Cosmophobia is a fear of the universe. This phobia includes an excessive unease with the sheer enormity of space, the relative insignificance of oneself when compared to the vastness of the night sky, and the inherit dangers, both known and unknown, therein. Whether or not humanity should have a fear of the cosmos is one of the main ideas within my current writing project, Dying Up There. The protagonist of this piece has a few Earth-bound fears, but will he learn to dread what the cosmos is hiding most of all?
Among the many fears of humanity, one may very well assume that cosmophobia is considerably down the list. Phobias are extreme or excessive fears, and fear is, by definition, “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or is some kind of threat”. Many “common phobias” are quite widespread throughout the human population and, arguably, for good reason.
In many cases, these root fears transcend age, race, and creed. Those phobias common within the general public include (but are certainly not limited to): acrophobia, a fear of heights; astraphobia, a fear of lightning; and pyrophobia, a fear of fire. However, these fears may be justified. Falling from excessive heights, lightning strikes, and uncontrolled fires are all deadly and our ancestors undoubtedly encountered these dangers more often than the average person does today. Thus, a foundation of fearfulness of these examples was laid long ago.
Acrophobia (fear of heights)
The dangers presented by a rocky seaside cliff or by a climb into a tall tree are obvious. Yet, we still frequently hear or read about individuals accidentally (or, unfortunately, purposefully) falling from a great height to their death – rather said person was exercising good judgment or not is often disregarded. Our modern society offers many man-made high places from which to fall. Consider an individual working on the roof of a two story home when a sudden wind develops or perhaps an unaware hiker attempting to cross a rural railroad trestle finds a locomotive rushing in his direction – the height involved makes these circumstances dangerous.
Our parents and guardians warn us at a very young age of the dangers associated with getting a little too far off the ground. How many people do not suffer at least one significant fall as a child? Probably very few. This is perhaps one of the first childhood fears we must readily encounter and address. Many of us carry around the scares or other bodily irregularities that result from such a fall. These experiences may have formed painful memories that we are not eager to repeat.
A desire to want to be on the ground is natural. And one can see a fear of heights perhaps subsequently leading to a fear of boarding an especially impressive roller coaster or of flying in an aircraft from one city to another. The historical human experience has always been a grounded one and our attempts to get off the Earth’s surface for extended periods of time have occasionally garnered very tragic results.
Astraphobia (fear of lightning)
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an average of 49 people has been struck and killed by lightning in the United States each year for the last three decades. Consider that the United States is one of the world’s most developed nations, where ample shelter from extreme weather is usually available. Imagine how those numbers may look for a third world nation where a large percentage of the workforce is employed outside, where weather warning systems are primitive or do not exist at all, and where ample shelter is perhaps not readily available. For every ten individuals struck by lightning, typically one will die and the other nine are generally subject to serious, and often long-term, injuries.
Aside from these statistics, lightning can be concerning or frightening in other ways. Lightning often acts as a harbinger of severe weather, including strong winds, heavy rains, and flash floods. For some, the accompanying thunder can send shivers down the spine. Early humans, given the limitations to their understanding of this atmospheric phenomenon, would have been incredibly weary of lightning.
Pyrophobia (fear of fire)
If you subscribe to the widespread, but by no means universal, belief that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, consider that the fossil record strongly suggests that fire as we know such today did not exist on this planet until 470 million years ago. Wildfires, the great destroyers and regenerators of the wilderness (for mankind, these events are often just destroyers), were limited on Earth for another 50 million years after the first strange appearance of that now familiar flame. Fire on Earth may actually have remained somewhat of an anomaly on the planet until just six or seven million years ago. Roughly two million years ago early humans probably started using fire to cook their food and by 100,000 years ago (and perhaps as many as 1,000,000 years) fire was controlled, as much as could be expected, and used as a tool, heat source, and weapon by human beings. We can freely imagine that there was a steep learning curve involved.
