The language of phobia is so common today that we scarcely give it a second thought. Yet it was not until the end of the 19th century that medicine turned its attention to forms of irrational fear, following the initial medical diagnosis of agoraphobia – fear of open, public spaces – by the German physician Carl Westphal in 1871.
Westphal had been puzzled why three of his patients, all professional men leading otherwise full lives, became struck with fear when having to cross an open city space. All were aware of the irrationality of their fears, but were powerless to overcome them.
The idea that individuals who were otherwise sane and rational could nonetheless be afflicted with forms of inexplicable fear was quickly taken up, both in the medical and popular culture of the era. When the American psychologist G Stanley Hall published his Synthetic Genetic Study of Fear in the American Journal of Psychology in 1914 he identified no less than 136 different forms of pathological fear, all with their own Greek or Latinate names.
These stretched from the more general categories of agoraphobia and claustrophobia or haptophobia (fear of touch), to very specific forms such as amakaphobia (fear of carriages), pteronophobia (fear of feathers), and what appears a very Victorian, moral category, hypegiaphobia (fear of responsibility). There was also, of course, ailurophobia: the fear of cats.
This urge to classify created a vivid cultural and psychological map of the fears and anxieties of a society that had experienced the rapid social changes of industrialisation and the decline of religion in the post-Darwinian era. Society was turning inwards, and to the sciences of the mind, for answers.
Hall’s research on phobias stretches back to the 1890s, when he sent out hundreds of questionnaires for people to fill in about the forms of their fears. Many of the answers were from school children. The answers make fascinating reading, although Hall, infuriatingly, only gives us snippets.
There is, for example, the English lady who claimed she had been “robbed of the joy of childhood by religious fears” and had decided instead to turn to the devil “who she found kinder”. A boy of ten was more resourceful and decided to meet his fears head on. Hall wrote of him: “Decided to go to hell when he died; rubbed brimstone on him to get used to it, etc.” A world of possibilities is opened up in that “etc”. What else did the boy do to ensure he ended up in hell?
To our eyes, it is clear that there were obvious social and religious causes for these particular forms of fear. But Hall argued, in Darwinian vein, that fears and phobias are largely the product of our evolutionary past, and come to us as inherited forms from our remote ancestry.
One particular phobia that attracted considerable medical and popular attention was ailurophobia – that fear of cats. Medics themselves tapped into the public interest, writing in the pages of popular magazines. The American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, for example, reworked a paper first published in the Transactions of the Association of American Physicians in 1905 for the Ladies Home Journal of 1906, giving it the far snappier title, “Cat Fear”.
Like Hall, Mitchell also sent out questionnaires, exploring forms and potential causes of fear of cats. He was also interested in the seeming ability of some sufferers to be able to detect, without seeing it, when a cat is in a room. Mitchell collected testimony from “trustworthy observers” of various practical experiments undertaken – cats tempted with cream into cupboards, and then unsuspecting sufferers lured into the room to see if they detected the alien presence. Initially he was sceptical: the hysterical girl who claimed she always knew when a cat was in the room was right only a third of the time. But he concluded that many of his cases could indeed detect hidden cats, even when they could neither see nor smell them.
In trying to account for the phenomenon he ruled out asthma, and evolutionary inherited fears (those terrified of cats are often perfectly comfortable on seeing lions). As to the detection, he suggested that perhaps emanations from the cat “may affect the nervous system through the nasal membrane, although unrecognised as odors”. Mitchell nonetheless remained baffled by “unreasonable terror of cats”. He concluded with the observation that victims of cat fear record “how even strange cats seem to have an unusual desire to be near them, to jump on their laps or to follow them”.
The dawn of the internet appears to have intensified our cultural fascination with cats. Where Mitchell and Hall sent out questionnaires to obtain data on fears, millions now write, in a reversal of roles, to self-declared experts to share their experiences, and have their questions answered. According to one such site, Cat World, one of the most frequently asked questions is “Why do cats go to people who do not like them?”.
Taking a leaf out of Stanley Hall’s book, the answers invariably invoke evolution: the frightened person is not a threat. But like Mitchell, they still seem unable to answer the key question: why do only some people develop such terror in the first place? And that is, of course, another area for today’s researchers.