Investigating Phobia

Johnny Moore

 It’s not phobia. Aversion is natural—survival instincts hearkening to more primitive times. If there is a scale, then—one concerning reason and reaction—where lies this chill shooting up my spine, just thinking of insects? Where lies the ducking, swatting, running? The tensing muscles and clenched teeth? The idea of being prey sets me on edge.

Phobia allows use of extended, Grecian terms, filled with twisted syllabics. Melliso-, Entomo-, Arachno-. The words make me want to roll my tongue, speak in accent and hear my boots echo off cobbled alleyways. It’s not often that our mouths are so weighted in language, and this heft speaks to connection and power; they are magic and spellbinding—conjuring stillness and retreat.

I grew up in a centuries-old colonial Farmhouse, with thick, lathe walls and brick facade. The gravel driveway ran a quarter-mile through acreage of wild grass to the main road. The porch wrapped two sides of the place, and I spent afternoons with my brother, Alex, clicking skateboards around the near-rideable surface. Without speed and intent driving the play, wheels caught in mortar, sending a brother into unforgiving walls and porch-columns. Hesitance and uncertainty had no place there. A hammock hung, anchored between trees in the front yard, looking down the rise toward hothouses growing mushrooms in compost and manure. The decay deepened humidity, turned the air against those wading through it. Must came to smell like home.

My mother rented the house for six years after her divorce, leaving our pre-fab development home in Somerset Lake, and with it all of my elementary-school friends, playgroups and barbecues. Alex and I yearned for that life for a while, walking the mile or so back to the clubhouse and swimming pool. We clung to that definition of Americana established in the fifties, just as my parents tried filling their own roles—man in gray flannel suit and woman with casserole dish. But it didn’t last; things got awkward between my mother and the housewives she used to know. She started a career, eventually earning six figures; they kept house. We could almost see Somerset Lake from our land, the cul-de-sacs and few repeated home models. The 2.5 children per household.

Old houses are alive, though. They are heavy where suburban dwellings border fragility. Angsty adolescents couldn’t punch through a wall in the farmhouse, no matter their frustration. Fists met defeat. The basement couldn’t be called such. It was a cellar, damp and haunted. Within the cellar was a lower, root cellar. Light could not enter that place. There was no switch, no door, just an abyss leering from the corner. A gaping blackness near Bilco doors. I left the cellar alone. A workout bench was about the only thing down there. It sat forgotten and rusting. There were eyes down there, and not once could I keep myself from fleeing after a fuse needed flipping—back arched and eyes wide up the bowing steps.


Mellissophobia: honey-bee fear. The translation injures my ego. Sweethearts call each other ‘honey.’ The condiment’s mere existence as a result of natural processes implies magic in the world. They just make it like that. Bumblebees are slow and dopey; their buzz is more of a hum. When bumblebee wings flutter against porch eaves, it sounds like the wood will give first, like a jigsaw in search of some crevice apt for homemaking. Bees seem pretty content going about their business. I could walk through a field of blooming flowers amidst rampant pollination and listen to the sounds of effort undulating the world into vibration, a cracking “OM” through scores of saffron robed monks. No wonder Trappists are known for honey. Beekeeping is communion and calm and humility, or it is gas and force and theft. Depending on your Way, things are corporate or corporeal. Without a measure of respect in Way, authenticity is lost to racketeering, by which I mean that slight stinging sensation at the nape of the neck, whispering you’re being taken advantage of. There’s something unconscionable about this.

As a kid my mother would drop my brother and me at our grandmother’s in Eastern Maryland, then return home to quiet and work. Alex and I would stay for days after our mother left. At the time I thought the trips were vacations, time away from the familiar and routine to see Grammy and run through the dense woodland surrounding her home. Neighbors existed, but only as fragments of structure obscured. It isn’t fair to call the wood uninhabited, but snakes and bears seemed so otherworldly, like they only existed in zoos and national parks, not Grammy’s backyard. Should we have been worried about wolves, too? Anything beyond checking for ticks would be outlandish.

I ran with Alex into the wood, shedding roles of son, student, friend, and grandson so that only brother remained. Not even older brother—sibling. The distinction was arbitrary at best, as Alex was only a year my junior, and growing much quicker than I. Everyone thought Alex was the older brother, and I resented him for it. I lost most wrestling matches, was the poorer athlete. We were on a soccer team together. I played midfield and expended great effort to keep opponents from the goal while running back to support the offense, but Alex was striker, and only seemed to give the game half his attention. He scored the goals. Once he stopped and lay down mid-game. An entire sideline of parents screamed his name in unison, “Alex, get up!” before he returned to earth. No competition existed in Maryland—no report cards, best friends or video games.


The wet air in that coastal forest of oak and pine thickened adventure, as if memory unravels underwater. The air condensed into sweat quickly, from the wood, not the body. Enveloping, oppressing, encouraging, beckoning. After a couple hundred yards the land dove into a steep hillside that looked to have no end. Alex and I leapt over the edge, tumbling and sliding through previous years’ abscission. It took clinging to roots and inclined trees to ascend and return. Extended arms and legs-up. The hill was a cliff, and we took turns saving the other’s life. But we never got lost, just went back the way we came, dirty and damp—the way boys should grow, tired to the bones rather than dazed a stupor of video games, eyes watering, hands cramped and clammy.

