Back in the earlier days of the Internet, there was a particular document that had my friends and I in a tizzy. It was called “The Phobia List” and it was pages and pages of complicated words based in Latin and the weird phobias they represented.
I laughed along at the idea of being terrified of the color yellow (xanthophobia) or the fear of dancing (chorophobia). As I kept reading I felt I could understand some of these fears, such as the more common fear of small spaces (claustrophobia) and the fear of marriage (gamophobia). The latter one is mostly due to my coming from divorced parents. I like to think I’ve gotten over it. Call me, commitment-loving males.
While reading this list was mostly in good fun, I noticed that my own phobia wasn’t included. I’ve always thought my irrational fear was just that – irrational. I could never quite explain where it came from and why it has stuck with me for so long. But it has. And it still does.
To this day, I remain absolutely terrified of taxidermy.
I’ve always been a huge animal lover. I had dogs and hamsters and ferrets. I loved petting zoos and interacting with mammals and reptiles alike. Even now, my neighborhood dog park is one of my favorite places to go. Except for that one time I went without a dog after my own dog died because I needed some puppy lovin’ and got kicked out for being a creep.
The thought of using dead animals as decoration in one’s home, office, or steakhouse is upsetting to me. Whether they were already dead or were killed for the purpose of taxidermy, I get equally disturbed. I don’t mean to isolate those who create or enjoy the art. I blame my phobic brain.
My earliest memory of my taxidermy phobia occurs at a science museum in my hometown of Philadelphia. I visited this museum multiple times per year as a child. The museum boasts an entire floor of “dioramas,” which is code for “nightmare fuel” or “huge cases of taxidermy in different environments.” I have nightmares about these dioramas even now, in my mid-twenties.
Before I understood taxidermy, I remember looking at the animals, completely transfixed by their size and adorable faces. I wanted to pet them and take them home to keep in my bedroom. I was particularly fond of the buffalo with their horns and hoofs and fur.
That is, until I learned that this was a real buffalo. And it was dead and on display.
Once the reality hit, I couldn’t handle seeing any type of taxidermy. I’d go on field trips to the museum and walk through the diorama hall with my eyes closed. My mom would guide me through until we were past any semblance of taxidermy. I shook all the way through. I felt physically sick. The feeling of impending doom haunted me through those halls and I still feel scared when I picture those glass cases.
I don’t know what I’m actually afraid of. I know taxidermy can’t hurt me. I know it has the same ability to attack me as a painting on the wall or a classy ottoman.
And yet, this fear seems to have given me a sixth sense. I tend to feel when taxidermy is around. I feel weak, anxious, and shaky. I’m almost always right. This premonition makes it easier to avoid my phobia in public places, but it also makes me feel like I’m insane. No wonder I’ve been single for so long.
My worst experience was during an amazing trip my parents took me on to the national parks of Montana and Wyoming. Most of our cabins and hotels had nary more than a deer head, which I was able to handle thanks to the deer head that hangs above our usual table at our favorite down and dirty Italian restaurant back home. I could handle it. But once we arrived in Jackson, Wyoming, my nightmares came to life. Well, the animals were dead. But they were everywhere.
I loved Jackson at first. It had great food and was surrounded by nature. And then we walked down the main strip in town and I noticed all the taxidermy antelope, bobcats, and coyote.
Once again, I had to be guided by a parent while I closed my eyes just to get through the town. This was at least seven years after my initial museum experience, and here we were again. The vacation culminated in me walking blindly without guidance and falling right into a huge taxidermy buffalo. At least I finally got to feel its fur. Younger, more innocent me would have been happy with that.
While a taxidermy phobia seems like it wouldn’t impact my everyday life, it does get in the way. As someone who is hyper-aware of its presence, I notice it no matter where I go. If it’s around, I’m scared. Even if I can’t explain the fear, it lingers.
I also happen to be a terrible sleeper. Much of this is due to the vivid dreams I have that involve taxidermy. I’m trapped in rooms filled with different species where I’m unable to close my eyes. I wake up in a panic and full of fear. These dreams occur several times per week and leave me exhausted, as if I’ve had no sleep at all.
While having a strange, uncommon phobia gives me a lot of material for my comedy, it really is a disturbance. I hope something clicks and it goes away, leaving me to rest and enjoy my surroundings without lingering anxiety over seeing those glassy eyes and furry skins.
After giggling at various phobias on The Phobia List, I realized that my own is a joke to many. My friends think my irrational fear is hysterical. I like to think it’s a quirky part of my personality.
But in all honesty, it’s a fear that follows me throughout my daily life. This is the same for anyone else who sees themselves on that list, or has a phobia that isn’t included.
Until I find the thing that causes my taxidermy phobia to vanish forever, I suppose I’ll just have to stay away from that Philadelphia museum. I hear exposure therapy works but I’d rather accidentally die at the hands of a taxidermy bear than willingly touch an adorable dead creature.
But if you know any hypnotists with taxidermy-free offices, please let me know. Preferably if their office is far, far away from Jackson, Wyoming.