Alfred Hitchcock suffered from ovophobia, a horror of eggs. “I’m frightened of eggs,” he told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1963. “Worse than frightened – they revolt me. That white round thing without any holes, and when you break it, inside there’s that yellow thing, round, without any holes… Brr!” An egg was all surface or all innards: easily cracked but also impenetrable, horribly intact. “Have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid?” he asked Fallaci. “Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I’ve never tasted it.” A punctured yolk seemed to bleed out its thick, gleaming fluid.
One woman in 10 and one man in 20 is afflicted by a specific diagnosable phobia – an excessive fear that interferes with normal life – and many more have aversions or anxieties that they describe as phobias. Even the most powerful among us are prey to overwhelming, irrational fears. Steve Jobs wore polo-neck sweaters because he was scared of buttons (a condition known as koumpounophobia). Elizabeth I was afraid of the dark (nyctophobia). Cicero dreaded public speaking (glossophobia). Frédéric Chopin was terrified by the idea that he might be buried alive (taphephobia). Robert Graves feared the telephone (telephonophobia), and both Augustus Caesar and Caligula panicked at the sound of thunder (brontophobia).
The horror writer Stephen King, whose 1986 novel It is partly responsible for the modern fear of clowns (coulrophobia), is afflicted by triskaidekaphobia. ‘The number 13 never fails to trace that old icy finger up and down my spine,” he confessed. “When I’m writing, I’ll never stop work if the page number is 13 or a multiple of 13; I’ll just keep on typing till I get to a safe number.” And the model Kendall Jenner suffers from trypophobia, an aversion to clusters of holes. “I can’t even look at little holes,” she wrote in 2016. “It gives me the worst anxiety. Who knows what’s in there?”
Some of the more common phobias – of spiders, heights, blood and snakes, for instance – seem to be rooted in our evolutionary history, being vestiges of fears that were once essential to our survival as a species. Salvador Dalí had entomophobia, an aversion to insects that may originally have served as a defence against disease. “If I were on the edge of a precipice,” he wrote in 1942, “and a large grasshopper sprang upon me and fastened itself to my face, I should prefer to fling myself over the edge rather than endure this frightful ‘thing’.”
Musophobia, a loathing of rats that afflicted George Orwell, may derive from rodents’ capacity to carry disease. Orwell bestowed his aversion on Winston Smith, the central character in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Winston refuses to betray his girlfriend, Julia, even when he is beaten and electrocuted, but his gaolers know how to break him. “Have you ever seen a rat leap through the air?” asks his tormentor in Room 101, brandishing a cage that holds two of the creatures. “They will leap on to your face and bore straight into it. Sometimes they attack the eyes first. Sometimes they burrow through the cheeks and devour the tongue.” Winston senses the “foul, musty odour of the brutes” as the wire of the cage glances against his cheek. “Do it to Julia!” he cries out in horror. “Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!”
But even latent fears are activated by incidents in our lives. Dalí believed that he acquired his phobia of insects as a boy, when a female cousin crushed a large grasshopper under the collar of his shirt: “Though it was eviscerated and abundantly sticky with a loathsome fluid, it still stirred, half-destroyed, between my shirt collar and my flesh, and its jagged legs clutched my neck.”
Scarlett Johansson told a journalist that she developed katsaridaphobia as a girl, upon waking to find a cockroach crawling across her face. Sigmund Freud dated his terror of trains (siderodromophobia) to an overnight railway journey he took when he was two, during which he thought that he saw his mother undressing for bed. He believed that he had unconsciously displaced on to the train both his excitement at the sight of his naked mother and his fear that he would be punished for his feelings. A phobia, Freud speculated, was a forbidden feeling that had been projected on to an external object. The dark, disowned emotion could then be avoided. “Fleeing from an internal danger is a difficult enterprise,” he explained. “One can save oneself from an external danger by flight.”
Sometimes the phobias of famous people seem related to their fame. The actor Macaulay Culkin developed agoraphobia after becoming the child star of Home Alone (1990). The world seemed so hungry for him that he was terrified of leaving the house. “There was always photographers in the bushes and things like that,” he told the television host Larry King in 2004, “and there was a lot of things out there that were trying to consume me. It felt like the buildings were going to eat me.” The reclusive poet Emily Dickinson used similar language to describe an encounter with a group of neighbours outside a local church one Sunday in 1853: “Several soared around me,” she wrote to her sister-in-law, “and, sought to devour me.”
Oprah Winfrey suffers from globophobia, an aversion to balloons usually based on a fear of the pop made by a balloon when it bursts. The sound “reminds me of gunfire”, she said in 2013, “and perhaps somewhere in my life or in a past childhood I must’ve had something to do with gunfire, because it just really freaks me out being around balloons”. The South Korean film star So Ji-sub confessed to a television presenter in 2017 that being anywhere near a balloon made him feel that his “insides were going to burst”, as if his body was itself a sack of air, preserved by pressure, poised to explode.
To declare that you have a phobia can be a way of alerting others to your vulnerability. Niall Horan, who became famous suddenly in 2010 as a member of the boy band One Direction, told an interviewer that he had a horror of pigeons. “One once flew in through my bathroom window,” he said, “and went for me while I was having a wee. That was enough. I think pigeons target me.” On the band’s tour of America in 2012, security guards swept the outdoor venues for birds. “Niall’s really scared of pigeons,” confirmed his band mate Harry Styles. “We have to protect him.”
This fear of birds – ornithophobia – is luridly dramatised in Hitchcock’s movie The Birds (1963), in which ravens, gulls and crows attack the inhabitants of Bodega Bay, California, and the town’s residents suspect one another of being somehow implicated in the violence. The film is steeped in paranoia, uncertainty, an electrifying alienation, as if the birds’ malevolent fury is an explosive enactment of something hidden. The uneasy fears of Hitchcock’s characters are often related to traumatic events in the past. In Vertigo (1958), “Scottie” Ferguson is imbued with a terror of heights – acrophobia – when he sees a fellow policeman fall to his death.
Hitchcock told Oriana Fallaci that it was not only eggs that he feared. In fact, he said, he was the most cowardly man she would ever meet. He was frightened by policemen, because his father had once arranged for a London bobby to lock him in a cell when he was 11; and he was afraid of crowds, burglars, people arguing, violence, darkness and Sundays (his parents used to put him to bed at six on a Sunday, he explained, and then go out to eat at a restaurant). He was so afraid that a madman might creep into his bedroom to cut his throat that he locked his door every night. He was even scared of his own films, he told Fallaci: “I never go to see them. I don’t know how people can bear to watch my movies.”
“That’s rather illogical, Mr Hitchcock,” Fallaci retorted when he listed his many terrors. “Come to that, your movies are illogical, too. From the logical point of view, not one of them can stand inspection.”
“Agreed,” said Hitchcock, who had built a career on irrational fear. “But what is logic? There’s nothing more stupid than logic.”
The Book of Phobias and Manias by Kate Summerscale (Wellcome, £16.99) will be published on Oct 6