On one such romp into woodland, I started running. I can’t remember screaming, but must have, unless instinct engaged legs over lungs. Where was Alex? Had I gone out on my own? Since when are beehives on the ground? How did I get away? Some, at least, must have followed me in through the sliding-glass basement door. It’s the nature of swarm, envelopment. I must have been sobbing, limping upstairs to Grammy and remedy. “I heard a strange noise,” my grandmother said. “When I looked out the window, you were running from the woods, screaming and swatting with everything you had.” Those were not honeybees. Yellow jackets burrow, can nest in ground, exist in malice. Vespula. The genus alone makes me nervous. I think of anger, envy, and blind hurt in those splayed wings and bulbous abdominal structure. Dangling, smug legs taunt me, like a dare to challenge. “Go ahead,” they seem to say, “see what happens.” I can’t even research them without anxiety. Photographs alone invoke reptilian flight or fight reflexes.

At the farmhouse, my mother found a clogged gutter one spring—didn’t think twice before reaching to clear it with the length of her forearm. Instead of dead clutter she found a European-wasp’s nest, very much alive. Another swarm homed in the spacious and vaulted attic, unnoticed until dampening the floorboards enough to plummet the nest into a spare bedroom. My mother had them exterminated, but it took months to vacuum scattered bodies from the carpet. The Bee Room required shoes. The bodies replicated, it seemed.

Spheksophobia is the fear of wasps, but I’m not sure that makes much sense. Wasps should exist beyond the spectrum between aversion and phobia, in the realm of invasion.


Entomophobia: insect fear. The word evokes entombment. Claustrophobia. I don’t jump on chairs. I will kill it. I just don’t want them getting the drop on me. When it comes to bugs, I need the upper hand. I cannot abide whiskered legs navigating arm hair. If something lands on me, or I think something has landed on me, I twitch and jerk. The reaction approaches seizure in its spasm and convulsion. I cringe and withdraw should a girl try grazing her fingertips across my skin. It’s harder than you might think, explaining why you’re so physically and palpably repulsed at such affection. “No tiny touches,” I say.

I duck at whining gnats, the pitch a screaming missile into my ear canal. Mosquitoes bite me at least three times more than others. Horseflies seek me out. My mother always said I was sweet. Give me late fall and early spring—the crisp sweater-weather when all that flies and stings and bites is dead or asleep. Centipedes have too many legs. They are slithering aliens. It doesn’t matter how many times I’m told most insects can’t hurt me, or won’t bite. They will crawl in my ears or tear ducts and take over my brain and eat me from the inside out.

The landlords, owners of Lafferty & Sons, Inc. mushroom farm, cut the acreage surrounding our farmhouse bi-annually. In doing so, they cut homes away from all that lived in the field. Crickets descended. From a distance, they sounded like evening in orchestra. Inside, their quiet music amplified. One night, I woke to my older sister in the hall, attacking a radiator in her underwear with a screwdriver, trying to drive out the lone, periodic chirp that kept her up. One season was earwigs, the next ladybugs, then centipedes. I called the intrusions plagues, for the sheer mass of what invaded. The farm cats introduced fleas to my bed. I remember sore and scabbed legs through years on end. I never could keep from scratching. At least the ladybugs made me feel lucky, that I got a wish when they landed on my clothes and arms. I found that they, too, were a lie. Ladybugs seemed harmless with their polka-dotted Minnie-Mouse veneer, until they flew off and revealed glossy, exoskeletal backsides. I stopped letting them idle.

Butterflies were okay. I shirked moths. Don’t try and tell me they’re the same thing. One is an alien that especially enjoys flitting heavy wings in my face; the other floats, like a visible and vibrant wind. After long enough, the plagues were just another quirk of the house. Every house has its quirks; mine just required an en garde attitude and readiness for squashing things.

If any of this bothered Alex, he didn’t let it show. He grew a half-foot taller than me, but never brought it up. He looked up to me, but I couldn’t get past his looming stature and ability to accomplish without putting in much effort. He learned that indifference was an armor, one that attracted both girls and his own entourage. Alex made the world look easy, and I refused to accept it. It would have been easy to do things his way, but then I’d be following him, which I couldn’t do. I was the big brother.

I had seen him drop the guise. He admired me—I knew it—and hid deep, complicated emotion. Years spanned between the brief moments he’d shed a cicada’s husk for vulnerability. The glimpse would end, and we learned to use action, rather than discourse, to give understanding.

Large, fluorescent yellow spiders with palm-sized leg spans began spinning webs in window frames, most of which were without screens. The whole family let them be. I don’t know if that made them mascots or conquerors. I learned that they’re called the black and yellow garden spider. It was the most disappointing discovery. Everything I read detailed how helpful they are. I kept searching for a description that didn’t use the word ‘harmless’. They were big and glossy, pushing me to give them wide berth. Alex’s stature upset me, his ease and nonchalance, like so many banded spiders encircling a house. But the black and yellow garden spiders were a blessing beneath apparent ostentation. Irrationality can define its own armor.


Johnny is an essayist. He holds an MFA from the University of Montana, and currently writes from a small desk in Wilmington, DE. Should Johnny leave his desk and somehow evade the Netflix event horizon, he will be found out of doors, doing things that others may deem foolish. This includes climbing rocks without proper health insurance, biking through heavily wooded areas, and hiking through said wildernesses, trying to get lost. You can find more of Johnny’s online presence at, and on Twitter @JohnnyRMoore.