More of us are petrified of public speaking (glossophobia) than of death (thanatophobia). I suppose if somebody held a gun to my head and said “Speak or die,” I’d start talking. But I am terribly phobic about public speaking and I am very good at avoiding it.
I wasn’t always that way. In elementary school we had public speaking competitions. I always took part because I loved writing the speeches. I just didn’t like delivering them. Nothing particularly humiliating happened, but by grade 9 my dislike of public speaking had progressed into a full-blown phobia and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I still can’t. I can barely handle those meetings where you go around the table and everybody introduces themselves.
My bull phobia is more unusual. It stems from an Incident. When I was 11, my grandfather and step-father decided to get up early one morning to go hunt Canada Geese in the back forty. I hatched a plan to stay up all night and then follow them through the fields and save the geese. I knew I’d get in trouble, but it would be worth it because I was eleven and therefore noble.
My plan, though elegant in its simplicity, was thwarted when I got chased by a herd of cattle. I saw them coming in the pre-dawn light: at first I literally did not believe what my eyes were seeing, because cows don’t stampede. It wasn’t until they were a couple hundred yards away that I finally accepted that cows do stampede. I have never run so freakishly fast in my life – my feet felt like giant springs. The herd, however, was faster. They caught up with me and formed a mean circle with me in the centre. I found myself face to face with a demented bull. (I learned later that the farmer had just rented the bull, and he himself would not set foot in the field while the bull was there.)
The bull was in a rage. He was snorting and tearing up the ground and his eyes were shockingly hateful. The cows weren’t acting very cow-like either. It was so surreal.
I took a step backward, away from the bull. The entire herd took a step toward me, and the circle got smaller. I took another step backward, and again, the circle shrunk. I stopped taking steps backwards. The bull was maybe 15 feet away from me, and he was preparing to attack me. I knew – right down to the core of my being – that my own gory death was imminent.
There was really nothing to do but shake, cry and prepare to die. And wet my pants.
But then something in me told me to start screaming. I’m a pretty quiet person; I’ve never been a screamer. It didn’t come easily or naturally to me, but I started screaming. I hated the horribly unnatural sounds coming out of my mouth.
My screams didn’t phase the bull or the cows, but they carried through that weird pre-dawn silence to the field where my step-father and grandfather were preparing to shoot the Canada Geese. They didn’t know who was screaming or why, but they came running back through the fields firing their rifles. And the herd, mercifully, got distracted and dispersed. I’m not sure what happened next, except I didn’t die that day, and neither did any Canada Geese.
I did get in trouble though. And I did acquire a permanent fear of bulls. There is a name for it: taurophobia.
Here’s a list of phobias, in case you want to name your fear and share it with the rest of us.
Edited August 2/2007 to add this awful photo of a gory goring: