Are you afraid of the dark?

Some fears take a turn for the unusual

Fears come in many forms, from ostriches, to holes, papercuts and buttons.

Growing up, I thought I was crazy.  

I used to believe the squirmy feeling I frequently got was a brain glitch caused by a loose wire in my head. Sometimes when I’d try to fall asleep as a kid, I’d make out images of it in the colours and shapes of my closed eyes. I couldn’t describe exactly what I was imagining, but it made me feel uncomfortable and nauseous.

I was in middle school when I realized I wasn’t nuts. Before that, I hadn’t really tried to explain my weird tick to anyone, because it sounded absurd. Basically,  I was afraid of things that featured a pattern of multiple holes in close proximity to each other. It wasn’t until a friend and I bonded in eighth grade over how horrifying a honeycomb looked that I did  further research and learned that, as weird of a fear as it was, I wasn’t alone. In fact, it even had a name — tripophobia. 

Phobias are defined by the Canadian Psychological Association as an excessive or persistent fear of a situation or object. 

While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) provides an official, medically-recognized list of them, it’s not exhaustive of all possible fears. Tripophobia, for example, isn’t recognized in the DSM, but thousands of people reportedly experience it. Aside from my friend, I’ve discovered that my sister and housemate also find the holey images and objects extremely discomforting. 

People tend to be afraid of many things. Some fears seem quite intuitive, like fear of heights, needles or the dark. Even my fear of patterned holes is something that at least partially stems from how it visually reminds me of disease. However, fears also often come from personal experiences, which give rise to more abnormal phobias.

Gabi Sandler, ArtSci ’17, developed an unusual fear after coming face-to-face with an ostrich during an annual family trip to South Africa. When she was five or six, the tall bird stuck its head into her family vehicle during a visit to a game reserve.

“You can imagine when you’re a little kid, that’s really scary,” she said. “I instantly became scared of it — petrified. The fact that I can say the word, ostrich now is a big step for me. I used to not say the word. Probably until I was like 15 or 16, I would call it the o-word.”

The interesting part of phobias is how seemingly irrational they can be. Spiders, for example, aren’t as harmful as people make them out to be, but arachnophobia is one of the most common phobias out there. A fear, no matter how nonsensical it may seem, can still trigger feelings of unreasonable dread. 

Often, these feelings are so strong that people don’t even have to directly face their fears to experience the trepidation — just thinking about it can be enough. 

For Sandler, the anxiety from her phobia stuck with her even in the strangest of places. 

“I remember being little,” Sandler said. “I was on the top bunk of a bunk bed and I remember lying there — I don’t know if I dreamt this or I just thought of it. I was like, what if I turn right now and there’s just an ostrich standing right there.” 

Sandler ended up having to switch to the bottom bunk after psyching herself out with the idea. She uses a similar avoidance tactic when she’s visits South Africa every year. 

“I’ve gotta sit next to someone. Someone’s gotta hold my hand,” she said.

Amanda Lin, ArtSci ’18, has an odd fret as well.

Lin wouldn’t quite agree with the phrase “it’s just a papercut” as the small, but painful, nick of the skin is something that makes her more squeamish than most. 

“It’s not like I can’t touch paper but it’s just, once I start thinking about it, then it freaks me out a little bit,” Lin said.

The paper-inflicted wound isn’t the end of her fears either. 

“I just don’t like sharp things in general,” she explained. “I think it might be because when I was really, really little, I got this giant splinter and I had to go to the hospital.” 

Lin remarked that while she realizes it’s a small fear, when people start waving paper around at her upon learning about it, she “usually [has] to leave the room.”

Another student, Sharon Hui, ArtSci ’18, has a fear of buttons.

“The bigger they are and the uglier they are, the more uncomfortable I get,” she said. 

Hui isn’t sure where or why it started, but the mere thought of the small brooches is enough to make her shudder. 

“I can [stand buttons] if they’re like, small and clear. But I have to barely look at them or touch them.”

For people who don’t experience them, an unusual phobia can seem extremely bizarre. Strange fears have been featured in television shows like The Maury Povich Show, as well as Fear Factor. 

There’s an opportunity for entertainment in forcing people to face what frightens them, it seems. A quick search of the phobia segment of Maury on YouTube produces numerous clips, such as a woman with a fear of cotton being chased around by a tall figure completely covered in a fleecy layer of cotton balls.

Hui, too, has had her fair share of playful taunting.

“I remember my friend … put a button inside one of my [birthday] presents. And I was like, traumatized for the next couple of hours. I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I didn’t want to cry in front of her.”

She stays lighthearted, though. When asked about whether her ideal choice of clothing fastener is something more like a zipper, Hui laughs.

“Yeah, or Velcro.”

So whether it’s creepy crawlies or clusters of holes, your fear may not be as crazy as it makes you feel. And hey — you’re probably not alone in it either.

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