Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

It’s Halloween—are you worried yet?

Petri Dishes

Every so often, when I am feeling plucky, I try to write a screenplay that combines all 10 of Americans’ top phobias and market it as a sleeper hit. The protagonist, an evil dentist (fear of dentists) lives in a tall building (acrophobia) with elevators (agoraphobia) that sometimes, for no reason, are full of spiders, snakes, and dogs (fear of spiders, snakes, and dogs). It is a dark (dark) and stormy (storms) night, and he has to get on an airplane (fear of airplanes). The horrifying twist at the end of the film is that a randomly selected audience member has to stand up and give a speech about it to the rest of the theater. It would become a horror classic. According to The Boston Globe, more people are frightened of public speaking than of drowning. I imagine that, rather than shouting things like “Help!” and “I’m drowning,” the especially timid prefer to quietly drown so as to avoid a fuss.

Statistically speaking, only about 19.2 million Americans have crippling fears of things, and our fears tend to be illogical—airplanes (1 out of 20,000 fatality rate) rather than cars (1 in 100); dentists rather than the apparently friendly people who tend to abduct our children.

But these inbred phobias can be powerful. Dating back into evolutionary time, they evoke an era when all we had to worry about were important things like wheels and fire and whether the attractive, brawny caveman in the neighboring cave should have called by now. Back then, people didn’t fear things like public speaking or getting into airplanes, primarily because there was no language and airplanes didn’t exist.

But evolution goes on, whether we want it to or not, bringing us the Snuggie and taking away our ability to solve all our problems with rocks. In the face of new technologies and new worries, even snakes seem somehow outmoded as objects of terror—a relic from an earlier evolutionary time. Forced to confront a reptile or an international financial crisis, I’ll take the reptile every time. These primal phobias are inadequate when you consider the real dangers we face.

So what about the things that really scare us?

The economy frightens a lot of people these days. For me, it tends to fall into the category of things that I fear because I do not fully understand them. I also fear the metric system of weights, and most women.

Once you start worrying, it’s hard to stop. What if I fail that test? What if that other test comes back positive? What if there is one right person out there for me but he lives in a populous urban area, carelessly wanders into the street, and gets hit by a truck? What if the world really will end in 2012 when the Mayans return? What if I do write the Great American Something, but then I keel over unexpectedly and no one can retrieve it from my hard drive? What if fashion changes drastically and forces me to wear leggings as pants? What if the fact that I didn’t enjoy “Where The Wild Things Are” means that I lack the capacity for love? What if something happens to Barack Obama? What if something happens to me before I can change my Facebook profile to reflect more accurately my current interests, things like “being employable”?

What if all the profound thoughts I’ve ever had are just things I misheard at introductory philosophy lectures?

Bad things happen, and you can only be so prepared. Someday, in a hostage situation, I might accidentally use a weird inflection that makes the hostage-taker think I’m casting aspersions on his cultural or socioeconomic background.

And then there are the insidious fears. Sometimes I worry that my friends don’t actually like me but have been pretending because someone is hiring them. Or that the old woman I thought was my benefactor is indifferent to my existence, and I’m actually receiving funds from a strange convict. (That’s the plot of “Great Expectations,” but it doesn’t stop me from worrying about it.)

Even success is frightening. I am terrified that someday I might be elected president of the United States and accidentally activate the nuclear-weapons system because I’ll be trying to talk and eat a bagel at the same time and my comment about the weather will sound like the code signal. Or that someday I will meet George Lucas, but that he won’t like me.

And then the barrage of what-ifs begins again. What if I find love? What if I don’t? What if I find Jesus? What if I don’t? What if I die alone? What if I die surrounded by people? Like a firing squad? What if I get fat? What if by the time I’m fat, it’s illegal, because of the new health-care system?

What if I’ve hurt someone? What if the world runs out of lions?

They say it’s healthier not to worry, to live each moment as it comes. What if worrying is putting me into an early grave? Can I worry about that?

Now I’m going to be awake all night. A simple “Boo!” would have sufficed.

Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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