every night for months afterward he has nightmares about his love interest being crawled on by spiders and what might have happened to him if he’d gone in.
Now, the reason that the portrayal of phobias in fiction is such a problem is that most heroes are claimed, by their authors, to be Hero 4 (arachnophobic) but they act like Hero 2 (or, in rare cases, like Hero 3). This is also, admittedly, a strange situation given that most people do not have Love Interests who are available to kidnapping from Evil Overpersons who have fully furnished rooms full of spiders for them to adventure through. So let’s take a look at a more every day example.
Scenario: A spider is found crawling along the edge of the wall right before a person goes to bed.
Unafraid of Spiders Person shrugs, checks if it’s the bite-y kind and removes it (possibly barehanded).
Normal Person either gets the vacuum cleaner or a pot, to urge it into, and removes it while going “ugh” and “eeep”.
Really Fucking Scared of Spiders Person shouts, and either removes it (via pot or vacuum) while trying not to shake.
Arachnophobic Person screams for help upon spotting it, keeps a terrified eye on it (so it doesn’t disappear because if it does it could go anywhere) while someone else gets a pot or vacuum, whines with fear as it’s removed and then calls in help to remake their bed, check the floor for spiders, and promise that it’s really definitely gone and spiders don’t come in groups (the response to this, from the arachnophobe, is likely to be “I know that but it could still be here” and “I know they don’t come in groups but they might!”) . The Arachnophobic person will then, approximately ten minutes of unaccepted assurances later, proceed to continue getting ready for bed while worrying that there might be spiders. If the arachnophobe is in possession of a particularly vivid and/or visual imagination, this may be accompanied by “helpful” what if scenarios playing out in their head throughout their nightly routine (i.e. imagining spiders crawling out of or into their mouth while brushing their teeth, feeling every brush of fabric or hair as little legs, imagining spiders somehow turning up in the water that just flowed from the faucet into their hands – which they are about to splash on their face, thus meaning that their eyes are closed and will remain closed until the water-which-can’t-have-a-spider-but-might hits their face – imagining spiders crawling out of their retinas, and imagining spiders crawling onto and into them as they sleep. They check their bed again before climbing into it, then imagine the shadow of large spiders crawling over those parts of their bedding they can only see out of the corner of their eyes for hours until they finally fall asleep.
Severely Arachnophobic Person has a similar response to the mere arachnophobe, only it involves actually turning their entire room upside down looking for non-existent spiders, then applying tape to the places the windows meet their frames and the edges of the door. This process is elongated by the panic attack at the start, which they are unlikely to mistake for a heart attack as they are likely to get them often, and possible further panic attacks along the way as they work themselves up and down from states of frenzy and terror with every new potential hiding place for spiders. Even if they climb into bed at the end of their hour long search, they won’t sleep a wink.
If those example reactions of arachnophobes seemed a little crazy to you: congratulations; you’ve grasped the point. They are absurd, insane reactions, because a genuine phobia means a genuinely abnormal and not-sane or reasonable reaction to whatever it is that triggers the fear. Now, as I said, different people will react to their own phobia in different ways, so those examples above definitely won’t apply to every arachnophobe in the world, but they make for a very good comparison between those people who are merely really fucking scared of something (which is nothing to be ashamed of) and those who are suffering from a genuine phobia – an anxiety disorder.