Sunday February 10, 2013
By MING TEOH
Is a fear of snakes abnormal or natural?
THE year of the water snake dawns. Oh great, just wonderful!
Now, I’m going to be plagued from every angle by pictures, banners, posters, even songs ... all about those slithery creatures. With many newspapers featuring stories on these hissing critters to usher in the auspicious day, I’m going to have to open my papers with a pair of tongs!
I have nothing against snakes. They are just not my favourite animal on this planet.
But would I intentionally go near a snake? No, I would not.
Do I fear snakes? Yes, I guess you could say I do.
Why do I fear them? Is it all just in the mind? Is it something that stemmed from the creation story in the Bible, which I learnt in Sunday School as a child?
Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to do some research on why I have this so-called “phobia”.
I discovered from Wikipedia that an abnormal fear of snakes is known as ophidiophobia or ophiophobia. This comes from the Greek word ophis which means snake, and phobia which means fear, and around one-third of the adult human race suffer from this predicament. In fact, it is the most common phobia to have. I guess I’m not alone in this then.
As I dug further, I discovered that ophidiophobia does not really refer to people who do not like snakes or just fear them because they are dangerous or venomous creatures. In fact, there are theories that this fear is just an instinctive reaction that human beings have towards snakes, due self-preservation and survival instincts, since we would tend to avoid animals that are or seem to be potentially harmful, dangerous or poisonous.
However, someone who suffers from ophidiophobia is not just afraid of contact with live snakes, but even the thought of snakes fills them with dread, as would seeing them in photos or on TV.
That does not really sound like me, after all. I have watched all the Indiana Jones movies – all of which feature snakes – several times and my eyes were glued to the screen each time. I actually found it more exciting than scary. Perhaps that’s because those snakes in the movie were far, far away and I was in no immediate danger.
So, do I have a phobia of snakes, or don’t I? Let’s see: I do not get hysterical – though I might hyperventilate a little – when I pass by the snake area in a zoo or pet store, but pictures, photos, TV documentaries or movies showing snakes don’t really send me into hysterics. And while some snakes may be “pretty”, I would not stare at them like a cute little puppy, kitten or bunny.
So, I guess I can’t say that I am totally ophidiophobic.
But I do have a friend who seriously is. On a girls’ outing to Bangkok, the snake-phobic Eileen (not her real name), I and another friend stopped at the popular Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), and near the entrance, there was this lady dressed in traditional Thai costume with a snake draped across her shoulders. Visitors could get their picture taken with her and her slithery companion for a couple of bahts. For a few extra bahts, they could even have the snake draped around their own shoulders for the photo. What joy!
My two friends and I did not venture near the snake lady – we proceeded nonchalantly to walk past her to gain access to the entrance to the temple, while chatting with one another.
Suddenly, a piercing scream filled my ear and Eileen dug her long nails into my forearm, clutching at me as if it were the end of the world. She was shaking uncontrollably. For a minute, I thought she was having a seizure of some sort. Our other friend stared open-mouthed, too shocked to say or do anything.
“No, no, no ... ” Eileen kept repeating in a frenzy, trying to drag the both of us back to the boat-taxi we had arrived in. She was almost in tears.
We stood there for more than half an hour, stunned and helpless, while passers-by gawked at us.
When we finally managed to calm Eileen down, we discovered that she had a very real phobia of snakes. Even a picture of a python would send her into a cold sweat. She had not noticed the snake-lady while we were nearing the temple until they were less than a metre away, and that was when all hell broke loose.
Needless to say, after that experience, we chose not to visit another place that was on our initial itinerary, namely, the snake farm. In fact, my poor snake-phobic friend decided to sit it out in the boat-taxi and also the tour bus for most of the rest of the trip. She was afraid she would have another snaky encounter at some other tourist spot.
There you have it: a comparison between a real ophidiophobic person and one who just has a natural fear or aversion to snakes.
In a way, I felt relieved after that experience because it made me realise that my “phobia” of snakes was not that severe, after all.
OK, it’s time to whip up some popcorn and watch all those Indiana Jones movies again. After all, Indy is also known for having this fear of snakes. In fact, he has close encounters of the slithery kind in all four movies.
On a positive note, exposure to the object of one’s fear (in small doses, mind you) is one of the recommended forms of therapy to overcome a phobia, serpentine or otherwise.
So, this lunar year of the water snake might not be such a scary one for me, after all.