Everyone is afraid of something. Whether we’re talking about something as archesque as killer clowns or something as mundane as intimacy, there’s probably not a person alive without some sort of idiosyncratic phobia ingrained deep in their subconscious.
Though the trappings of fame and fortune can insulate a person from some of life’s hardships, many celebrities seem to fall prey to more unusual — and sometimes even downright bizarre — phobias. Take US TV personality Tyra Banks, for example, who admitted to having a lifelong fear of dolphins (dolphinphobia) that manifested as a recurring nightmare. Or One Direction star Niall Horan, who has confessed to a crippling fear of pigeons – something confirmed by ex-bandmate Harry Styles. “I think pigeons are after me,” Horan confessed after an incident in which one of the feathered fiends flew in through his bathroom window.
There’s a possibility that Stephen King is responsible for more nightmares than any other human being on the planet, but he himself wasn’t immune to one fright: The Shining author has confessed to having triskaidekaphobia, a fear of the number 13.” When I’m writing, I’ll never stop work if the page number is 13 or a multiple of 13,” he once said. “I just keep typing until I get a safe number.”
These and other celebrity phobias are explored in The Book of Phobias and Manias: A History of the World in 99 Obsessions, a new nonfiction book by Kate Summerscale. The book takes us through 99 different examples of either phobias or manias, and mixes psychological insights with fascinating case studies – many drawn from pop culture.
Which came first: alektorophobia or ovophobia? (The fear of chickens or the fear of eggs?) I’m not sure if anyone knows, but Alfred Hitchcock claimed to suffer from the latter. “You disgust me,” he told Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1963, before describing the food with an almost otherworldly sense of dislike. “This white round thing with no holes, and if you break it, there’s this yellow thing inside, round, with no holes… Brr!”
One of the alien fears of having been pathologized is taphephobia – a fear of untimely burial. Several cultural figures were known for it, including the composer Frederic Chopin and Hans Christian Andersen, who left a note by his bed every night stating that he was just sleeping. The Brazilian entrepreneur Freud de Melo even built an elaborate crypt with “louvers, a fruit chamber, a television and megaphones” for such cases.
Meanwhile, Johnny Depp has opened up about his fear of clowns (coulrophobia). “There always seems to be a darkness lurking just beneath the surface… a potential for real evil,” he once said. “I think I’m scared of them because it’s impossible – thanks to their painted smiles – to tell if they’re happy or if they’re about to bite your face off.”
Often the mere idea of phobias is more amusing than scary. But it’s not always so harmless. Macaulay Culkin spoke about suffering from agoraphobia after the success of Home Alone. Doctors classify agoraphobia as a “complex phobia” (other than, say, fear of a specific animal or object) which, according to the NHS website, “is usually more disabling than simple phobias”. “It felt like the buildings were eating me up,” Culkin told Larry King in 2004. “There were always photographers in the bushes and stuff like that.” He’s certainly not alone in this fear: Summerscale notes that agoraphobia has become increasingly common during the Covid pandemic, with symptoms often worsening in those already affected.
Artist Salvador Dali had a terrible fear of bugs and insects (entomophobia) and once cut his back with a razor blade after mistaking a pimple on his back for a tiny flea. (Scarlett Johansson has a similar condition and once told a journalist that she was scared to death of cockroaches.)
Some phobias can be detrimental to a celebrity’s career—not the least of which is glossophobia, the fear of public speaking. The Book of Phobias and Manias remembers actor Ian Holm who became “paralyzed with fright” during a performance of The Iceman Cometh at the Aldwych Theater in 1976, prompting him to retire from the stage for 15 years.
However, sometimes fear can be a blessing. Not in the evolutionary sense—although I suppose a healthy fear of grizzly bears must have saved many a prehistoric hiker. But take Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple. Jobs is said to have suffered from koumpounophobia: fear of buttons. This led to both his signature turtleneck appearance and, if designer Abraham Faraq is to be believed, the buttonless computer mouse that became a central design feature of his computers.
Roald Dahl suffered from pogonophobia – a fear of beards – and channeled his disgust into literary gold. Mr. Twit, the bearded grotesque from his children’s classic The Twits, was one such example; Dahl even wrote an essay on the subject, describing the facial accessory as “disgusting” and “hairy smoke screens to hide behind.” Margaret Thatcher is also said to have shared the affliction, although the cause may have been less innate and more to do with the beard’s association with counterculture and the political left.
What should we do with this information? Are we doomed as a species to let fear and neurosis rule our lives? Maybe not. The good side of the phobia phenomenon is that they can usually be treated. Whether through exposure therapy, talk therapy (counselling, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy), or medication, phobias are among the most successfully treatable mental disorders of all. So before you build an inhabited crypt to ease your fear of burial, maybe try talking to someone about it first.
Kate Summerscale’s The Book of Phobias and Manias: A History of the World in 99 Obsessions is now available from Profile Books
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/mental-health/it-felt-like-the-buildings-were-going-to-eat-me-famous-people-and-their-phobias-42045067.html “It felt like the buildings were eating me”: Famous people and their phobias