There are all kinds of acceptable phobias in our world today which garner empathy in people. As children, we feared the dark. As adults, we invented things to assist us with this fear – night-lights and flashlights. A child suffering of achluophobia is not subject for ridicule or torment. Her parents do not follow her around the house in the evenings, switching off the lights when she enters in a room. She is not locked away in the attic or basement. That would be cruel. That would be grounds to call child protective services.
When a spider is discovered in the dusty ceiling corner of your arachnophobic friend’s home, you grab the nearest newspaper and furiously chase the arachnid as it darts down the wall. You shamble behind it as it scurries across the hardwood floor, slamming the periodical spastically in heated pursuit. You attack – lashing an inch to the left of it, two centimeters behind it – until you valiantly strike your target and swat it away into a gooey, black oblivion. Would you send your arachnophobic friend that terrifying Vine video of an amorphous, furry cluster of Daddy Long Legs that descend by hundreds down a powder blue playground slide? Do you make them watch Eight-legged Freaks or Arachnophobia?
Now take that spider, give it a more substantial brain and make it cognizant of its surroundings. Make it live under water. Give it an over-sized eyeball and a beak between its legs. The spider is now twenty-five feet long and aggressive.
The odds of coming across an octopus or squid unexpectedly are slim, making the fear manageable: avoid aquariums with octopus exhibits, refrain from calamari, avoid the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride at Disney World. Those with a fear of cephalopods may realize the hilarity of their dismay, and so when looking for an easy joke in an awkward social situation, from time to time they’ll bring it up for a laugh. This is a mistake, making the phobia a punchline. Doing so belittles the neurosis, waters it down, opens up the window for humor in other social scenarios. Friends and acquaintances taunt the victim. They buy her t-shirts, matchbooks, Christmas cards and toys with octopi on them. They show her excerpts of Oldboy without prior explanation or context, then laugh as she squeals and retreats from the television – a live octopus’ tentacles suckle and stammer across a samurai’s face as he eats it alive. Later, the phobic can be found curled up in a fetal position on a heavily blanketed couch, trying to wash the image from her mind while Titanic plays on the television in front of her.
The phobic’s mother shares a Discovery Channel video on the phobic’s Facebook wall. Some deep-sea photographers go for a dip off the coast of Washington, not far from where the phobic was born. The photographers talk about how one of their own went missing underwater, only to resurface half an hour later exhibiting symptoms of severe post-traumatic stress. They ask what happened. He explains how a Humboldt squid suckled on the tip of his scuba fin. He thought, “How cute. I must keep filming,” and did so. He filmed as the rest of the shoal attacked him with fury, roping their tentacles around his limbs, carving their beaks into his skin, pulling him one hundred feet deeper into the murky depths with carnivorous, tactile fury. The phobic, terrorized but safe in her landlocked home, stops watching before the video gets to the part where a squid removes the diver’s oxygen mask. She sleeps fitfully that night, plagued by a dozen nightmares.
One is left to wonder, with a phobia so deeply ingrained, what the phobic is left to do when provoked with such intensity. On Facebook, she responds, “WHY DO YOU DO THIS TO ME? THIS IS LITERALLY MY WORST NIGHTMARE.” The phobic’s mother responds with a jovial, “Hahahahaha!!!” The phobic’s sister too chimes in with an, “LOL.”
In a final act of self-preservation, the phobic convinces herself that this is just an experiment in prolonged exposure therapy, and since cephalopods are not easily come by and she lives an inconvenient 405 miles away from her mother – her mother had no choice but to employ the technique in an online, public forum. The phobic wrestles with this hypothesis, but to no avail. She simply cannot dissuade her instincts. She is under attack. She becomes agitated and sleep-deprived.
The phobic’s sister bought her an octopus necklace last Christmas – what if she purchased her sister a large mechanical cicada necklace that she found on Etsy for $22.49? Her sister would love it, almost as much as she loved it when a number of the bugs fell from a tree onto her head on the playground in 1993. What if the phobic went to her friend John’s house to play him a segment of the Descent? He doesn’t tell many people that he’s a speluncaphobic, but made the mistake of drunkenly confessing it to the phobic some time ago, and it’s high-time he faced his fears. How about the phobic arranges for a vacation with her mother? An all-American retreat to the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. Her mother has never seen these places. The phobic imagines to the two of them standing over the mammoth bluffs, contemplating their humanity. Her mother will love it! Her mother loves heights! Just loves them!
The phobic is ashamed of herself for lowering herself to such blatantly vengeful tactics. She does not invest in two tickets to upstate New York or in the jewelry. She entertains the small torture of John a bit longer, but ultimately rules against it. She thinks about what she really wants: respect. Or at least, a bit more empathy from her friends and family. That and the sudden extinction of Humboldt and Giant squid.