Sunday, January 20, 2013

Living and gaming with Thalassophobia

There is the ocean..
I rarely, if ever, become personal on the internet beyond what can be deduced about me from my published books. In fact, already in the second installment of my series, "Bloody Peasants", you get a pretty big hint about one of my biggest fears, as the Eldritch Ocean is introduced.

The Eldritch Ocean is a Lovecraftian inspired, immense body of blackened sea, stretching far out into eternity. Its depths are described as housing some of the most sinister, grotesque beings ever born from the minds of sentient beings. These range from insignificant animated specs to gargantuan, warped abominations of which no words in mortal language would suffice. They slither beneath the waves, like enormous, deformed shadows circling around any fool daring enough to submerge in its midst.

Even the mere thoughts about the Eldritch Sea is said to pose a threat to anyone embracing it in their mind. To dabble your mind even in its concepts, trying to comprehend its vastness, has shown gruesome examples of people vanishing in the blink of a moment. Rumors talk of how they would instantly reappear surrounded by the massive pressure of cold, silent water with writhing pale flesh clutching their angle and nothing but a massive, burning eye beholding them as they’re torn apart by blasphemous beings.
Whereas some things are simply not spoken out loud; some things are not even to be considered, because the mere imagination of such would not only tear your mind, but eventually take you out of this world and deliver you to the abhorrent culture of beings lurking in the sea.

And then there is me...
In modern terms, I’ve struggled with Thalassophobia for pretty much my entire life. Besides being a really cool word that’s so unknown that even MS-Word won’t recognize it, it generally translates into a clinical phobia of being in the ocean (although some report very similar symptoms in big bodies of deep, dark water such as a pond or pool).  In this regard, there is a certain overlap to the related aquaphobia, and both can appear with varying degrees, ranging from the person afraid being on a ship in the middle of the ocean, to the one panicking if water is, unexpectedly, splashed upon them.

From a personal observation, aquaphobia can commonly be a fear for the submersion of the head below water, whereas Thalassophobia is commonly triggered by being in the ocean and/or the fear of seeing a huge underwater creature.

I didn’t know about Thalassophobia till a year ago. Ironic, since I’m a clinical psychologist working with anxiety and assume this only shows how relatively rare this phenomenon is. It has been something that’s been present for many years, however. It doesn’t mean I run away screaming when people invite me for a walk at the beach, neither do I have any issue splashing around on lower water. But I don’t have to get far out till I feel anxious and the very thought of being where I can’t reach the bottom terrifies me.
Do a Google, and you might see I’m far from the only person out there. A couple of examples from other people are these;

The specifications for this anxiety seem to vary between people. For me they have always centered around the unknown. That I am absolutely out of my element, that there is nothing I can do and that I’m reduced purely to a victim on these creatures’ turf. Being submerged I can’t call for help, neither escape and in fact, on a countdown till I drown. 

Just imagining what terrors could live beneath the waves, in the lowest parts of the oceans can terrify me. Seen from a purely objective point of view this is entirely irrational (and then again… there were people who for a long time did believe in the existence of a Loch Ness monster) but that’s anxiety at its core. It often doesn’t make sense till you’re actually in it.

For me; just watching the pictures in this link is impossible unless I take frequent breaks to check facebook or mails. Yes, they are excessive, mythical and highly exaggerated. But they make my heart pound, my body tremble and feel cold.
(In other words, if you feel like me, consider yourself warned. These pictures can be nasty. )

This was something my teachers had a hard time understanding in swim-classes back in school, and it doesn’t exactly look manly when you’re at the beach and your friends fire up the competition of who can swim out the furthest. 

And then there is gaming…
It’s ironic how I’ve repeatedly been able to expose myself to such a visual media as movies involving my object of fear, without it being much of a fuss. One would think that scenes like the underwater chase in “The Phantom Menace” would send me running out of the cinema crying (I did, just not for that scene alone). But no. I can easily tell myself it’s only a movie.

And then there are games; when things become too interactive. 

