This year’s Ravencon was their thirteenth time meeting. As such, they had a few panels on thirteen and the superstitions involved. I was on one, and did some research into triskaidekaphobia, or, fear of the number thirteen. It’s actually pretty fascinating really. Did you know that no one really knows why Friday the thirteenth is considered unlucky? Or why thirteen is considered an unlucky number at all? In some Spanish speaking countries, it’s Tuesday the thirteenth that’s a problem, while in Italy thirteen is generally considered a lucky number, but Friday the seventeenth is unlucky.
But what really struck me was the list of famous people with triskaidekaphobia, particularly Arnold Schoenberg, a prominent composer, who literally died probably because of his phobia. He became sick and depressed when an astrologer warned him that a particular year was dangerous because the digits of his age (76) added up to thirteen. As Friday the thirteenth came around (as it does at least once a year, and can up to three times in a year), he spent the day sick and depressed, dying fifteen minutes before midnight. He was also born on the thirteenth. Evidently no one told him that Friday the thirteenth was supposed to be lucky for those born that day. I read that when I was doing research on superstitions some years ago.
It got me thinking. Everyone has fears, many of us have at least one or two phobias of varying degrees, and most of us have a superstition or two. What do your characters have? Is it plot relevant?
Liska, from the Moonlit Memories series, has a phobia of dogs. For good reason, since dogs can tell her looks don’t match her scent and usually act aggressively towards her. It isn’t a paralyzing phobia, but she will definitely go out of her way to avoid them. Violet, from the Hyde Chronicles, hasn’t been given a specific phobia, but she is also of a more nervous disposition than Liska. She also might be developing a phobia of the stairs in the library, or as she refers to them, ‘the stairs of doom’. Another story involved an actress who was extremely superstitious, to the point of being easily manipulated by the belief that she had been given something for luck.
Fears don’t have to be rational. I have a phobia of cockroaches. Actually, it may be less of a phobia, and more of a deep abiding disgust. I know that roaches aren’t dangerous, but I get sick and squirmy when they are around, and have at times forced someone else to kill a particularly large one so I didn’t have to get close. Is that a rational fear? Not really. Am I going to get over it? Probably not. I don’t even like looking at a picture. Same with needles. Perhaps a slightly more rational fear. It doesn’t help that I apparently have bad veins. Last time I needed an IV, it took three times to get it right. The time before that, it took five. Ick.
Having a phobia does not actually measure courage or the absence of it. Even the bravest of people can have a phobia, perhaps of something harmless. Maybe your volunteer fireman has a phobia of birds. I get into conversations with people about their pets, and I can’t count how many people told me they don’t like cats. Most said they were too sneaky. Both my sisters are arachnophobic. I’ve been doing research into Social Anxiety Disorder, for a character that has selective mutism. That doesn’t mean that character is a coward, just that she gets easily flustered in social situations, to the point of having trouble talking.
While the character’s fear doesn’t have to be rational, there has to be some form of exposure. I can’t have a phobia of wolves if I have never seen or heard of a wolf or dog. It is possible to have a phobia of something that doesn’t exist, but they have to at least heard of it. Like zombies. They don’t exist, but there are people who take the idea very seriously. I have a problem with creepy dolls because of a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode I saw at a very young age. I know that toys don’t come alive, but generally can’t watch movies where that is part of the plot. At least, not anything scarier than ‘Toy Story’.
What does your character’s phobia mean for your character? Is it something they will have to overcome? Is it something that will last through multiple installments? For example, Indiana Jones will probably never lose his fear of snakes. Who knows about your characters fears and superstitions and is that going to be a problem for your character? Sometimes, even people trying to help can cause problems.
If your world is different from ours, than the possibilities for phobias can be different too. Is fear of dragons a phobia, or does that count as justified caution? Probably depends on how deep that fear goes. How does your character deal with their fear? Do they face it, fight it, run from it? Exposure therapy can help with a phobia, but that doesn’t mean that being thrown in the deep end is necessarily going to help. Sometimes when it’s sink or swim, you sink.
Anyone want to share their fears?