Our ancestors first experiences with fire must have been terrifying, in all possible meanings of that term. Fire proved wildly significant for early man and our ability to use and control fire remains critical to all societies today. The dangers are obvious. We burn. Our belongings and homes burn. We can die from smoke inhalation if we are inside a burning building without ever seeing fire. Fire remains a dangerous, but useful, wonder.That said, there are plenty of reasons to still fear the flame.
These fears have been ingrained in the human mind since our initial appearance or arising on this planet. You might even say that these fears came programmed into our brains, regardless of our evolution or creation. Our phobias concerning these aspects of our existence may be extreme in some individuals today, but those fears have always been part of the package that is the human brain.
As early man could not have understood what was seen above the Earth in the night sky, we can understand why a fear such as cosmophobia was not included in this starter set. Of course, early man may have observed shooting stars and even encountered meteorite strikes, but these events would have been so sporadic that a legacy of danger was never connected. A few even believe that ancient man encountered extraterrestrial visitors at some early point in our collective history. Whether or not these ancient visitors from space came to spread grace or malice is moot, even the most ardent supporters of this argument must concede that these visits were infrequent or limited in scope and, apparently, stopped at some point. Thus, a fear of the cosmos above us did not need to develop. Consider too that much more of the cosmos was visible in our early history – millions upon millions of luminous dots shining down on a prehistoric Earth. The night sky was not bathed in artificial light as today and was certainly a sight to behold. In time, primitive cultures developed and the observable galaxy inspired archaic astrology and theology, but a genuine fear of the cosmos did not take root among early man.
There is research to suggest that some phobias are the product of a learned behavior, however. Our ancestors undoubtedly learned quite early that some representatives from the animal kingdom were more lethal than others. Sure, to fear a giant, hulking bear defending her young is obvious enough, but that’s because the bear is so outwardly large and ferocious. What about our smaller wild neighbors?
Consider snakes for a moment. Outwardly most snakes appear small and are afraid of humans. Snakes may even appear slow and, depending on the time of day, may appear very slow. We often stumble upon snakes, encountering these slithering creatures at times we do not expect. However, we know some snakes are very dangerous. Snakes will bite humans to defend themselves, often injecting lethal venom. This must have been traumatizing to our ancestors – that such a small and often hidden animal, perhaps one even secretly sharing our own primitive home with us, could also be deadly with just a single bite. So, when we encounter someone with ophidiophobia – a fear of snakes – today, we might imagine that there is good reason for that fear. Snakes are still potentially dangerous today and, while an excessive fear of snakes may be restrictive to some people, we can at least understand where the basis of this fear may be hardwired somewhere in the back of our minds.
That brings us to the master of all fears and the creator of a very common phobia in humans, both historically speaking and now. Achluophobia is an abnormal fear of the dark. Since time immemorial, the darkness has terrified mankind. Imagine eons ago – the darkness of the savanna on a cloudy night. A small fire is lit and the flame throws shadows in various directions into high grasses. The backs of you and your two children are pressed into an ancient tree. Just beyond the light of the fire, where the flickers of orange and yellow give way to an unfathomable black, you hear a faint giggle – almost a laugh. Then you hear this disturbing sound again, this time from another direction. These sounds are emanating from a pack of hyenas that linger just beyond the light. These nocturnal hunters can see you just fine, and, by the time you heard the first giggle, had already started to arrange themselves for an attack. Of course, you don’t know this yet. Your mind first has to race blindly down a list of explanations for the strange noises. The black darkness around you has stripped your panicked mind of mankind’s strongest sense – our vision. There is no way to know exactly what and where the danger may be and a plan of escape is equally difficult to formulate, as early man had only rudimentary means to efficiently and safely take the light along.
Thousands of years later, we take the light wherever we go throughout the night. We have lights on our cars. We have handheld lights powered by batteries. We have lights on our phones. We have invented ways to safely and easily light our houses. Still, the darkness lurks just beyond street lights in city alleys and in our yard just beyond our decorative porch lanterns.
