Friday, 29 October 2010

Rational fears

It had happened once too often. After the Roundhouse debacle I insisted he got therapy. In the middle of a very enjoyable piece of art theatre there was a spurt of fake blood and the thump of a bullet meeting its fleshy target. And there was K, passed out on the floor: limp, palid and clammy from the shock. It wasn't so much that they believed he was on drugs that marked the turning point. No, my outrage was at having to miss most of the play.

Now, as far as he can recall, the first of these faintings - and probably the root cause - was watching the Oberammergau Passion Play. This vivid rendering of the crucifixion of Christ was made particularly ghastly to his six year old mind by his belief that they had crucified a real criminal. So there he lay, perfectly unconscious, while his mother summoned a local doctor to diagnose the problem.

Alas his fear of blood was to resurface on many a public occasion. There was the production of King Lear at university, during which, at the moment when Gloucester gouges his eyes out, he began flailing wildly with his arms before falling unconscious into the lap of a young lady in the seat next to him. Then there was the convincing self-harm scene involving a pair of scissors in a play at the Royal Court (same reaction, different lady). As for films, he was out cold during much of Scream 2, Face Off, and Highlander as far as I recall (and believe me, I've tried to blank these occasions out myself).

So when I was expecting the Impster, it was clear that if he was to attend the birth without detracting all medical attention from the main event, then something would have to be done. 'But it doesn't bother me,' he said. 'It's a perfectly rational fear and passing out gets away from the problem nicely.' (He always has been immune to social embarrassment.)

So now he is cured of his phobia, but I have a rather debilitating one of my own. This weekend I am going to stay in Dorset. The house is surrounded by beautiful countryside. Do I intend to go for a walk? No. In the city I enjoy nothing more than walking for miles at a time. But faced with the Dorset countryside I become gripped by a familiar terror. Perhaps I will be abducted by a raping murderer and no one will hear my cries. Perhaps just around the next bend a dog is going rush out of a gate, barring its fangs and - as the Impster once put it - 'woofing its head off.' Oh yes, all might seem calm, but there is a very unsettling unpredicability about the countryside.

My feelings towards dogs are pretty much the same as my feelings towards children. That is to say I like the ones I know but have a deep suspicion of strange ones. I'm more than happy to observe them at a safe distance and if they don't interfere with me then I won't interfere with them.

As for ominous men, I've walked past hundreds of drugged up, drunk and mentally unstable sorts while living in London, but have never felt particularly threatened. Yet the raping murderers of my imagination, who crouch unseen within the Dorset undergrowth are a far more terrifying possibility.

The Imspter is at a natural disadvantage in having two bonkers parents on top of all the common neuroses of childhood. She has taken on board my canine phobia, along with a deep-seated fear of the dark. And as readers of this blog will be aware, she does house a rather lively imagination. So at night she will wake screaming about all manner of things, from being abducted by magpies because of the silver embroidery on her pyjamas, to falling down the crack between her bed and the wall.

I would venture that if you know someone who has no fears, you probably don't know them well enough. K has a colleague who has an irrational fear of wet wood. Poor bloke can't even bring himself to look at a lolly stick. And my friend Sarah suffers from a supposedly irrational fear of holes. In her case even I can see that there is a perfectly rational explanation. When she lived in Earl's Court there was a sizable hole in the floorboards of her bedroom, which - given that she used to return very late and very pissed most nights - must have presented itself as a considerable demon to overcome.

Of course knowing the cause of your fears is helpful because it rationalises them. I know my doggy anxieties are due to a particularly terrifying childhood experience. But what K learned from his cognitive behavioural therapy was that his subconscious would respond to an imagined situation (such as a play or film) more strongly than if he cut himself with the kitchen knife. In other words, the further a bloody scene was removed from reality, the stronger his imaginative response, and the more extreme his physical reaction.

Being without fears then must suggest an immense failure of imagination. I would go so far as to wonder whether you can have imagination without fear? Fears are what occur when our belief in reason is suspended. They come crowding in to challenge our rational sense and join the carnival of the imagination. So this Halloween why not celebrate your fears, however rational you like to believe they are?