My own term for a phobia of mine, from res meaning “object, thing” and sepelo meaning “to submerge, bury.” Or, in terms that don’t showcase my scrappy Latin scholarship, I am deeply disturbed by submerged man-made objects — shipwrecks, submarines, the undersides of floating ships, etc. I’m squeamish about the reservoir near my home (and I won’t swim in the deep parts) because I know that there is a complete ferry bridge and at least one 19th century stone house still standing at the bottom. I will never scuba dive where an old shipwreck is present, and I can’t even look at sonar images without feeling some anxiety.

Like this one showing Wyse’s Ferry Bridge at the bottom of Lake Murray (2005)


I’m fascinated by phobias — their sources, the mechanics of them, the names we give them, what they say about us. Phobias are marked by irrationalism, which is a trait of the unconscious, the imagination, the dreaming part of ourselves — all things that I love and spend most of my time thinking and writing about. A phobia is, to put a twist on a popular Buddhist analogy, the gnarled finger pointing to the moon of a hidden truth about a person. So I probe my fears with the hope that I’ll uncover those truths.

The RMS Titanic may be the origin of this phobia. When I was about eight years old, I watched a National Geographic documentary about the ship that showed Robert Ballard’s deep-sea footage of it. And while that documentary ignited a lifelong fascination (nearing obsession) with the Titanic, it also instilled in me a deep fear of sunken things. I’ve often envisioned what it must have been like for the people who went down with the ship, the terror and panic they must have felt at being swallowed up by something so much larger than themselves and vastly unknown, to be trapped, to drift downward, deprived of air, watching the light dim into total darkness. And when I see a submerged object, I get that same feeling of being trapped, swallowed, frozen and water-logged.

It may also have something to do with the shock of seeing something familiar in an unfamiliar place, and the confrontation with death that such an image represents — something lost, decayed, hollowed-out. I remember being told by a Mormon missionary that the Devil waits in the water, and I think that sentiment reflects the same fear in a way — that something is waiting underneath the surface, something that will consume you and cannot be controlled.

I’m even afraid of things that were once at the bottom of a body of water but have since been pulled out. Several years ago, my husband treated me to a Titanic exhibit for my birthday, and there was, among other things, a part of the hull with a second-class guest room on display, which is awesome but also deeply disturbing. While the teacups and gloves and other things I’d seen in the display cases only creeped me out (in the same way that Victorian post-mortem photos creep other people out), I felt lightheaded, tingly and weightless when confronted with the hull. It may have had something to do with the size of it, but I think it was mostly that the teacups and other things didn’t look much different than other old things with a less loaded past. The hull, however, was unmistakably from the bottom of the ocean — its exterior had the texture of petrified wood, and its edges were ragged.

But then, as I’ve said, fear doesn’t get in the way of my fascination with submerged objects. In fact, it’s part of the intrigue. While I wouldn’t toss myself into the water to swim around a sunken ship off the coast of Cancun, I’ve visited the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, forcing myself to look over the entry railing at the oily shadow of the ship that  lay beneath and all around me. I didn’t do it to conquer my fear but to test it, or rather to test myself, to see if I could stand it. It was the same at the Titanic exhibit, where I walked around the piece of the hull on display, choosing to feel the fear — that floating, hollow sensation that radiates from my core even to the tips of my fingers — rather than miss the rare opportunity to see a part of the ship. I don’t mind fear, in a way, at least not enough to be dominated by it. I’d rather walk with it, arm-in-arm.

I suppose that part of what defines a person is not only what s/he fears but what that person does with that fear, the perspective one has of it. Fear is a doorway between the conscious and the unconscious; it is primal and necessary. By looking into the face of our fears — not to dominate or destroy them, but to examine them — we peer into a deep part of ourselves that would otherwise remain unknowable. So I gaze into my fear, seek to know it and live with it, so that I can more deeply know myself, and so I can experience that loss of control that comes with fear and let it deepen my sense of reality, let in a little darkness to contrast the bright sureness of other things.

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  1. I didn’t know this about you, hon. I knew the thought of a submerged town under Clark’s Hill creeped Chelsi out, but I didn’t realize you felt the same way. It absolutely fascinates me. But I am like you in that I try–in a very tepid way–to face my fear of snakes. I watch programs on TV about them and look at them in the zoo (sometimes). But I get freaked out when they startle me, for instance when I see them on a page or on TV when I wasn’t expecting it. I guess it’s my way of confronting my fears: the more I know about them, the less fear I think I will have of them. But it doesn’t work. I’m still just as afraid as ever. I didn’t know there was a house and a bridge under Lake Murray. Now I’ve got to find out more! I’ve tried to find out about the town that’s under Clark’s Hill Lake but I never could.

    1. It took me a while to get used to snakes, too. I used to get to a point where I would be okay with them, and then I’d have a dream that I was stuck in a room full of them and couldn’t go anywhere without almost stepping on one. Haha But, eventually, those dreams lessened, and I’ve been able to be around snakes without completely freaking out. 🙂 I still have those snake dreams sometimes, but they don’t bother me as much when I wake up.

      I didn’t know that there was a bridge and house in Lake Murray, either, until I started doing research on Columbia’s natural history a little while ago. The information I found is really interesting. We’ll have to talk about it sometime. 🙂

  2. Another from Gwen MacEwan. Eerie…

    Dark Pines Under Water

    This land like a mirror turns you inward
    And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
    The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
    You dream in the green of your time,
    Your memory is a row of sinking pines.

    Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for
    Although it is good here, and green;
    You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
    You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

    But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
    And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
    In an elementary world;
    There is something down there and you want it told.

      1. Yes, fabulous poetry… Maybe one day I’ll manage to spell Gwen’s name properly, sigh.

        Haiku, try this… ‘The Touch of a Moth’ , Fraticelli, ISBN 978-1-896350-50-9… Amazing.

  3. I know this post is 4 years old but I’ve been talking to professionals about this for years. I suffer from this exact fear and yet I still research it all the time. I have no other fears but this and have never been able to shower with a closed curtain or door or close my eyes in water hence my partial loss of vision. I couldn’t even say the word Titanic aloud until I was 10 and even have trouble walking in snow at night and touching cold water nevertheless being in bodies of water, even pools. Even as a toddler before my knowledge of sunken boats, I hated looking at submerged docks and buoys when I waded in lakes.It owns a part of me and even as I write this I find myself having to pull my feet off the floor and tucking them under myself. Even as a young adult I still have trouble bathing and have flashes and images of sunken ships and the ocean when I wash my face. Unlike most people who say they fear “water” I actually have no fear of sea creatures and can swim but only out of fear of drowning. ironically I own the film “Titanic” and tried to watch it once but couldn’t bring myself to actually touch the box. Help.

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