By Kristen O'Neill
Specific phobia, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is an “intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger,” that lasts for a minimum of six months (“Highlights of Changes”). When confronted with their phobia, people can have intense anxiety reactions including panic attacks, increased heart rate and an inability to control their actions (Rogge). For a lot of phobias, simply avoiding their fear works fine, but for someone afraid of common items, such as elevators or tunnels, avoiding these things can interfere and affect their life (“Specific Phobias”).
Characters in both television and film are regularly given a strange or silly phobia that is used as a punchline. The character Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is teased by his friends for being afraid of birds. Lucy from The Peanuts screamed “Dog Germs!” whenever Snoopy licked her face. In the show Kenan & Kel, a character named Chris mentioned that the only thing that got him over his fear of sandwiches was hypnosis. In the TV show Monk, the main character Adrian Monk had a long list of phobias, some of which included a fear of milk, bees, and beautiful women. These phobias overwhelmingly are not offered as a significant trauma or condition for the character, but rather as a joke. Certainly Monk’s fears often get him wound up in hilarious circumstances where he desperately tries to avoid his phobias. It’s funny that Monk runs away from bees, but someone with an intense phobia might just avoid going outside all summer. R Reid Wilson, PhD, a spokesman for the American Psychological Association, said, “I had a woman come in who was afraid of spiders, and it got to the point where she wouldn't go out at night because she couldn't see where they were” (Hatfield). Phobias can be a daily source of anxiety and stress for those suffering, but in Hollywood they are used to show how funny it is that someone can be afraid of harmless things.
As someone who suffers from a chiroptophobia, the fear of bats, I can attest to the lack of humor in any situation when I meet one. Trying to explain to someone why you are so afraid of something they perceive as harmless is not only difficult, it’s embarrassing, and I get teased by my own family for being afraid of something as “cute” as bats. But I have no control over my fear. Whenever I’m confronted with bats I break into hysterics. I start crying uncontrollably and I can’t stop myself from running as far away as possible. Scariest of all, I can’t stop being scared. I can try and tell myself the bat is harmless, that I’m separated from it, that overall I am safe, but it does nothing to counteract the pure terror that hits me every time I find myself in a room with a bat. As funny as it seems from the outside, phobias are intensely scary simply because they cause you to be scared beyond your control. Hollywood’s portrayal of the ridiculous phobia trope does a disservice to a very real anxiety disorder and the people who have to live with it.
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“Monk - Monk's Phobias (Paley Center).” Perf. Ray Richmond, David Hoberman, Ted Levine, Tony Shalhoub. The Paley Center For Media, 17 Dec. 2009. Web. 08 Mar. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdsPCFX3tc8>
Hatfield, Heather, and Brunilda Nazario, MD. "The Fear Factor: Phobias." WebMD. Web. 8 Mar. 2015. <http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/fear-factor-phobias>
"Specific Phobias." Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. Web. 7 Mar. 2015. <http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/specific-phobias>
Rogge, MD, Timothy, et all. "Phobia - Simple/specific." MedlinePlus. Web. 8 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000956.htm>
"Specific Phobias." National Institute of Mental Health, NIMH. Web. 8 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/specific-phobias.shtml>
A Charlie Brown Christmas. Dir. Bill Melendez. Perfs. Ann Altieri, Chris Doran and Sally Dryer. CBS. 9 Dec. 1965. Television.
“Who Loves Orange Soda?” Kenan & Kel. Nickelodeon. 27 Sept. 1997. Television.
“The Ornithophobia Diffusion.” The Big Bang Theory. CBS. 10 Nov. 2011. Television.