Chances are pretty reasonable that you’ll be aware of the technical terms claustrophobia, arachnophobia, and agoraphobia — fear of enclosed spaces, spiders, and the outside world, respectively — but there are several other common phobias whose official names may escape you. The concept of phobias are thrown around in a casual sort of way — "oh, my god, I'm soooo claustrophobic, open a window" — but in their true form they're a sort of anxiety disorder that can be seriously crippling to a sufferer, preventing them from having certain experiences, and occasionally massively disrupting their lives. This stuff ain't funny.
It's also interesting to delve a little bit beneath the surface of phobias — because often, what we think we know about a severe fear, from its definition to its experience, is actually different to the reality. Phobias are irrational, but they also don't develop out of nowhere: crippling fears of this kind often manifest from trauma at some point in a person's life, whether it was a scary experience as a kid or something horrible in adulthood. And some phobias, it's theorized, are common to everybody — some of us just feel them more than others.
So here are six of the most common phobias you've likely never heard of before. Ranking phobias is often quite tricky, because some people don't even know they have them — but some of these are widely recorded, while others are seen as extreme forms of innate, evolutionary fears. But chances are that if you experience this, somebody you know has it too...
What You’re Afraid Of: Death
What It Means: Is the fear of death a basic part of human life? It depends on who you talk to. It's important to point out that this phobia isn't about dead things like animals — the word for that is necrophobia, from the Greek nekros, meaning corpse. This is the specific fear of shuffling off the mortal coil and joining the choir invisible. Avoiding dead things is likely a quite natural thing for humans to have developed over the course of our evolution, because corpses often carry diseases — but what about the fear of dying itself?
Derived from the Greek god Thanatos, the god of death and sibling of Hypnos, or sleep, thanatophobia is seen most often in people who have had close encounters with sudden death, and often is tied to the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder. But theorists point out that most forms of life have some sort of instinctive aversion to death, particularly being harmed by others — it's what keeps them alive — and the idea that humans might have some kind of universal phobia of death has occupied people like Freud for centuries.
What You’re Afraid Of: Dolls
What It Means: As a person who collected porcelain-faced dolls as a kid and watched adults and children alike turn white with horror when they entered my room (I had over 200), I can attest that this one is both common and powerful. The real issue, as with other phobias, isn't the dolls themselves; it's that they seem sufficiently human not to be dolls, i.e. to be alive and capable of action. Hello, Chucky.
In that sense it's part of a category of phobias known in general as automatonophobia — the fear of things that look as if they live, but don't. Automatons or automata were exceptionally popular early "robots," often moving clockwork statues that could do extraordinary things like play pianos, write, or sing. They give their name to the fear of anything that gives a good — slightly too good — appearance of life.
What You’re Afraid Of: The Dark
What It Means: Interestingly, nyctophobia is often played upon by horror filmmakers who capture the essence of the phobia — not of the darkness itself, but of the inability to see whatever’s lurking therein. Jump scares ensue and everybody goes home happy. In that sense, the phobia is slightly misnamed, in that people who suffer from this (most commonly children) aren’t technically afraid of the dark at all, but of an inability to control or observe their environment.
Some theorists believe it’s an ancient phobia handed down through centuries of human civilization because it likely served us well in our early development as a species. With relatively poor eyesight in the dark, it was sensible for homo sapiens to be terrified of shadowy spaces and hyper-aware of what happened in them. Less chance of being taken, and eaten, unawares.
What You’re Afraid Of: Blood
What It Means: More people faint at the sight of blood than you might expect. Fearing blood on the basis that it may contain pathogens or germs is actually technically part of another phobia, mysophobia, that we’ll talk about later — but just plain blood, whether it’s from injury or a lost tooth, is to blame for this phobia. Unlike nyctophobia, it doesn’t seem to be a particularly evolutionarily useful terror: fear of blood means that we’re less able to care for injuries properly if something happens swiftly.
Interestingly, and slightly unfortunately for the sufferer of hemophobia, one of the core symptoms of a severe phobia — which is a variety of anxiety syndrome — is a heightening of blood pressure. So if they're spurting blood from somewhere, it's likely that their panic isn't going to stop its flow.
What You’re Afraid Of: Needles
What It Means: Trepanning, in the medieval world, was a particularly gruesome way of clearing up headaches and other skull-based ailments. It involved — there is no way to dampen this one down — drilling a hole in the skull. Unbelievably, people survived: we have skulls nowadays that show signs of healing and long life after the hole was made, though it likely wasn’t a comfortable one.
Trypanophobia comes from the same root as this word, the Greek trypan, to bore — which gives us a clue as to the real nature of this phobia. Even if the sight of a needle sets the phobics off, the real source of the fear is medical procedures that pierce or put holes in the skin.
What You’re Afraid Of: Germs
What It Means: Mysophobia is often a part, in a certain sense, of the make-up of obsessive compulsive disorders, which can focus on often-irrational fears about bacteria building up on body parts or surfaces, requiring ritual washing and cleaning. But it’s a big mistake to believe that all mysophobics suffer from OCD, or vice versa.
A small degree of fear of germs is necessary for humans to be healthy and protect their food from contaminants — but mysophobics take it to a whole new level. Considering that we've only known about the actions of germs themselves, the tiny microorganisms that carry disease, since the 1800s — and that it took the medical and scientific world a shamefully long time to accept the whole idea, instead of the ancient concept that diseases were spread by "miasma," or dirty air — this is one of the true modern phobias. Not that it will be any comfort to Lena Dunham, one of the most famous mysophobics in the world.