We’re all afraid of something …

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Find a phobia: phobialist.com

Spiders? Sure. Heights? Yes. Phones and ketchup? Enough!

They tell me the platform is 45 feet high, but to my eye it looks 10 times that.

Standing a foot or two from the edge, I imagine what it would be like to fall that distance, the body tumbling end over end until meeting the ground with violent impact. The wind would be knocked out of the lungs. Bones would snap and blood would spray. I imagine this over and over, and it’s this grim train of thought that makes me want to grab hold of something solid and freeze until they send a helicopter to get me.

I don’t like heights, my friend. Don’t like them at all. So, what the hell am I doing standing here, preparing to step off the platform and ride a zip line to the safety of lower altitudes? How did I get talked into this trip to Monkey C Monkey Do in Wiscasset to confront the acrophobia I have completely accepted as a part of my emotional makeup?

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Journalism, that’s why. To write about fear, you have to feel it, and nothing makes me more afraid than being way up here where the birds fly. That’s why I’m counting down from three with an inner promise to not freeze up when it’s time to jump. Will I do it? Will I really step out into empty space in spite of the many voices in my head screaming for me not to?

Tell you later. Why should I sit here talking about my own fear when I could be talking about yours? You people are afraid of everything.

Hold the ketchup

I once knew a man who was afraid of frogs. He was a war veteran, a farmer and the father of 10 rough-and-tumble children. This was a manly fellow who didn’t fear things that could actually kill him, but the sight of a dour-faced amphibian would turn him into a screeching, chair-hopping wreck.

I thought this was the most ludicrous thing I’d ever seen until I met the lass who was afraid of a condiment.

“I have an irrational and nutty fear,” says Megan Parks, “of ketchup. Not even kidding. My entire life. I am scared of the stuff.”

I expected that this phobia was so strange and rare that it didn’t have a name of its own. I was wrong. The fear of ketchup, my friends, is called mortuusequusphobia. How does one develop the fear of an item so commonplace that most of us dump it on our food and eat it?

“I have no idea,” says Parks, of Lewiston. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be irrational. It just freaks me out. The sight, smell and idea of ketchup is just not OK. I don’t know. Eeeek, I just hate it.”

Parks’ fear is hard to top, although many of you tried. A few of our readers reported being afraid of phones, for example. Or, more specifically, of the news that might await on the other end of the line.

“I went through a period of tough years when good stuff didn’t come by mail – certainly not by certified mail – and good news did not arrive by telephone,” says David Vincent, formerly of Lewiston. “So I developed the habit of never answering the phone. I still don’t. I have at home a set of cordless phones with a message service like the old-style answering machines, that lets me hear the message start and thus screen my calls.”

An Auburn woman reports a phobia involving public bathrooms. What’s not to fear? Germs, the possibility of hidden cameras, lunatics lurking in a stall — not to mention the various smells and unidentified substances on floors, walls and sinks. It’s known as lutropublicaphobia.

“I’ll take a tree whenever possible,” she says, “over a Porta Potty.”

Most of you suffer fears that are more mundane and earthly. Lightning, bugs, dogs, death, clowns, cats and – like me – high places. Acrophobia seems to be one of those things you either have or you don’t. There’s really no gray area.

“My fear of heights (and falling) is so severe,” says Mary Burpee, of Lewiston, “that I actually get a hot flash every time I accidentally ride my Wii bike off a cliff.”

“Heights don’t thrill me at all,” says Wendell Strout, the famed animal control officer known to crawl into dark spaces in search or rats, bats and snakes. “Nope. I do not like heights one bit.”

He’s not afraid of large snarling dogs or bats flying about his head. He was a little wary of handling snakes when he first got started, but that fear passed. So what beast is the most likely to put Strout on edge?

“I take more precautions with cats than I do with dogs,” Strout says. “I’m a lot more careful with them.”

The fear of cats – ailurophobia – seems irrational to those of us who love the creatures. But according to Strout, there’s nothing irrational about it. A cat can mess you up.

