Wednesday, April 13, 2016

What Are You Afraid Of?, or, Of Heroes and Hang-Ups

It started with a snake. Or rather, a photo of a snake, posted by a Facebook friend—a photo of a large (6-7 foot) black rat snake that apparently found its way into her shed. 

Responses to said photo ranged from “Eek!”, “Ewww!”, and “Yikes!” to the ever-popular “Why did it have to be snakes?” This is a reaction with which I completely sympathize, no doubt stemming from my early exposure to far too many National Geographic specials featuring poisonous snakes. And Rudyard Kipling’s classic story, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” brilliantly adapted by Chuck Jones into an animated 1975 short.  The mated cobras Nag and Nagaina would give anyone nightmares.

My personal interactions with snakes have been brief, harmless, and infrequent thus far, which I fervently hope will continue to be the case. However, that didn’t stop me from a near freak-out some years ago when I almost stepped on one, which was lying across a footpath and doing its best impression of a broken twig. My sandaled foot came down within an inch of its tail, and the snake shot off across the grass as though galvanized, while my toes tried to crawl up my shins. Don’t tread on me, indeed!

One of the most famous ophidiaphobes is, of course, Indiana Jones. Who doesn’t remember him blanching at the sight of a floor literally crawling with vipers and rolling over onto his back, muttering, “Snakes… why did it have to be snakes?” Amusing though that moment is, would Indy be as rootable or relatable without that phobia? A character’s strengths make him (or her) heroic. But a character’s flaws, quirks, fears, and hang-ups make him human.

Sometimes those fears are played for comic effect, providing an opportunity for witty banter or even a romantic clinch when the phobic character leaps into the non-phobic character’s arms to avoid contact with the feared object.

At other times, a character’s fears provide an opportunity for further heroics and personal growth when he works to overcome those fears. Indiana Jones stifles his ophidiaphobia to save himself and his heroine, Marion, from the snake-infested Well of Souls.  In a classic episode of the sitcom M*A*S*H, Hawkeye and Margaret must work through his claustrophobia and her fear of loud noises, first when their unit must evacuate to a cave and then when they have to operate on a patient during a shelling. And in my first historical romance, Waltz with a Stranger, the heroine, Aurelia Newbold—crippled four years earlier in a fall from a horse—takes a big step towards emotional recovery when she accepts a ride from the hero:

She took a step towards Camborne, looked at James again. “It’s about time that I tried, isn’t it?”
            He felt his smile broadening.  “Let me give you a leg up. It will be easier for you to ride in front of me, dressed as you are.”
            Aurelia nodded, and stepped closer to Camborne, now standing as still as a horse sculpted in marble. Just before James moved to help her mount, he thought he heard her say something under her breath; it sounded like “Death to the little mouse.”
            James nearly asked her to explain, but her face—taut with concentration—stopped him.  Instead, he held out his interlaced hands and, as she set her foot in them, lifted her to the saddle.  She scrambled aboard awkwardly, but settled in more quickly than he’d expected, adjusting her seat and draping her skirts over the pommel. Her back was as straight as a lance, her profile serene beneath her hat, though he suspected her heart was beating at twice its normal rate.
            Resisting the urge to cheer, he climbed into the saddle behind her and took up the reins.    
“Home, Camborne,” he ordered, and urged the gelding into a trot.


Which of your favorite characters has a significant phobia, and how is it handled?



  1. I love Indianan Jones and his snake phobia. I like snakes too. They're good for the environment and have a lot more to fear from us than we do from them. That said, I'm not a fan of crickets. I try to trap and release, but sometimes I close my eyes and hope they'll go away.

  2. Not crazy about crickets myself, Shana. They tend to find their way into the house via the garage and scuttle about the baseboards seeking either light, water, or sex, and they make such a racket about it too.