Were you ever afraid of the dark as a child?
It’s okay to say if you were! A lot of children did not like to sleep alone at night. Every creak in the floorboards or whoosh of the wind sent them into fight-or-flight mode, and that’s completely okay.
The 'fight-or-flight' response is our body's primal reaction to perceived danger, preparing us either to confront the threat ('fight') or to avoid it ('flight'). For example, when faced with a strange noise at night, one child might pull the covers over their head and remain motionless (flight), while another might get up to investigate or call out for a parent (fight).
Maybe those fears were tied to someone breaking into their home. Maybe it was the fear of monsters. Maybe it was no specific fear, but they knew they were scared as soon as the lights went out. If your fear of the dark was (or is) associated with ghosts, you’re in the right place. Phasmophobia is a real fear, even if it’s not listed among other real fears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5. Learn where this fear originates, why it can affect children and adults, and how to treat it.
What Is Phasmophobia?
Phasmophobia is the fear of ghosts. This fear is under the umbrella of “specific phobias” in the DSM-5. People with phasmophobia may experience severe anxiety surrounding the idea of the paranormal. Sleep schedules and day-to-day life may be affected by this fear and hold people back from leading productive lives.
Where Does The Word Phasmophobia Come From?
“Phasmophobia” is a combination of phasm, the Latin word for an apparition of light, and -phobia. “Phobia” comes from the Greek word phóbos, which translates to “fear” or “panic.” This word is the suffix of many fears, from arachniphobia (fear of spiders) to hydrophobia (fear of water.)
Phobias, as it pertains to mental health treatment, is more than just a fear. You can be afraid of spiders but do not need a diagnosis for that fear. Although certain phobias are listed in the DSM-5, less common fears like phasmophobia fall under the category of “specific phobia.” Specific phobias are diagnosed as such if a mental health professional believes they meet certain criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (DSM-5):
- Marked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation
- The phobic object or situation almost always provokes immediate fear or anxiety.
- The fear or anxiety is disproportionate to the actual danger posed by the specific object or situation and the socio-cultural context.
- The phobic object or situation is actively avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting for 6 months or more.
- The disturbance is not better explained by the symptoms of another mental disorder, including fear, anxiety, and avoidance of situations associated with panic-like symptoms or other incapacitating symptoms (as in agoraphobia); objects or situations related to obsessions (as in obsessive-compulsive disorder); reminders of traumatic events (as in posttraumatic stress disorder); separation from home or attachment figures (as in separation anxiety disorder); or social situations (as in social anxiety disorder).
Symptoms of Phobias
Symptoms of phasmophobia are similar to the symptoms experienced by any specific phobia. Phasmophobia, however, directly leads back to the idea of ghosts and the paranormal rather than the fear of something like heights or snakes. People with phobias may experience the following when looking at, being around, or even thinking about their fear:
- Raised heart rate
- Feelings of dizziness, nausea, or unexplainable physical pain
- Hyperventilation or shortness of breath
- Tightness in the chest
- Numbness or tingling
- Extreme feelings of hot or cold
- Insomnia or trouble sleeping
Examples of Phasmophobia
If any of the following situations sound like you, you might be experiencing phasmophobia:
- Ever since you can remember, you can’t fall asleep unless someone is in the room with you. Special arrangements had to be made so you were sharing a room with a parent, friend, or sibling. Otherwise, the fear of encountering a ghost will keep you awake and anxious all night.
- The fear of ghosts keeps you tossing and turning to the point where you can’t sleep at night. You sleep through your alarm clock and end up late for work, getting you fired.
- As the sun goes down, you start to experience intense feelings of dread and panic. It feels almost debilitating, preventing you from attending social events or relaxing in the evening. The only thing you can think about is whether a ghost may appear or be around the corner.
- Not like ghost tours or haunted houses
- Experiencing a brief period after watching a scary movie where you want to keep the lights on at night
- I am having generalized anxiety at night over a long list of fears and worries that involve ghosts, the paranormal, deadlines, the idea of someone breaking, etc.
Is Phasmophobia Common?
Because phasmophobia is considered a “specific phobia,” it is hard to get exact numbers on how many children and adults experience phasmophobia. We do know that millions of Americans experience at least one or more phobias. Some of these phobias are more common than phasmophobia, like the fear of heights or social phobias.
What we do know is that phasmophobia has been a part of human society for many, many centuries. Stories in ancient cultures leading up to today mention the presence of ghosts, including ghosts with violent intentions. When a ghost appears in literature, it’s rarely a good thing!
Ironically, the reason that we know phasmophobia has existed for a long time may be one of the reasons that phasmophobia exists in the first place. Do you think we would have a fear of ghosts if stories didn’t tell us they were something to be feared?
How Children Develop Phasmophobia
Phasmophobia is more common in children than in adults. Why? There’s not just one reason.
In general, a child born to a parent with a specific phobia is more likely to develop a specific phobia, too. There are no studies to say that phasmophobia runs in the family definitively. Still, a parent’s talk of ghosts and the paranormal may influence how a child develops beliefs around these subjects. If a parent tells a child that ghosts are to be feared, the child will likely believe them.
Scary Movies and Stories
Three ghosts visit Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Ghosts terrorize New York City in Ghostbusters. Sleepovers, camping trips, and other nighttime rites of passage inevitably contain a ghost story or two meant to thrill all ages. Ghost stories are hard to avoid, even if you’re a young child. They might be shared by other children at school, camp counselors, or even religious leaders. Even though a parent may tell a child that ghosts aren’t real, it’s hard for many young children to distinguish what is on their screens and what is “real life.”
It is through these stories that children develop the idea that ghosts live among people. And when do we typically see ghosts? At night! The people who tell ghost stories are often the only person that has seen the ghost, leaving many to believe that ghosts only appear to people when they are alone.
Things That Go Bump in the Night
Doing anything alone as a child is scary. Young minds that are left to listen to the creaks in the walls and bumps at night don’t have explanations for what is happening around the house. They likely can’t reason that the plumbing is causing strange noises or the neighbors are stomping too loudly. Unknown noises and disturbances may lead the body to have a physical reaction. This is normal! Our bodies want to keep us safe. For centuries, we have responded to the strange noises (of possible predators and threats) by going into fight-or-flight mode. For a child, this might mean they are paralyzed by fear at nighttime quite often. If these thoughts are associated with the presence of ghosts, the child may grow to associate the idea of ghosts with the physical reaction of fight-or-flight mode.
Another possible source of this fear is magical thinking. Child psychologist Jean Piaget theorized that magical thinking was most common between the ages of 2 and 7. During this time, as they searched for meaning, they attributed their thoughts to what was happening around them.
Most children grow out of this by age 10, but magical thinking may still exist as children age and even become adults. Magical thinking is often a sign of OCD. Some psychologists believe that phasmophobia is an extreme result of magical thinking.
Lack of Logic and Rationale
Keep in mind that children’s brains have not fully developed. The prefrontal cortex is the area that controls rationality and logic. It is the last part of the brain to develop. Until a child is in their mid-20s, the more emotional centers of their brains take charge. This allows fear to pervade and make decisions for the child who has developed this fear of ghosts.
Why The Fear of Ghosts Can Last Into Adulthood
Does this mean that the development of the prefrontal cortex will make the fear of ghosts disappear? Not exactly. For some, yes. An adult may “grow out” of their fear of ghosts alone. But there are several reasons why this fear may also stay with them throughout adulthood.
The fear of ghosts is not something that many people admit they are experiencing. There is a certain shame in having these fears. Not everyone believes in ghosts, and it may be hard to relate to that fear. Unfortunately, the shame around these fears prevents people from getting treatment. A professional may be needed to work through phasmophobia. Without this resource, a child can grow into an adult with trouble sleeping due to the fear of ghosts.
Living Alone For the First Time
A child may fear ghosts for their whole life but may go undiagnosed. Phasmophobia is often more easily managed as a child. The presence of parents, siblings, and pets in the room can quell the fear of the supernatural. Sleeping with the lights on, music on, or other distractions may also help the child sleep at night. As the child grows up and their living situation changes, their fears may be more impactful.
Take the child who shared a room with their sibling for their whole life. At 18, they shared a dorm with a roommate. For up to 22 years, they may have had another person in their room at night. When they moved out on their own, their nights were plagued with anxiety and fear. They might not even recognize that they’ve had an intense fear of ghosts until they had to face the night alone for multiple nights.
We are products of our environment. The beliefs that we hold as a child make a serious impact on us as an adult. If we are raised with the fear of ghosts, even if that fear was not instilled in us on purpose, that fear can hold a tight grasp on our mindset. When you spend five, ten, or 20 years telling yourself something (i.e., “ghosts are to be feared,” “ghosts are real,” “ghosts are going to haunt me in my sleep”), it’s hard to change your mindset completely. People with the fear of ghosts think about this fear every night as they go to bed. That’s a lot of time to solidify a very limiting belief!
How to Treat Phasmophobia
A person can spend years perpetuating the beliefs that lead to an intense phobia. Therapists, counselors, and even religious mentors can intervene and break the cycle. Sometimes, a third, trusted party is what a person needs to see the world outside of their fears.
If you are considering therapy or counseling, be upfront about your phobia in your initial consultations with professionals. There are many approaches to treating phobias. One therapist may use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT to help the patient assess their thoughts and recognize how those thoughts are contributing to their phobias. Another therapist may try flooding therapy or systematic desensitization. Depending on the patient’s medical history and current treatment plan, a therapist may refer the patient to a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication to the patient. Not all therapists are the same, so it’s important to find one that is the best fit for you and your experiences.
- Thanatophobia: fear of death
- Nyctophobia: fear of the dark
- Teraphobia: fear of monsters
- Eisoptrophobia: fear of mirrors
- Autophobia: fear of being alone