Why Do Statues of Humans Terrify Me? An Investigation
It all started with a horror movie, my confused parents and, ultimately, a urine-soaked My Buddy doll.
Statue in open air gallery in Florence, Italy. Photo: Francesco Carucci/Shutterstock
I'm afraid of a lot of things. Spiders, loneliness, dying in a fiery car crash. It's stuff I should fear, because, justifiably, I don't want to bleed out under a charred Kia, phone bereft of texts, a tarantula creeping slowly toward my face.
My fear of statues makes less sense.
Technically, it's called "automatonophobia," although researchers and psychologists don't really use those fancy Latin terms. Instead, they would call it something like a "specific phobia of statues or things that resemble human beings."
Wax figures creep me out. So do ventriloquist dummies. But for some reason, marble statues scare me the most. Once, walking through the Greek and Roman galleries at the Met, I became so terrified could barely move, an entire room of men with dead eyes and smooth, lifeless skin fixing me into place. Somehow I managed to escape, my social anxieties the only thing to keep me from curling into a ball in the Temple of Dendur.
"It's very common to have fears that aren't common"
I'm not the only person with irrational fears, of course. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that around 8.7 percent of the population has some kind of specific phobia, the most common including snakes, spiders, flying and small spaces.
But what about statues? I decided to ask several mental health professionals about my own fear. It turns out the phobia is rare, but nobody seemed surprised by it.
"It's very common to have fears that aren't common," Martin Antony, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Lab at Ryerson University in Toronto, told me.
Phobias often start in childhood, where traumatic events are capable of leaving a mental residue that can last a lifetime. My conversations led back to one such pivotal moment. It involved a horror movie, my confused parents and, ultimately, a urine-soaked My Buddy doll.
"I wouldn't say this is one of the most common phobias," Ali Mattu, a clinical psychologist at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, told me over the phone. Two other psychologists told me the same thing. All of them had treated people with clown phobias, but never statues.
My online research did turn up one person who shared my affliction: Damian Lillard, the point guard for the Portland Trailblazers.
Gigantic men barreling toward him? No problem. Statues of historical import? Keep them the hell away! (Lillard's management team did not respond to an interview request.)
So, my fear isn't totally crazy. Mattu has treated quite a few different phobias, including his own, which involve bees and sharks. He once had a patient who was afraid of pasta. People can develop fears of pretty much anything, he said. Most of the time, however, they center around something that is inherently dangerous to human beings or at least was dangerous back in the caveman days.
Take snakes. There is evidence that our fear of them is innate, something passed down from a more primal era. A 2008 study from the University of Virginia found that three-year-olds were able to identify snakes hidden in pictures faster than other animals, like frogs and caterpillars. Another study done by researchers at Northwestern University and Stockholm's Karolinska Institute found that monkeys reacted with fear when they saw footage of another monkey freaking out over a snake, but not when they saw footage of another monkey seemingly terrified of a flower.
"There is something hard-wired in them that makes it easier for them to fear snakes than flowers," Antony said. "That doesn't mean you can't be afraid of flowers."
He has treated two people with exactly that phobia. One patient was afraid of hollyhocks, the other sunflowers.
Statues, like flowers, don't pose much of a threat. Very few people have been killed by statues, although it has happened. But the professionals I talked to did have theories as to why people might develop such a phobia.
The Corpse Theory
"Some people theorize that we have this fear of things that look human, but aren't human, because it reminds of us corpses," Mattu said.
That makes sense. Dead bodies can carry disease. We don't like it when people we know die. And if you are surrounded by dead bodies, there is a pretty good chance that something dangerous is lurking nearby.
Mattu theorized that could be why we find the uncanny valley effect so unsettling. Sure, Tom Hanks in The Polar Express looks kind of alive, but deep down you're not completely convinced that he isn't a disease-ridden, rotting corpse.
Beware of Silent Weirdos
Ever been on the subway with a creepy dude who stares at you without making a sound? Basically, a statue might remind us of that guy.
"We may be wired to fear objects that remind us of something that is dangerous or unpredictable," Antony said, "like someone who is just standing there and not moving."
Kids Think of the Craziest Things
"A little kid with a big imagination can see anything," Linda Sapadin, a psychologist and author of Master Your Fears: How to Triumph Over Your Worries and Get on with Your Life, told me.
"They can imagine that the statue is looking at them or judging them," she said. Look at one terrifying statue as a kid and it could color your perception of all statues going forward.
Power of Pop Culture
There are plenty of ways that disturbing images can reach children, worming into their impressionable little brains. Watch Jaws or Cujo on TBS as an eight-year-old and you could be scared of sharks and dogs for life.
I took My Buddy into the bathroom with me, unzipped my fly, and with hot tears streaming down my face, unleashed a stream of pee onto the object of my fear.
"I don't want to be your therapist," Mattu said to me, "but I'm curious if you have any memories in your past related to statues or wax figures that stick out?"
"Not really…" I trailed off.
Then I remembered. I was six. The cloying commercials for My Buddy, the toy doll released by Hasbro back in 1985, had entranced me. I begged my parents for one and eventually they relented.
It was a birthday gift and I was overjoyed, until I saw a commercial for Child's Play. I became obsessed with the idea that My Buddy would come alive and murder me and everyone that I loved. Distressed, I considered the idea of simply throwing the doll away. But my parents had just spent good money on it and the idea of explaining my terror to them didn't seem like an option.
So one day, I took My Buddy into the bathroom with me, unzipped my fly, and with hot tears streaming down my face, unleashed a stream of pee onto the object of my fear. My logic seemed impeccable: Faced with a soaking, smelly doll, my parents would dispose of My Buddy for me, the unfortunate casualty of an honest "accident."
To be fair, it worked. The point, however, is that the intense nature of the incident could have imbued all dolls, statues, and wax figures with a Chucky-like menace. Mattu said it was "definitely possible" that the incident contributed to my phobia, although it might not be the only factor.
"Our brains are association machines," he said. "They make connections between random things."
It doesn't matter if those things are fictional. In fact, many people's phobias stem from TV shows and movies. On Twitter, most of the users who expressed a fear of statues mentioned a Doctor Who episode titled "Blink" that I couldn't finish because it made me so uncomfortable.
The plot involved angel statues that came alive with demonic faces the instant their victims stopped looking at them. Can I say for certain it gave some kid automatonophobia? No, but I'm glad I didn't see it when I was six.
So, what's a automatonophobiac to do?
Exposure therapy, in which subjects are eased into facing their fears, is quite effective in treating phobias, according to every psychologist I interviewed. It's just a matter of wanting to do the work.
My fear of statues, like my fear of holes (it's called trypophobia, please don't Google it), is not anything I feel compelled to address. Rarely am I forced to walk through a hall of statues.
"You don't have to climb Mount Everest if you're afraid of heights," Sapadin said. "But if you can't get into an elevator, that's a problem. You have to make a judgment. Is this OK or is it hindering my life?"
It's possible we'll never know how many people are like me and Damian Lillard. Such phobias are so rare that it doesn't really make sense to spend university money to research them. But it is reassuring to learn how many weird fears are out there. And that if you care enough, they are fairly easy to conquer.