How the internet turned a natural instinct into a sweat-inducing terror.
I’ve been an internet junkie for years; I’ve seen some weird things in its lesser-known corners. But I hadn’t heard about trypophobia until I read the comments on a YouTube video by a beauty guru:
If that seems random, look at this screenshot from the video:
See the print in the background? That’s what the comments were referring to.
What is trypophobia?
It’s the fear of small, clustered holes. Yep, that’s right. It’s not clinically diagnosed as a phobia, and only a few studies examining its impact exist, but a lot more people have it than you might think. Do you feel itchy, uncomfortable or anxious after looking at photos of honeycomb, strawberries, larvae or even soap bubbles and pancakes? Then you might, too.
The science might be inconclusive, but people’s gut reactions are real.
One man I spoke to — Wayne Pyle, from New York — says he and his 7-year-old son are both trypophobic: “He’s pulled on my arm and tried to get away from me if we get too close to something that has texture.” He says the queasiness is “similar to the way some people feel when they see someone vomit or have to change a diaper.”
Pyle’s worst triggers are tripe and holes in peoples’ skin. “I never knew what to call it until the internet came along,” Pyle says.
I also talked to Erin O’Bannon in Boston. O’Bannon has thrown out sweaters because the knit pattern triggered her fear of holes. She gets goosebumps and “can’t focus on anything else for an hour or two” after seeing an image, which stays with her for days after. She even loses sleep, obsessed with the terrifying memory.
Where does trypophobia come from?
The spread of trypophobia leads us — perhaps not surprisingly — to internet comments and social media.
In 2003, a photoshopped image of lotus seed pods growing out of a woman’s breast circulated in chain emails along with a disturbing story about how she came back from an expedition in South America with larvae sprouting from the rash.
“I feel like sometime is crawling all over me even as I send this to you. Be aware,” one email reply says. A couple years later, a blogger coined the term using “trypo” (Greek for “holes”) and “phobia” (Greek for — you guessed it — fear).
Entries in Urban Dictionary followed years after, along with a Wikipedia page.
There’s a thread on Reddit where users share photos they encounter in nature or photoshop to make you want to vomit. Even Kendall Jenner blogged about her trypophobia triggers: “I can’t even look at little holes — it gives me the worst anxiety. Who knows what’s in there???”
The internet can be the biggest fear monger. I didn’t have trypophobia before, but after scrolling through Reddit for five minutes reading people’s stories and looking at those nasty photos, I do now.
Does science support it?
There are only a handful of studies examining trypophobia. One study from 2013 argued it’s more of a disgust rather than an irrational fear and may be an evolutionary response to danger. Basically, these kinds of patterns make our brain think of snakes or other poisonous animals.
More recent research pushes back on this idea. After studying preschoolers’ responses to “trypophobic” pictures, results suggested the visual characteristics of the pattern triggered discomfort rather than a response to actual danger. Researchers suggest this “primitive discomfort” might get worse the more we’re exposed to danger — or a type of mob mentality on social media.
“Trypophobia has probably been exacerbated by some of the images that have been Photoshopped…[However] many individuals have given us histories that show that they experienced trypophobia long before the internet existed” researcher Arnold Wilkins told Motherboard last year.
Irrational fear or not, these photos are undeniably creepy. If you’re a masochist or curious if you’ll feel anything at all, check out these pictures and prepare to shiver: