Healthy Boundaries

Fritz Lang, Woman in the Moon, 1929

A community of people with a phobia of holes have made a name for themselves

Amidst the predictable clamour from tech aficionados and social commentators, the 2014 release of the Apple Watch gave rise to a more unusual set of critiques. While TechRadar analysts debated price points and projected sales, and bloggers at Computerworld discussed the act of watch-wearing in terms of performativity, another online community took to social media to describe a more visceral response to the sleek piece of kit.

The watch, members of this community said, was “freaking disgusting,” “ominous” and was going to make a “whole lot of people feel SICK.” In a graphic and, to non-members, surprising comparison, some opined that the Apple Watch reminded them of a Suriname toad giving birth—an event in which several scores of live offspring are delivered simultaneously from holes scattered across their mother’s back. What about the watch had caused such revulsion?  

The design of the Apple Watch’s interface—which displays rounded icons bunched together to improve the ergonomic usability of the small surface area—was the source of the discontent. “Anyone else finding the Apple Watch is triggering your trypophobia?” asked a typical tweet. Trypophobia is an irrational fear of clusters of irregularly-sized holes, whether organic or manmade, and though the -phobia suffix sounds official, the condition is wholly self-diagnosed, usually via community health forums or more popular media in moments when the phobia finds its way into the broader public eye. A Google search for trypophobia throws up top-ranking images before almost all text-based definitions: at present, a hand riddled with holes and Jennifer Lawrence with her forehead pitted and wrecked. So central to the trypophobia diagnosis are these images that some trypophobes not only share the ones they find triggering, but also create, as per the Lawrence image, whole horror-fantasy Photoshopped montages. As the photos circulate, they variously probe the boundaries of the phobia, provide catharsis, are deployed to goad more sensitive sufferers, and ask new viewers whether or not certain visuals have always made them queasy. Depending on the moment and context, the images function as litmus test, traumatiser, community bond, form of therapy, and conversion event.

The production and circulation of trypophobia-like images can be traced back to the 2003 Breast Rash chain email hoax. The email consisted of a gruesome image; the parasite-riddled breast of anthropologist “Susan McKinley” along with various versions of alarmist copypasta text about a disease of foreign origin. That her affliction was foreign was not only a practical storytelling device (making the claim hard to verify as fact) but a convenient act of othering that played on xenophobic fears. The image showed a pale breast riddled with small, deep holes on and around the areola. It was Photoshopped—no known infection causes such symptoms—but the email proved widely successful, sparking imaginations and email forwards around the world. The breast image persists as a trope today, surviving as bait for survey scams and false news links, and occasionally being trotted back out in the comments sections to articles on trypophobia.

The specific term trypophobia emerged a couple of years later on the now-defunct GeoCities site A Phobia of Holes. The site invited users to share stories or information about the fear, and eventually a community member going by the name Louise liaised with a Miss Charlton from the Oxford English Dictionary’s Ask Oxford service to establish a proper noun to describe it. In May 2005 she reported to the group that

the name of this phobia is now trypophobia instead of my previously suggested trypaphobia.  I quote from Miss Charlton’s letter below.

“I should perhaps point out that the -a of trypa represents the ending of a Greek feminine noun, and would normally be replaced by -o- in a combination (‘trypophobia’).”

This was of great interest to me and I am glad that my usage of the Greek was corrected, as my knowledge of Greek is very limited, being almost non-existent.  I am now happy that trypophobia is a correctly constructed word.

And thus with the OED’s grammatical blessing, the trypophobic community began to collate images, triggers and anecdotes in earnest, reporting and commenting on visuals and experiences that induced responses. Such content ranges widely, from the naturally occurring to the inorganic and digitally manipulated. Toads, aerated chocolate, crumpets, Saturn’s moon Hyperion, sponges, soap suds, honeycomb, the mouths of Lamprey eels, and macaroni and cheese all trigger, as do more purposefully gruesome horror-fantasy illustrations of gross bodily deformities and mutilation and Photoshops of unwitting models like Lawrence, shown with their arms, tongues, foreheads, and backs riddled with pits and cavities. Often, the pits and cavities take the form of one of trypophobia’s most widely recognized organic tropes: the lotus flower seed head, with its irregularly puckered pits and bulbous pods. Such engineered images are particularly effective agents provocateurs within online economies of clicks, shares and spread. Along with the other, simpler images of hole clusters, they pass through cycles of internet virality, swelling numbers within trypophobic communities all the while.

But, for all this activity, trypophobia isn’t officially recognized as a word or a phobia. As Miss Charlton primly warned Louise at the end of their 2005 exchange, “there is nothing to prevent anyone inventing and using a new word, but we do not start considering a dictionary entry until we have evidence that it has been in sustained and widespread use for quite some time.” Ten years on, the OED doesn’t recognize the term trypophobia. Perhaps more significantly, trypophobia is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), or really any other scientific or medical literature. Even its presence on Wikipedia proved difficult to establish, the page repeatedly created and deleted for lack of reliable sources.

