Bookworm: ‘Phobias & Manias’ – A fine line between humor and horror

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“The Book of Phobias & Manias: A History of Obsession”

  • By Kate Summerscale
  • c. 2022, Penguin
  • $20, 256 pages

You don’t know whether to run or scream in fear. Or maybe both. When you see whatever it is that scares you to the point that you’re a babbling puddle of mess, well, it’s no longer a fight-or-flight thing – it’s just plain flight. Funny, you’re normally big and brave, fearless to the end, so read “The Book of Phobias & Manias” by Kate Summerscale. See what other scary things are out there ...

“The Book of Phobias & Manias: A History of Obsession” by Kate Summerscale.

More than 235 years ago, Benjamin Rush, one of our Founding Fathers, started a fad for naming the things that Colonial humans feared and focused on. Then, Rush officially named 18 phobias, including fears of ghosts and rats and 26 manias.

Over the years, says Summerscale, other fears and focuses have been added to Rush’s list but the fact remains that manias and phobias are mostly cultural constructs that indicate how we consider ourselves, what attracts us and what repels us.

Even at times when a “phobia” isn’t really a phobia, this is serious stuff: roughly 10 percent of women and five percent of men have a phobia, and one in eight of them will receive help for it. If you don’t have a phobia, fear not: research shows that you can get one through conditioning, or by exposure to someone with a heavy-duty phobia of their own.

“The Book of Phobias & Manias: A History of Obsession” author Kate Summerscale.

Mania is a little trickier, Summerscale says, because today’s medicine has categorized such things as hoarding, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, and so on. Still, she lists some: The Count on “Sesame Street” had arithmomania. Tulipomania is said to have once made folks extremely wealthy. And klazomania might make you scream.

Germophobes suffer from mysophobia but probably not from ablutophobia, the latter of which would’ve been a problem during a pandemic. John Wayne Gacy likely single-handedly boosted the number of coulrophobes. George Orwell’s musophobia caused a minor (but violent) battle, and Alfred Hitchcock admitted to one rather unique fear.

Homophobia, it should be noted, is not a real phobia. And you won’t believe how 1930s scientists cruelly induced a baby to have doraphobia.

Don’t reach behind that cabinet without looking first. Don’t go into the attic at night. Don’t touch that! And whatever you do, don’t miss “The Book of Phobias & Manias.”

There’s sometimes a fine line between humor and horror, and author Kate Summerscale walks it with authenticity and a delightful delivery that’ll make you want more. Here, you’ll learn about all those things that make you cringe, recoil, or wrinkle your nose in disgust, why they make you jumpy, and how you can be braver. You’ll get clues to solve the mystery of your newest obsession. You’ll see that you’re not alone, that you might have a historical partner with skin-crawling terror. And you’ll feel better about the things that make you want to run: at least you’re not afraid of this or that or that, either.

“The Book of Phobias & Manias” is a serious book, seriously fun, and good for anyone age 15-to-adults. Look for it. It’ll make you scream in delight.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at