Fears, Phobias & Rollercoaster Rides

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!


  1. Fear is one of those contrast emotions isn’t it? Leaving it out would be like cooking a dish without salt. I know food is meant to be healthier with salt, but as you say, a little dash goes a long way. 😉

    • Candy

      Perfect analogy!
      Cooking without salt leaves everything flat. That dash of salt in cookie dough is necessary.

      There’s also the stark contrast between fear and laughter (or fear and relief) that’s like a chocolate covered pretzel — a roller coaster ride of snacking. LOL…

    • Candy

      Forever and always… if you are having fun. Life without a touch of fear means life is dull. The roller coaster we call life has climbs, dips and scary moments.

  2. Odd thought, you have to know you have a problem to get help. When you consider that it is only the sane that question their sanity, this would mean the crazies are running free. But they don’t realize their freedom.

    I never used to enjoy horror and scary stuff. You could say I had a phobia of phobias. But I have grown and explored more of the world, learning to enjoy smaller fears has worked into the enjoyment of larger fears.

    • Candy

      Of course all fears — especially the big ones — are more fun in fiction.

      I, too, have grown more comfortable with horror. I was one of those little kids with nightmares and my parents tried to protect me. The more they tried to protect me the more I capable I became of turing benign images and stories into horror. Now, I really enjoy a scary story! And yet, my imagination is still better at producing scary stuff than any horror flick.

  3. I’ve always loved being scared and scaring others… guess that says a lot about my childhood 😉 The more I work on my novel, it’s getting hard to see the forest for the trees when it come to how well I may or may not be at creating suspense and playing on fears. The only true phobia I have is a fear of heights, and it’s only grown worse as I’ve aged.

    • Candy

      A phobic fear of height (like claustrophobia and agoraphobia) can get in the way of life AND it’s great in fiction. Is it making its way into your novel?