Imagine now that there is a power outage in your town. You still intend to leave the house and attend a Christmas party perhaps twenty or thirty minutes away. The ugly sweater you had selected for the occasion is neatly folded on your dryer in the basement. Armed with a flashlight, you sally forth and down the steps into the darkness. You wiggle past a few boxes of Christmas decorations and some old lawn furniture that a careless spouse left out. You kick a box over in the darkness. As you pick up the sweater, the battery in your flashlight dies. Now engulfed in the blackness of your very own home, a giggle – a laugh really – comes from just beyond the unused boxes of Christmas décor. How sure are you that those same hyenas haven’t tracked you down across the millennia when that fire, or flashlight, has finally gone out?
The darkness we know on Earth scares us because the black of night affords cover to our other fears. We are unable to discern the unknown that lingers just beyond the light and our imaginations pack all of our fears into that spot at once. In many ways, being afraid of the dark was both prescribed to early man and learned as time passed. Historic nighttime dangers have been eliminated or tamed. For example, most of us may exit our homes at night and head for the local tavern without fearing an attack from a pack of wolves. However, new threats in the darkness have emerged. As we approach that tavern, we may become panicked if several shouts and a gunshot ring out from a dark alley. Being afraid of the dark is natural for this reason, and perhaps even celebrated in our culture. We have even learned to enjoy the entertainment value of the sensations associated with this fear. Of course, despite our best efforts, the darkness of Earth has never fully been eliminated or tamed. Our lights have only done so much. Perhaps some of us dread the darkness more than others – for some this fear has become a true phobia – only because the dark can mask our other phobias.
For instance, when reading about the scenario of the flashlight dying in the basement, if you imagined the dark recesses of those boxes and lawn chairs concealing a murderous clown snickering at you, then you may have coulrophobia – a fear of clowns. Coulrophobia is one of the new phobias that has developed fairly recently in our society. This list of new phobias is incredibly extensive. Obviously, early humans scratching out a life in prehistory had no concept of coulrophobia. Those early humans could not have known ecclesiophobia, a fear of churches; globophobia, a fear of balloons; or siderodromophobia, a fear of the railroad either. These particulars were not yet known – did not exist – millennia ago. Unless you subscribe to the ancient astronaut version of human history, then early man could not have had mechanophia – the fear of machines. Surely, one of the most modern (and, arguably, man-made) phobias must be hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia – the fear of the number 666. These fears did not exist long ago because such fears simply could not – the subject of those fears were unknown to even the most imaginative of our early ancestors.
This brings us back to cosmophobia. Cosmophobia is the new achluophobia. The vast darkness of the cosmos hides all our newfound worries and concerns about our survival and existence. Our most powerful lenses can only see so far into the cosmos and have always presented us with more questions – more unknowns – than answers. Our probes and machines can only tell us so much before their intricate pieces and gears disappear in the immeasurable space that has always encircled Earth. We have largely mastered our world, and in doing so we’ve suffered some missteps and learned what to fear along the way. Much of what was unknown in the darkness of our world historically speaking is now an afterthought. So, what is the cosmos hiding from us in all that darkness? We look up and wonder.
Considerable knowledge has been gained about our solar system, our intimate corner of the cosmos, just in the last four centuries. Are there any massive asteroids heading our way? What about deadly radiation that seems to seep out of everything in space? When will the sun betray and destroy us? Where the hell are those little green men we were so sure existed? And, should something happen to the only rock we’ve ever known, is there another place in space we can go? We want to know. Our wait for this knowledge will not be a long one.
Soon, we’ll be dragging our fires – our lights – and our couple millennia worth of fears up there to find out. This journey will not be for the cosmophobes among us. In fact, maybe the cosmophobes, no matter how irrational, will proudly announce one day that they were correct and justified in their fear of the universe and all the secrets shrouded above us at night. There’s no doubt that on these early journeys in the cosmos, we will be right back against that tree with a small fire dying in front of us. We will imagine all of our fears waiting for us on the other side. Dying Up There illuminates one possibility waiting in that dark space just beyond the light of man.
So, is there a good reason to be afraid of space? Will cosmophobia ever unseat some of mankind’s more common fears?