We all experience phobias of a mild or severe kind, crystallising our fears and aversive behaviour around a particular object or situation. Certain typical phobias may be regarded as a normal part of childhood - fear of the dark, of wild animals, of intruders. But the experience of phobia also contains something intensely irrational - why such overwhelming fear at the sight of a feather or the thought of crossing a bridge? It is around this perplexing core that a psychoanalytic explanation reveals the hidden causes of our fears.
Charles and Alfred: theories of phobia
It is not easy to say why, in a particular situation, a phobia is produced rather than an inhibition, or a somatic symptom, or a diffuse state of anxiety. Psychical events have many causes - 'overdetermined' Freud calls it. For any developmental outcome there is a complex play of forces clamouring to be expressed, and it is impossible to predict how the dice will eventually fall. Nevertheless, phobias and phobic phenomena are typical during certain periods of childhood, and adult phobias can often be traced to earlier forms which preceded them. There are two common non-psychoanalytic theories of phobias which have achieved the status of 'common sense'. The first is a biological theory which assumes that phobias, such as the fear of spiders or snakes or high places, are left-overs from our evolutionary past and refer to real dangers faced by our ancestors.
"Most of us have a sense of repulsion if we meet with a snake. Snake phobia, we might say, is a universal human characteristic; and Darwin has described most impressively how he could not avoid feeling fear of a snake that struck at him, even though he was protected by a thick sheet of glass." (Freud 1917).
Freud's sympathy with the argument should not blind us to the fact that jumping away from a striking snake is not the equivalent of a snake phobia. Genetic explanations are also limited in scope, unable to explain the multitude of phobias that actually exist. Further, since we succeed in passing on our genes if we respond to danger in an appropriate way, it is difficult to see how the genetic argument can account for the curious incapacity that overwhelms the person with a phobia when faced with the object of their fear.
The second non-psychoanalytic view is a simple 'trauma' theory, which has achieved the ultimate credibility of being the basis of a BBC television series (Bondy, N and Cable, S. 2000). A child is afraid of dogs because when it was little a dog jumped up to its pushchair and frightened it. Another is worried that Red Indians will attack her at home after she saw the film Calamity Jane. The phobia is a conditioned response to traumatic experience. In the post-Freudian films of Alfred Hitchcock, numerous characters exhibit phobias. The trauma theory is enlisted to explain their motivation or to effect narrative resolution. Thus the eponymous heroine of Marnie has a murderous childhood secret expressed in her fear of lightning and the colour red; the policeman who let his partner drop and suffers ever after from a fear of heights, falls for the wrong girl in Vertigo; the psychiatrist without a past unaccountably fears the white of a tablecloth in Spellbound. When Hitchcock himself was asked if he had ever been really frightened about anything, he would simply reply: 'Always' (Spoto 1983). On other occasions he would tell a story from his childhood. He was always terrified of being alone, but at six years old, after committing some domestic misdemeanour, his stern father sent him to the police station with a note. The duty officer dutifully read the note and locked young Alfred in a cell for some minutes. He was scared of policemen after that, but the experience taught him an important lesson in life: 'Don't get arrested'.
The Birds: representing the inner world
The trauma idea seems a plausible explanation until it is discovered that, for instance, the phobia only develops some years after the alleged traumatic incident, or the incident itself is only known through information given by parents. Tracing the phobia back to the traumatic scenario, we often find a more complex synthesis of factors. In one example (BBC 2000), a paralysing fear of birds and feathers was linked to the moment when a bird flew into the room and could not get out. The child was with her grandmother, unable to cope as the terrified bird flew around the room bumping into things and shredding feathers across the floor. The child, too, became terrified, observing the frantic efforts of the bird to escape and her grandmother's flustered attempts to help it. Psychoanalysts would unpack the elements of this story and give due weight to each: the factor of helplessness, the absence of the mother, the grandmother's fear, the loss of parts of the bird's body, the fear of attack, the sense of being trapped, the birds as embodiment of aggression, the association of birds (in some cultures and folklore) with death, and so on. The traumatic incident is not seen as an aberrant intrusion into the calm waters of a happy childhood but as part of the wider story of the person's emotional life, with its inevitable storms and dangerous currents of feeling...
Bondy, N and Cable, S., producers (2000) Phobias BBC1 Production
Freud, Sigmund (1917) 'Anxiety' in Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis Standard Edition Vol 16
Spoto, Donald (1983) The dark side of genius: The life of Alfred Hitchcock Boston: Little Bron
Ivan Ward is director of education at the Freud Museum London, and a part time lecturer at London Guildhall University. He is the series editor for Ideas in Psychoanalysis, published by Icon Books, and author of Introducing Psychoanalysis, also published by Icon. This extract is from his book Phobia, part of the Ideas In Psychoanalysis series.
Ideas In Psychoanalysis
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