We can develop phobias about anything and everything. But their grip on our imaginations is also a clue to our evolutionary and personal histories
We are all driven by our fears and desires, and sometimes we are in thrall to them. The American physician Benjamin Rush kicked off the craze for naming such fixations in 1786. Until then, the word “phobia” (which is derived from Phobos, the Greek god of panic and terror) had been applied only to symptoms of physical disease, but Rush used it to describe psychological phenomena. “I shall define phobia to be a fear of an imaginary evil,” he wrote, “or an undue fear of a real one.” He listed 18 phobias, among them terrors of dirt, ghosts, doctors and rats.
Over the next century, psychiatrists developed a more complex understanding of these traits. They came to see phobias as lurid traces of our evolutionary and personal histories, manifestations both of animal instincts and of desires that we had repressed. They identified dozens of irrational fears, among them fears of public spaces, small spaces, blushing and being buried alive (agoraphobia, claustrophobia, erythrophobia, taphephobia).