So, like other communities organized around health concerns but lacking a place in official medical discourse, trypophobes have been left to thrash out the terms and parameters of the phobia for themselves. Sufferers post offending images to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit and dutifully record the symptoms they provoke: “This made my forehead tingle,” “I cried for hours.” Intrepid researchers string together photos into video diagnostic tools (“Ultimate trypophobia test!”) and gather responses (“How many can you get through? Leave your number in the comments!”). Boundary policing has also become a significant aspect of community dynamics, with members who present posts for discussion subject to castigation if their submission is deemed irrelevant. On the r/trypophobia subreddit, which has over 9000 subscribers, one thread considers a photo of pallid, bumpy chicken skin. It’s deemed a contentious post. There is also a larger if implicit phobia mapping at work, with enthusiastic cross-posting occurring between or within sister -phobia or -phile communities. In particular, trypophobia seems to have links to “popping” communities, the members of which trade videos of pimple extraction and cyst drainage.

Alongside descriptions of their symptoms—crawling skin, vomiting, sleep loss and anxiety—trypophobes offer one another coping strategies, words of comfort, motivational quotes, reaction memes, and relatable anecdotes. Many express gratitude for the space to disclose their thoughts and feelings on what is otherwise a private experience: “I thought I was the only one who felt this way,” “I didn’t realise this was a thing,” “I can’t express my relief to share this.” Such intimate exchanges, which echo the supportive ethos typical of other online health forums, are by far the most common, appearing consistently from Facebook pages to threads on NetMums.com.

However, while much of the discourse generated emphasizes shared experiences and affinities, considerable energy is also spent judging trypophobic narrative and reaction types, with a subtle bias favouring the early adopters who played a role in defining what constitutes a trypophobia-inducing image in the first place. There is a related and emergent distinction between those who are truly suffering as a result of their phobia and those who are not: “There’s a difference between being grossed out by a photoshopped picture and crying your eyes out while making pancakes because of the freaking holes that pop in them.” Trypophobes who report chronic, life-compromising consequences—such as prolonged and/or unexpected attacks of debilitating anxiety—resent trypophobias of a lesser order and are especially confused and appalled by anyone who takes what seems a perverse pleasure in poring over the hated images.

Meanwhile, the lesser voices benefit from the ambiguity afforded by irony and pranksterism: “I see the holes, they’re disgusting. I want to smash them. Destroy them. Lol.”  Drawn out, slow-mo shots of pitted skin seem less helpfully inquisitive and more like a tease, especially when layered with “Take a look… is this making your skin crawl?” as a voiceover. But even if this layer of discourse is parasitic on a “purer” trypophobia, it still claims a place in the stream of conversation defining it.

“If you like seeing the latest when it comes to holes, then this channel is for you!” states a dedicated YouTube page, the content from which will doubtlessly be circulated on other social sites later, feeding and fostering a growing awareness of trypophobia. Google trends show a marked uptick in mentions in recent years, with spikes forming around convergence events in the media, such as the release of the Apple Watch, a Buzzfeed feature on the phobia, and a growing presence on reddit. Searching #trypophobia throws up casual affirmations of identification: “This rly set off my #trypophobia. #holes #yuk #lol.” A bacon-ninja asks me “Are you #trypophobic – take the quiz!” Up pops another identical tweet from a beer-loving #social media bro: a bot, most likely. Algorithmically spewed tweets, blogs and posts join the growing white-noise murmur of conversations around trypophobia, seizing upon it because it’s trending or about to trend and keeping it in the spotlight.

As trypophobia’s media presence grows, it attracts more of the casually curious, who don’t always understand the condition and its surrounding discourse. A visitor to r/trypophobia asked, “Who is this subreddit for?? I just..I don’t understand. If Trypophobia produces a nasty, disgusting sensation….why would you actively seek out images that trigger it?” As trypophobes, –philes, and skeptics alike join up, divulging experiences and opinions, that question—and the combination of revulsion, compulsion, performance, and bot programming ungirding it—keeps getting debated. There is no definitive way to medically categorise trypophobia and thus no gauge for the responses it is reputed to provoke, only silo-ed interpretations based on personal experience and input from peers.  That trypophobia triggers reactions along the spectrum of disgust to fascination confirms nothing especially definite save the fact that it has successfully propagated itself in an attention economy.

In 2013, the first peer-reviewed paper on trypophobia was accepted for publication, marking its debut within the scientific community. Drs. Geoff Cole and Arnold Wilkins of the University of Essex suggested that trypophobia be understood in terms of fight or flight “rapid nonconscious” responses or an evolutionary aversion to visual features that signal disease, such as those found among poisonous animals. This explanation, with its valence of scientific legitimacy, may be of comfort to some and could conceivably enable discourse around the condition to take place in more precise terms. After Miss Charlton warned the Phobia of Holes community that the OED was strict about new words, Louise observed that, in some ways, “we can call our fear anything we want!” The statement neatly captures the profound ambiguity embedded in standing definitions of trypophobia. How any degree of legitimation will affect those who identify as trypophobic—or even those who are involved in prosaic discourse around it—remains to be seen, though it seems fair to presume it would have a limiting effect. For now, credit for the acknowledgement by the scientific community can go to Louise and company and the processes they initiated: Cole reportedly proposed the idea of the study to Wilkins after spending time reading about the condition online.