The Book of Phobias & Manias: A History of Obsession, by Kate Summerscale

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Review by Basil Ransome-Davies

This book coaxed me onside before I had begun reading it, for its design and artwork. Its appearance is bold, charming and slightly creepy. On the front cover, the title appears in gilt block capitals vertically arranged on a dark green ground bookending a lighter green panel with gilt partitions and a spider in a gilt-framed circle with one leg extended over the circumference, as if about to prowl. Selected phobias and manias are listed in sub-panels above and below the spider. End papers in the lighter green are sprinkled with black ants.  

The effect is almost itchy, with specimen arthropoda – ‘creepy crawlies’ -taking the rap for a variety of stimuli that freak what the BBC used to call ‘people of a nervous disposition’. Here are living and generally harmless, even beneficial, creatures viewed as lower organisms whose lifestyle and needs bring them into contact with humans. Except not always in a tolerable way, so they become stigmatised as threats. Proverbial nuisances, they are familiar, yet provoke repulsion. Often they are co-opted as rampaging mutant forms in doomy SF and horror movies, leading players in a crowded cast. As the book shows, almost anything can be phobic for someone. In that way occult fears are comparable to sexual fetishes. And yes, sex itself can be both a phobia and a mania. Phew.

So how to describe Summerscale’s work? Micro-history, taxonomy, believe-it-or-not miscellany, highly readable infotainment for a time when digesting the daily news can have you reaching for the sickbag? It’s arranged alphabetically with plenty of cross-referencing. Not short on etymology, either. Classical root meanings are given for modern descriptives. Just as the rigid formal geometry of the graphics seems unable to contain the aggressive spider and swarming ants, so the book’s scrupulously disciplined structure and presentation, (itself a kind of mania?) play with a creative dissonance against the tragicomic oddities of its subject.                 

I imagine I won’t be the only reader to turn first of all to the fuse in my own system – a specific anxiety commonly known as stage fright. Being the centre of attention is usually gratifying for most people. Why not me? Summerscale partially addresses this condition under the heading of Social Phobia, ‘the fear of being scrutinised and judged by others’. Physical symptoms include ‘sweating, stumbling, stuttering’ etc., but to me it had raw character of a dissociative fugue state, a temporary amnesiac ‘away with the fairies’ because I didn’t want to be there in the first place.

Once you have identified the trigger you never pull it, so I simply gave up live readings, sorted. Some phobias are eased by sheer avoidance.  But not all can be dodged. There are, I suspect, a great many situations obliging phobics to face what broke Winston Smith – ‘the worst thing in the world’, the ultimate torture, in the unavoidable course of daily living. In his case it was rats, which sadly for them have few defenders, but ’Erythrophobia’, for instance – a superstitious fear of the colour red – must breed serious difficulties about everything from leaving the house to furnishing it. Hitchcock makes use of this exact pathology in Marnie, of which the eponymous heroine not only can’t stand the colour but as a consequence develops kleptomania to go with it. 

In fact Hitchcock gets more than a namecheck in Phobias and Manias for his (tongue in cheek?) ‘Ovophobia‘ He proclaims himself ‘worse than frightened [by eggs] – they revolt me.’  Anyone who has seen To Catch A Thief will recall the sequence in which Jessie Royce Landis stubs out her cigarette in the molten yolk of a fried egg, giving it a good mash. Revolting? Yuck indeed. And a locus classicus of a terror of heights fatally invading normality is Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo, while Rear Window highlights Monomania and Scopophilia. These vulnerabilities centrally fit the suspense genre and, in Hitchcock’s own words, ‘put the audience through it’ via the torment of on-screen fictional proxies. That’s entertainment?  

Yes it is, and so is Summerscale’s gallery of manias, which includes joke conditions such as ‘giftomania’ and a generally light though sympathetic tone. If phobias are extreme aversions, manias tend to be extreme, obsessive enthusiasms, often with a religious tinge. Also my impression is that phobias incline to be hard-wired and lasting, not always resolvable by treatment, while manias are subject to social change, fashion, volatile ‘waves’ of this or that cultural meme. They come and go. Beatlemania? Yesteryear’s news now the two surviving Beatles are venerable members of society as well as the rock pantheon. Laughter outbreaks among adolescent girls subside in time. As for Egomania, it gets a short entry, perhaps because it is no secret, so prominent, widespread and easily recognised is it in the actually existing world.

Capably researched, with a generous roster of recommendations for further reading, ‘A History of the World in 99 Obsessions’ is intelligent, well informed, serious and imaginative, user-friendly in the best sense and wittily illustrated by someone for whom I have failed to trace a credit.  

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Kate Summerscale, The Book of Phobias & Manias (Profile Books/Wellcome Collection 2022). 978-1300788162814, 259pp., hardback.

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