I don’t really like heights or tight, dark corridors either, in the same sense that a few people don’t fancy them that much.  Yet in a game such a Far Cry 3 I happily drive to the highest peak I can find and then over the edge. You know, just to see how far I can fall and still survive in the final moment. I’m weird like that.
I’m not fond of spiders either, but I happily chop them to pieces in Skyrim. The point is; I don’t have a phobia towards them, but I feel the pain of people who do. Especially when ‘those games’ come around…

To remain with Far Cry 3, I’m talking about the oceans. As you may know, everything in FC3 is beautifully done, the landscape lifelike and water seems like water. That’s the problem for me. I can take a quick dip in a shallow stream and franticly get back up on dry land, but in the ocean things become very much lifelike.
At first the water is murky; quickly it becomes dark and you’re stuck in an empty, deep void with strange shapes circling around you. They’re most likely sharks. Not the ones you see on a nice Discovery program. These sharks are assholes, only out to tear you a new one and most likely will. Because the protagonist might as well be wielding a cardboard sword once he’s underwater, as the game makes him virtually defenseless. 

I was downright scared at entering the oceans of FC 3. I have no shame admitting it. It only got worse when I realized there were those fucking crocodiles in the rivers and lakes, who often jump you with that “WRAAAAAAAAAARHH!!!!” jump-scare effect. Very true to nature, very terrifying, especially when the scene folds out with Jason fighting for his life beneath the surface.

In one mission, you are to infiltrate a heavily guarded ship, which of course goes a lot smoother if you swim all the way through the ocean instead of taking the water scooter. After trying two times and spotting what I thought was a shark, I grew terrified at every attempt and finally spent half an hour trying to storm the boat by ship. In fact, I’d rather spend 10 minutes looking for a means of transportation, than taking a swim through that damn ocean.

The game has a nasty tendency to force this upon you, however, if you want to make certain upgrades that require shark-skin. For a long time I skipped this entirely, at least till I got my hands on the rocket launcher and blew the bastards up whenever they swum close to the shoreline. Even then I had to take a deep breath and keep my eyes closed as I dived down to skin them.

This counts for those awful dark pools with the fish-monsters in Half Life. Especially as I played the Black Mesa update and they look much more lifelike. 

As I write this I won’t deny how blatantly silly it might appear to the uninitiated eye. Yet I’ve been surprised at how many people besides me feel this issue with gaming. I refer for example to previous post on, in which the issue is also nailed with Far Cry 3. You shouldn’t take my own points as rants about FC3, because it’s an awesome game.

Yet it shows that more issues certainly exist regarding good games, for some unfortunate people, other than those involving spiders or heights.

So where are we going with this?
I think there are some points worth mentioning at this stage. First and foremost in a more cynical approach, that I am amazed no horror game developer has yet fully capitalized on this. Yes, we’re dealing with an uncommon form within the anxiety spectrum, but still an element (in both senses) that most people can relate to.  Just as spiders, blood, darkness, heights and tight spaces are elements that have some degree of impact on a lot of people, so is the uncharted depths of the world. Especially the ones that _might_ be inhabited by things unknown. 

But besides from preying on the weak from a business perspective, what can we possibly do about it, us poor Thalassophobic people?

Depending on the intensity of the phobia, there might be ways to circumvent it, besides engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy, which is so often used to treat anxiety disorders. Even then there are no guarantees, and the likely means for me to overcome my anxiety would more than likely be to go take a swim out in the ocean. Which is something that’ not going to happen.

Instead, I’ve tried figuring out some safe ways for everyone to try out. While there are other methods, some of them can be unadvisable if not done correctly and often in collaboration with a trained therapist.

1) Light up the room
A cardinal trait of anxiety is how it convinces us in the split of a second that the perceived threat is very real and taking place. Immersion taken to an extreme degree, one could perhaps say about my FC 3-shark experience. Part of going against this is to keep around reminders that you’re not IN the situation; you’re watching something you wouldn’t like to be in yourself, on a computer screen.
I often play with very little light on. It’s an old habit that works great in many games. Yet in this regard, switching on more light, especially at night, helped me somewhat. Some even claimed that buffing up the gamma of a game helped.

