(FEAR OF) BEING BURIED ALIVE
A convincing case that it's the worst way to go
By David Rakoff
Vivisepulturophobiathe fear of being buried aliveis more sophisticated, more existentially bleak, than claustrophobia. It nullifies the most basic human egocentrismthat the universe gives a damn about our whereabouts. Rest assured: You will never be found, certainly not in this lifetime.
As a 15-year-old, camping near the Dead Sea, I blithely explored a series of caves, some natural, some clandestine cisterns carved out by Israelite zealots 2,000 years ago. More than two decades later, my throat closes up in panic at the memory of crawling on my stomach through lightless, birth-canal-narrow sandstone tunnels.
A cave is all well and good, but it still gives you room to flail, scream, and claw with bloody fingers on the rock walls. How much worse to be immobilized? Hemmed in by rock or sandor even ice. Apparently, glaciologists in Norway have come up with a novel way to gather data: They carve tunnels into the core of a glacier using hot water, then climb through this frigid warrenhundreds and hundreds of feet downamassing information. They have to work fast; in short order, the enormous pressure of the glacial mass overhead reduces each capacious passage to walkway to crawl space to eventually nothing at all.
Pressure is the force that separates the men from the boys, phobiawise. Think about the cumulative weight of that sand, earth, ice, what have you. It only starts with suffocation: the slow, inexorable squeezing of air from your lungs. Take it to the next level by contemplating the uncomfortable constriction of the thorax, the rush of blood out to the extremities, your hands and feet swollen and full to bursting. And what is that sound? Why, it's the groan of your pelvis buckling under. See it all clearly as your eyes emerge Marty FeldmanÐe from their sockets, the lids pried open like the gaps in a fat man's shirt. And there you are, marking each torment as it comes. A martyrdom too gruesome even for the most devout saints.
But that's just me.
David Rakoff is the author of Fraud. He frequently can be heard on public radio's This American Life.
(FEAR OF) SNAKES
They lurk, they bite, they haunt your picnics forever
By Jo Ann Beard
lt was the summer of 1972, rural Illinois. A picnic along the banks of the Mississippi. My friend Elizabeth and I, both 17, were forced to attend as a disciplinary measure. We were wearing gauzy peasant shirts and sullen expressions, and were nursing stupendous, temple-clutching hangovers. While the rest of my family bustled around lighting grills and slapping hamburger into patties, Elizabeth and I winced our way barefoot down to the water's edge to plunk stones into the current and say scathing things about my mother.
"She ought to try drinking a pint of lime vodka," Elizabeth said darkly, "and see how it feels." Behind her, at head height, something shifted on the low-hanging branch of a desiccated tree.
One of the worst sounds a person can hear is the heavy thump of a big snake dropping to the ground at her feet. One of the worst sights? Same snake, churning around in a wide circle, opening its mouth to reveal a pale-white interior, vaguely plush, like upholstery.
Our loyalty to each other was such that we engaged in a brief but violent shoving match, cartoon characters trying to get through a doorway. The cottonmouth unfurled itself and wound past usfour feet long and stout as a man's wrist, but oddly flattened, like something molded out of clay and pressed into the ground. It slithered down the bank and into the river, lickety-split, like a strand of spaghetti pulled into a mouth.
Thirty years later, I experience startle responses not only to snakes but to lengths of rope, suspicious-looking sticks, and garden hoses, especially black ones draped over a fence or log. I am also spooked by snakish areas, including but not limited to grass, warm roads, stone walls, dirt paths, fields, old barns, sidewalks (trust me), tree branches, and, of course, water.
Being vigilant has worked pretty well, although not perfectly. Once I picked up a garden hose, after carefully making sure it actually was a garden hose, and there was a snake underneath. Elizabeth, on the other hand, recovered just fine and even went on to touch some kind of constrictor with a forefinger during a college biology class. Her professor said we couldn't have seen a cottonmouth that day; too far north.
That's what my father said, too, when we came racing up to the picnic table, hysterical and shuddering.
"Oh, boy," he said agreeably. "Water snakes are big buggers. Scare a guy half to death."
My mother, squinting as she flipped the burgers, cigarette corked in her mouth, turned to consider us, green-gilled and sweaty.
"People who drink too much see snakes," she said.
Jo Ann Beard is the author of The Boys of My Youth, a book of essays.
(FEAR OF) STARS
There's nothing like the universe to make you feel puny and afraid
By Mary Roach
Inside the city, the night sky is more or less a backdrop, benign and one-dimensional. It comes on predictably, like the streetlights, and I pretty much ignore it. There is the moon. Some planets. That spread-eagled hunter who likes to show off his "belt."
Then I go backpacking. Without warning, the stars go thick as gnats and the blackness has ominous depth. You can see the other side of our galaxy. The sudden hugeness overhead unhinges me. I'll look up and practically drop my ramen. It'sÉThe Universe. What frightens me, I think, is the abrupt, mind-slamming shift in scale. Like Alice after the "EAT ME" cake, I am instantly, alarmingly diminishedtiny to the point of disappearing. The longer I look up, the smaller and more vulnerable I feel, dwarfed by something huge and unknowable: God, the evil in men's hearts, infinity. I suppose, on some level, that the fear I feel is a fear of death, of insignificance and nonexistence. Or else I'm just a sissy.
Falling stars in particular unnerve me. Forces are at work out there, and they are not human. If there's that kind of weirdness in space, God only knows what's in the woods ten feet away. I spook easily in the wilderness, and I blame the stars.
Mary Roach wrote about Team Playboy X-treme in August 2002. Her first book is due out next spring.