“It’s the mouth,” Strout says. “The teeth. A cat’s mouth is full of bacteria. And the claws. If a cat gets its claws in you, it’s bad news.”

Cat scratch fever isn’t just the name of a catchy tune. It’s a bacterial infection that causes swelling as the result of a bite, a scratch or a lick from a cat. Medical experts say 22,000 people are diagnosed with the infection each year. Strout says he has seen people with arms swollen up like inner tubes as the result of cat bites.

Bugs? Many of you loathe them, whether they’re bona fide killers like African bees or just ugly little nuisances like earwigs. Entomophobia, it’s called, and I think there’s one crawling up your back as we speak.

“Flying, stinging insects,” says Susan Erika Blood, of Lewiston. “Really phobic. I start doing some semblance of tai chi when one is near me.”

Sometimes it’s not the bug itself, but its choice of habitation.

“Bedbugs,” says Nancy Townsend Johnson. “Bugs. In your bed. That suck your blood.”

And spiders. Arachnophobia is so commonplace, people who AREN’T afraid of the eight-legged horrors are treated with suspicion. With all those legs, those plump bellies and hairy bodies, spiders are in a class all by themselves.

“I play with snakes and catch frogs like a 6-year-old kid,” says Tracy Clark Gosselin, of Lisbon. “Show me a spider and the gut clenches, the shivers go up my spine and I am likely to dance away, brushing myself off like a crazy person.”

Fears often stem from some early trauma. Sometimes a person can remember those events, sometimes then cannot.

Gosselin remembers.

“I won’t enter a corn field anymore,” she says. “I once took a big yellow and black orb spider and web in the face while running between the rows of corn.”

We’ll give you a moment to shake that image out of your thoughts.

The scariest of them all

Like Strout, Richard Burton makes a living out of retrieving or otherwise controlling those critters that few others want to touch. Snake in the shower? Rats in the walls? Fanged creatures ripping apart your garden? Burton is your man. He knows how to corral a creature and he knows what scares you.

“The creature with the most power to make people cringe,” he says, “would be a tie between the rat and the bat.”

Oh, yeah. Bats. They’re just misunderstood.

“Because of old folklore about bats getting into people’s hair and rats spreading the plague,” Burton says, “it has caused a lot of misconception and false fears.”

Easy for him to say, now that he has years of experience under his belt. He wasn’t always so cavalier.

“When I first started doing nuisance wildlife, an attic full of hundreds and sometimes thousands of bats used to cause a little anxiety. After going into a few hundred attics full of bats that anxiety turned to amazement at their ability to fly around me in a confined space and never make contact.

“Soon I learned that if I stood perfectly still they would actually land on me. I have had them crawl to my shoulder, echo-locating the entire time, and then fly off as if I was a tree.

“Bats are exceptional fliers, and the species with the huge colonies, the little brown bat, was all but extirpated last year from white nose syndrome. An ecological disaster and very sad,” said Burton.

Burton, animal control officer for Livermore and Canton has no fear of getting up close and personal with bats, or shooing away vermin, as a matter of routine. But there is one earth-roaming animal that gives him pause.

“What am I afraid of?” Burton says. “People. Animals are predictable, especially wild ones. They will always turn on you if given the chance. People are not as predictable and a lot more dangerous than any animal.”

Burton’s fear of people is more political than visceral. But there are those who fear human company outright to the point where isolation may feel like their only option. This one is called anthropophobia. Ironically, it is sometimes treated through group therapy.

None of our readers admitted to glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, although medical experts say 75 percent of us have it to some extent. The fear of public speaking is often treated with Toastmasters. Or with the time-honored trick of picturing your audience in their underwear.

Such great heights

And that brings us neatly back to this high place on the platform where I’ve been trying to talk myself into making the leap. Heights turn me to jelly. But strangely, not all heights. Airplanes? No problem, I love to fly. At the carnival, I’ll climb on all the rides as long as they move fast enough to blur reality. The Zipper, yes. The Ferris Wheel? No.

