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.
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.