2) Get a hold
In the same line of thought, taking a firm holding on your desk, chair, mouse, keyboard, radiator (when not too hot); anything to remind you that this is just a thing happening. Of course this is problematic as a lot of games these days require you to use both hands.

3) The sound of silence. Or Benny Hill.
A lot of horror plays on sound. Something the horror stories in books sadly lack. Watch a horror movie without sound and often something is severely missing. Just look at a game as Amnesia that utilizes more sound than graphic, if you ask me. Same counts for anxiety, I believe.

It can be considered, however, that since stillness of the ocean is something the thalassophobic fears, whether simply turning off the music in these games will help? Personally, I advice putting on some music that either calms you, whenever the going gets tough, OR; something really silly. It is said that few horror moments can really survive to the Benny Hill soundtrack, and to this I must concur.

When Dead Space 1 hit, I was scared shitless by it, till I bound the Benny Hill theme to a button and played it when things were too much. Eventually I adapted by some strange method, and went on without the need for it. Maybe I played it mentally; but to this day both Dead Space games are among my favorites.

4) You’re the ones locked in here with ME!
This wonderful sentence from Watchmen became my mantra for a while, whenever I would feel anxious. In games, so often you take on the role of the protagonist, the one who should actually kick their ass. I’ve had luck hyping myself up against sharks, half life fish and necromorphs alike by the phrase that THEY are the ones who should damn well fear me! Even if I didn’t want to wade into their element, at least I’d make them pay. Using the rocket launcher to blow up sharks was an example, or in other situations it can give you a temporary boost to confront them.
What you’re essentially doing, is channeling your mental flow. After all; fear leads to anger.  Just know this is a temporary solution that will eventually revert to anxiety again.

Some people combine this with listening to very angry music.

5) Look away. Shut your eyes. Take a break. Make it smaller.
There is nothing shameful in feeling this way. Nothing shameful at all.
Sometimes I need to accept this. I need to do something else or take a break before I push through with it. Some people have luck reducing the screen size too, making the threat appear smaller on screen. It seems strange, but I actually see the reason behind it.

And finally…
There has been no other point to this article, other than add to the relatively small collection on the topic, floating around on the internet (pun intended). On top of that, I missed some kind of advice from any page, so I thought I might chime in with whatever knowledge I could share to those guys and gals out there feeling like I do.

Ultimately, we’re dealing with a somewhat rare phenomenon, as previously mentioned. Nonetheless this shouldn’t be an issue preventing us from taking delight in what we love; gaming. I therefore hope I could’ve been of any assistance to someone out there. Just remember that my advice are just that; handy advice. Downright treatment is something best sought out with a professional.

In the future, I hope to do a youtube video about this as well. Till then, take good care!


  1. I know exactly how you feel, I'm 14 and i'I've had Thalassophobia for about 2 years, which is a bummer because my father is a passionate fisher man, and is always nagging me to go on trips with him, but every year my phobia gets worse and worse, to the point where simply seeing a cartoon shark for too long gave me, what i think was a seizure(i have never actually seen one, but that's what i would call what happened to me) sadly my dads so sad about it that he's called me out as a liar, so i cant get therapy, so i was wondering if there where any free, self-healing therapy's you knew of, if you do that would be amazing, thank you.

  2. I've had this forever but I only found out what it was exactly this year when someone told me about Thalassophobia reddit. I think it's probably the vulnerability and lack of control that really bothers me but it really affects my gaming too like you mentioned. I can play horror games perfectly fine without fear but not underwater parts. Even in kids games like the underwater levels in Mario 64 or that metal shark thing in Banjo Kazooie - both used to make me cry as a kid. Nowadays even stuff like Skyrim where it's confirmed that the water holds absolutely no enemies except slaughterfish I still feel incredibly uncomfortable in the water in games. In real life it's even worse. I can go to the pool but just not the deep end and I can't go into the sea. Period. I'm glad I'm not alone at least, because it bugs me a lot, especially where deep or murky water is concerned.