Burpee, the Lewiston woman with similar fears, understands this conflict.

“I always book a window seat when I fly; absolutely love looking down from above and seeing all that great stuff,” she says. “And I really want to ride in a balloon over Lewiston – as long as the basket doesn’t rock too much.”

Like me, Burpee isn’t so much afraid of heights as she is of the ground beneath it.

“It’s the possibility of falling that gets me,” she says. “If I’m strapped in or contained, I’m great. If I’m counting on my own poor coordination to keep me from falling and turning into an unrecognizable puddle of goo?”

Not so much. I hear you, Mary.

She’s also afraid of tidal waves, snakes, infants, phones and “planes crashing into my house.” She’s perfectly OK with ketchup, though.

As for me, when the count went from three to one, I jumped off the platform in Wiscasset, surrendering to the 45-foot drop and to the very thin cable that promised to keep me aloft. As is almost always the case with fear, the anticipation of the moment was far worst than the actual execution. I counted down, I stepped into open air and for 10 seconds I rode the zip line to the safety of zero altitude. And the very moment I landed, grateful that the ride was over, a hornet flew directly into my face and the screeching began.

Did I mention I’ve got a thing about hornets?

“Soon I learned that if I stood perfectly still they (bats) would actually land on me. I have had them crawl to my shoulder, echo-locating the entire time, and then fly off as if I was a tree.”

“I won’t enter a corn field anymore. I once took a big yellow and black orb spider and web in the face while running between the rows of corn.”

University survey finds different fears

Interestingly, the results of the Sun Journal’s informal local survey on fear don’t jibe with a recent university study that looked at what people fear in this modern age. In our poll, nobody mentioned identity theft, for example, although most of us understand that it’s always a threat as our existence moves more online every day.

While our readers talked of spiders, snakes and fear of high places, they didn’t mention the threat of poverty, random crime, earthquakes or government surveillance that readers in the other study did.

It’s all good. There are plenty of fears and phobias to go around.

According to the recent Chapman University study on the matter, what Americans fear most are:

* Walking alone at night

* Becoming the victim of identity theft

* Safety on the internet

* Being the victim of a mass/random shooting

* Public speaking

According to the Chapman study, the top five things that Americans are concerned about, as oppose to fear (we’re not exactly clear on the distinction here), are:

* Having identity stolen on the internet

* Corporate surveillance of internet activity

* Running out of money in the future

* Government surveillance of internet activity

* Becoming ill/sick

Source: Chapman University

Expert: Don’t fear a dog based on its breed — except one

People who suffer cynophobia – the fear of dogs – often tremble a little extra around particular breeds. One person might be OK with Aunt Martha’s poodle, for instance, but their legs turn to jelly in the company of a doberman or pit bull.

Not entirely fair, according to Richard Burton, animal control officer for Livermore and Canton.

“Why breeds get the new distinction of ‘killer breed’ is based solely on public perception and media hype,” Burton says. “In the ’30s the pit bull was referred to as the nanny dog (good with children). In the ’70s the doberman was the man killer, ’80s was the shepherd. Shar-peis and chows held (the dubious honor) a brief period in the ’90s, before being replaced by the long-running pit bull,” he said.

“Fears of (certain) breeds of dogs are irrational and without scientific proof. . . . The No. 1 biter in the U.S. is the Lab, followed closely by the Chihuahua,” Burton said.

That said, there is one dog to watch out for, said Burton.

“In Russia they have a breed of shepherd called the Caucasian shepherd that is 200 pounds-plus and is a man killer. Animal control officers are advised to shoot any Caucasian shepherd they encounter because the dog is an old-world breed used by Russian prisons to kill would-be escapees. This dog is one of the most vicious breeds in the world. That is a dog to fear,” said Burton. “In the U.S., dog demeanor cannot be determined by the breed.”

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