We all experience fears, but phobias are something else. A phobia is an intense, inexplicable and irrational fear of something specific. Phobias are interesting elements in fiction. Indiana Jones’ intense fear of snakes raises the stakes in his adventures and makes him more vulnerable and appealing.
The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) — the book used by doctors, insurance companies, etc. to define diagnoses — altered the clinical definition of Specific (AKA Simple) Phobias, Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia) and Agoraphobia so that the individual does not have to recognize that their fear is out-of-proportion to receive a diagnosis. It’s an interesting change from the previous editions.
Why am I interested in this? It’s fascinating and there is something poetic — and scary — about the previous requirement that the phobic individual acknowledge that their fear was exaggerated — the essence of a phobia. It was a Catch-22.
Getting back to phobias and fears in fiction — phobias have long been a staple of suspense thrillers, horror and mystery genres in both books and movies. Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Vertigo” is hard to resist. And, if you’ve never seen the Mel Brooks’ spoof “High Anxiety” I recommend that you seek it out. It’s a hoot! Brooks, with his characteristic manic silliness and sharp eye, riffs on an entire catalog of Hitchcock’s phobia inspiring gambits, from the shower scene that convinced many people to take baths to a threatening swarm of birds.
Fear, in small doses, is an element in pleasure. We LIKE to be afraid, a little afraid, on roller coasters, in fast cars, on skis, etc. We enjoy the fear, the safe fear, induced by a scary story. Horror & terror are not the only genres that rely on fear. An adventure story would be flat if fear is removed from the risk/reward equation. Genuine jeopardy requires a dollop of fear. Where would romantic suspense be without jeopardy?
Even cozy mysteries, of the Agatha Christie ilk, which start with a body in the library or the suspicious aroma of bitter almond in the afternoon sherry, offer a pinch of fear. The violence is “off stage” but unnatural death interferes with “peaceful” domesticity. Fear undermines the usual course of life and it always plays some role in the story. Usually it’s just the maid fainting at the sight of the dead body or an old lady tittering as she shares the horrible story with a friend, but it’s basically the same thing as roller coaster fear.
Fear is fun — but a little bit goes a long way!