Saturday, 6 February 2010
Have you ever wondered what it is about stairs that can, for no logical reason instill a totally irrational dread in some people? The boffins have even given it a name; Climacophobia - a morbid fear of stairs.
Like all phobias, Climacophobia is a state of mind, often endured over many years. A psychological scar, possibly as a result of a fall at an early age from stairs or a slope. Alternatively, it could be triggered by seeing someone else badly hurt during a fall.
Let me put the phobia element to one side for a moment and concentrate on the nonsensical, that moment when, as rational human beings, we are temporarily blinded by such an inexplicable terror as to leave us frightened to death by this most innocuous of inanimate objects. This appointment with fear is instantaneous, sudden and unsolicited, it’s a one-off with no previous history, it is irrational and yet it causes our minds to effectively miss a gear and our rational to evaporate into utter dread.
Let me give you an example:
Picture the scene if you will. It’s late at night, you’re alone downstairs, the rest of the family has long since gone to bed. The late movie is over so you decide to retire. You switch off the television, you may have a quick tidy round, check that all the doors are locked. When you‘re happy with your end of evening ritual and comfortable in the knowledge that all is secure, you switch off the lounge light and step into the hallway where you switch on the hall light, which in turn instantly illuminates the stairwell, your stairwell, the stairwell you have been climbing up and down since the day you moved in without a thought. This time however, on this night, something doesn’t feel quite right, you can’t put your finger on it but there's is a knot in the pit of your stomach that wasn’t there a minute ago. A tense uneasiness starts to manifest itself at your very core.
Nervously, you switch on the landing light before extinguishing the hall light, don’t want to be caught out in the dark - in the quiet and at the foot of the stairs. Tentatively you put one foot on the bottom stair. That‘s another thing! Why do all stairs creak? You start your assent. About a quarter of the way up the uneasiness tightens its grip, your heartbeat quickens, you sense that something is behind you and close at your ankles, a malevolent presence that at any moment is going to grab you and haul you back down to confront some unimaginable terror. You dare not look back, for looking back would only cause you to confront your worst fears...
Now, it’s at this point when commonsense goes out of the window and several rather overexcited neurons deep inside your head, decide to empty a bucket full of adrenalin over your brain. The result of this sudden chemical assault, is a burst of energy which sends you racing up the remaining stairs three at a time as if the devil himself were chasing you.
Once at the top of the stairs, you seek refuge behind the bathroom door, throwing the lock as you do so. With your back pressed firmly against the door, your body bathed in a cold sweat, your heart pounding in your chest, you try to catch your breath whilst feeling just a little foolish. You may at this point ask yourself a very pertinent question: What the bloody-hell was that all about? As you momentarily attempt to gather your thoughts, there comes a soft tap-tap-tap which emanates from the other side of the door. When you eventually pick yourself off the ceiling, you become aware of a faint sleepy voice drifting through the woodwork, “will you be much longer love, I need to pee?“ The sound of your partners voice has never seemed quite so sweet.
The above incident happened to me several years ago. I can not offer you any explanation for this momentary lapse of reason, other than at the time, I can assure you it was very real and pretty bloody scary. I really did think that something else was sharing my stairs with me. It has never happened since and hopefully never will again.
The fear of stairs is not just confined to Homo-sapiens. There are many documented cases where animals, especial dogs, have shown a reluctance to climb a flight of stairs where previously there had not been a problem. I know this to be true, as one canine I’m aware of refuses to climb a flight of stairs that leads into a cemetery quite close to were I live.
When you think about it, stairs can often be quite lonely and spooky places, neither here nor there, a sort of no-mans land if you like, exposed, between two floors, neither in one place or the other. It’s worth mentioning that many sightings of ghosts have occurred on or near stairs. Why this should be, I have no idea, other than the possibility that stairs are some kind of portal into the next world, I'm talking ascension theory here people.
To finish: Hollywood is no stranger in utilizing stairs as an effective means of creating a menacing atmosphere to terrorize its audience. Most notably, the scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho; a deranged Norman Bates stabs to death the unsuspecting Mr. Abrogast at the top of a flight of stairs. His agonizing slow-motion fall, as he tumbles backwards into oblivion is a vivid and terrifying moment.
Father Damien Karras’s dramatic finale, as he plunges to his death through a bedroom window and onto a cavernous flight of stone steps in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic Nosferatu, pictured above, which contains arguably the creepiest of all staircase scenes. The emaciated shadowy figure of Nosferatu the Vampyre ascending a staircase to claim his next victim. Now that's the stuff what sofa cushions were made for.