Clowns, agoraphobia and kayaks: a history of fear and loathing
The past (and not so past) is studded with incidents when seemingly innocuous objects and situations have sparked repulsion in unfortunate sufferers. Kate Summerscale explores what the history of five phobias reveals about the mental states of people through the centuries...
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Clowns: party monsters
The origin of the term coulrophobia, meaning a morbid fear of clowns, is murky. The word is thought to have been invented sometime in the 1980s or 90s. “Coulro” possibly derives from kōlobathristes, the Byzantine Greek word for “stilt-walker”, or from a mangling of the modern Greek klooun, or clown – itself a borrowing from the English. Yet a surprisingly clear sequence of events created the need for the term.
Clowns were much-loved figures in 1960s and 1970s America, but their image was damaged in 1980 by the conviction of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. A suburban businessman from Illinois, Gacy had performed at children’s parties as a clown called Pogo. His picture in the newspapers showed a plump man in a red-and-white-striped romper suit and ruff, waving to the camera with one gloved hand while holding a bouquet of balloons in the other. A huge red smile was painted across his chalk-white face. He was later discovered to have assaulted and murdered dozens of young men and children.
A kind of collective panic took hold in the next few years, especially among children, and in 1981 “stalker clowns” were spotted all over the United States. The actor Johnny Depp said that he feared clowns “because it’s impossible – thanks to their painted-on-smiles – to distinguish if they are happy or if they’re about to bite your face off.” The figure of the predatory jester gained even more traction in 1986 with the publication of Stephen King’s bestselling novel It, in which the clown Pennywise was a malevolent being who took on the shape of whatever a child feared most.
Dirt and germs: greater knowledge of disease helped spread fear
“Under the name of Mysophobia,” wrote the American neurologist William Alexander Hammond in 1879, “I propose to describe a form of mental derangement… characterised by a morbid, overpowering fear of defilement or contamination.”
The phobia – its name created by Hammond from the Greek musos, or uncleanliness – multiplied in the last decades of the 19th century as more people learnt that disease could be spread by invisible microbes. In The Alienist and Neurologist in 1899, CH Hughes reported on a 26-year-old woman who after reading an article about bacteria became convinced that “everything about her was infected with some sort of disease-breeding germs”. She washed her hands repeatedly and became unable to touch even her own child.
One of Hammond’s patients, an affluent 30-year-old widow, became mysophobic after reading an article about a man who caught smallpox from contaminated bank notes. She compulsively washed her hands and clothes, and even gave up reading for fear that she would be poisoned by the pages of a book or newspaper. In the consulting room, Hammond noticed that she kept a close watch on her hands as they spoke, rubbing them against each other to get rid of contaminating particles. She had an “overpowering feeling”, she told him, “that I shall be defiled in some mysterious way”.
Open spaces and crowds: how 19th-century cities became terrains of terror
In 1871, Berlin psychiatrist Carl Otto Westphal found himself treating several men with a terror of traversing the city. One patient, a 32-year-old travelling salesman, had a dread of neighbourhoods in which the streets were deserted and the shops shut. At the edge of the city, where the houses ran out, his nerve would fail him entirely. He was disturbed by busy spaces, too, and experienced palpitations when boarding an omnibus or entering a theatre.
Westphal’s study of these afflicted men led him to coin a new word to describe the condition: agoraphobia. Derived from the Greek agora, or marketplace, this wide-ranging term can mean a fear of social contact, of leaving one’s home, of crowded spaces or empty spaces.
In 1889, the Viennese architect Camillo Sitte ascribed agoraphobia to the rapid changes in the cities of Europe, where winding alleys and wonky buildings were being razed to make way for wide boulevards and blank monumental blocks. In Paris, meanwhile, psychiatrist Henri Legrand du Saulle argued that spatial phobias had multiplied in the city after the German siege of 1870–71. He suggested that its closing, and sudden opening, had fostered feelings of claustrophobia and then of agoraphobia.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us developed agoraphobic behaviours. To fear public spaces became sensible, not irrational, and returning to them was difficult for some. As was the case with the citizens of Paris in 1871, we had become accustomed to confinement. In October 2020, The New York Times reported on “Generation Agoraphobia”: the host of children who had developed an aversion to going out.
Kayaks: Inuit panic or fear of supernatural forces?
When posted to the west Greenland coast in 1902, Danish medical officer Alfred Bertelsen learned that a number of Inuit men had abandoned the kayaks in which they traditionally hunted seals, having become paralysed with fear while out at sea. The incidence of the fear seemed to have increased dramatically alongside the spread of western influence in the region. In some coastal districts, Bertelsen found, more than one in ten of the adult males had “kayak phobia” or “kayak angst”, as it became known.
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This was a serious problem in a Danish colony that, since the decline of the whaling industry in the 18th century, had become dependent on seal hunting. Bertelsen wondered whether the phobia was exacerbated by tobacco or coffee, which had been introduced to the colony by the Danes. Some have since speculated that kayak phobia stemmed from sensory deprivation – a loss of orientation provoked by the still, featureless landscape of the North Atlantic. Others suggested that the spread of Christianity had weakened the Inuit’s trust in amulets and spells as protection against harm. The Inuit, though, had their own explanation. According to folklore, the phobia was caused by a tupilak – a monster sent to kill a hunter by a jealous rival.
Whereas western doctors interpreted the phobia as an individual pathology, the Greenlanders thought it emanated from social tensions. The “sick” person was not the phobic individual but the envious rival who had cursed them. For the Inuit, the trouble expressed by a phobia was not personal but communal, a sign of broken relationships rather than a disordered psyche.
Telephones: a device that has rung the alarm from its early days to modern times
Doctors at a Parisian hospital made the first diagnosis of téléphonophobie in 1913. Their patient, “Madame X”, was seized by anguish when she heard a telephone ring. Upon answering a call, she froze and became almost incapable of speech. A Welsh paper sympathised with her plight. “If you come to think of it, practically every user of the telephone suffers from that complaint,” wrote one contributor to the Merthyr Express. “It is a horribly prevalent disease, this ‘telephonophobia’.”
Many people were wary of the telephone, fearing that the device might electrocute them, especially during a thunderstorm. This wasn’t altogether irrational. While serving in the First World War, the writer Robert Graves was taking a call from a fellow officer when lightning struck the telephone line and gave him such a severe shock that he was spun round. For more than a decade afterwards, he said, he would stammer and sweat if he had to use a telephone.
In some respects, the situation has now been reversed: many of us in 2023 fear being separated from our mobile phones, an anxiety jokily named nomophobia in 2008. But today we have so many alternative ways of communicating on these devices – by text messages, for instance, or social media posts – that phone calls themselves have become scary again. In a 2019 survey, 76 per cent of respondents born in the last two decades of the 20th century said that they felt anxious when they heard a phone ring.
This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Kate Summerscale is an award-winning author. Her books includeThe Book of Phobias & Manias: A History of the World in 99 Obsessions
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