Some people waste years in therapy trying to understand where their darkest fears originate. Not me. I know exactly who’s to blame. My own darkest fear can be traced straight back to one man: William Shatner — and to a single, terrifying episode of the TV show he once hosted — “Rescue 911.”
I think lots of us harbor strange fears and phobias. I don’t mean things that we’re rationally afraid of — like dying slowly, or getting cornered at a party by a Scientologist. I’m also not talking about a fear that, if you admitted to it, would only welcome you into a vast, statistical majority. Lots of people have arachnophobia (the fear of spiders) or glossophobia (the fear of public speaking). That’s old news. But what if you had glossoarachnophobia (the fear of spiders speaking in public)? Now THAT would be weird. That’s what I’m talking about — the kind of quirk that would cause your friends to start laughing at you — and never really stop, for basically as long as they knew you. There they’d be in the back of the room someday, watching you accept a Major Civic Award, and they’d be thinking:
“Can you believe that John is terrified of his own armpits? How does his wife take him seriously?”
Well, I have one of those embarrassing fears, and I’m about to tell you what it is. I’m not revealing it in hopes of expunging it — because (as I’ll explain), I’ve already tried and it didn’t work. Instead, I’m revealing my phobia for a simple reason: it’s too comical not to write about. And maybe by reading about mine, yours won’t seem quite as bad. “So I’m terrified of Bob Saget?” you’ll think to yourself. “At least I’m not that Alden Bird guy — who’s scared of . . . ”
Cooking. I’m terrified of cooking. There!
Not all cooking. I can make a sandwich or boil pasta. You probably wouldn’t want to eat it unless you’d been trapped upside down in a pickup truck for about four days, but I can make it work. Instead, my culinary terror emanates from a single, awful source: an utterly paralyzing, totally overwhelming fear of hot cooking oil.
This phobia, which has charted the course of my life — at least as far as my visits to kitchens are concerned — can be traced back to a single night in 1991 when I was nine years old. I had just settled into the couch to watch my favorite TV show on a quiet evening after my parents had gone out.
It started out exactly like an episode of “Rescue 911.”
Rescue 911: The Gory Days
For those of you who don’t remember it / weren’t alive / didn’t watch trashy TV because your family had certain standards / were a bunch of dorks, “Rescue 911” was RIVETING, especially if you were nine years old. What they did was to take real emergencies — usually ones involving young boys just like me who’d gone to sleep on the one night their parents were out of town and woke up to find the house on fire — and dramatize it (and I mean, DRAMATIZE it). This wasn’t a show where fires slowly engulfed homes. We’re talking windows blowing out, alarms screeching, children gagging on thick smoke — all set to a soundtrack that was either ominously tranquil (the introduction was always, “It was a quiet night at home . . .”) or heart-stoppingly suspenseful. Just rewatching the famous opening credits 26 years later does things to my circulatory system that causes dollar signs to flash into my cardiologist’s eyes.
Whenever possible, they’d use the real accident victims as narrators. It was always fun to see these people on camera for two reasons: 1) they were never as attractive as the actors who portrayed them, and 2) Great pains were taken to preserve the spirit of whatever physical quirks the original people possessed. If the guy who got plowed over by a tractor wore a handlebar mustache/mullet combination that made it look like he’d tied a cat across his face, “Rescue 911” made sure their slightly-handsomer actor was wearing the same cat.
The whole thing was hosted by William Shatner, who would walk out from behind a dispatch console or a fire truck with one of those “this is incredibly serious” looks on his face and introduce the next story like it he was FDR informing the nation about Pearl Harbor. If that wasn’t enough, his clothing was even funnier. Poor Shatner always looked like he was wearing Charles Barkley’s suit, which wardrobe staff had decided to secure with rope at all the relevant openings to ensure it wouldn’t come off. This ridiculous get-up prompted one witty reviewer to speculate that Shatner would probably “need the jaws of life to get him out of those suits.” In retrospect, pretty much every appearance by Shatner (whose career was probably in need of a 911 rescue call for him to have taken this gig) was probably at least a solid 7.5 on the Unintentional Comedy scale. Of course I was only nine years old at the time, so I had no way of appreciating this. All I knew was that “Rescue 911” was my favorite show, and back in 1991, I never missed an episode.
On the night in question, my parents had gone out and left me with a babysitter, my neighbor Mike. The first segment on “Rescue 911” that night didn’t seem scary at first. A grandmother was cooking tacos for family dinner, frying the tortilla shells in hot oil. Then one of her grandchildren ran past and caught the electric cord that connected to the fryer. The fryer upended. The hot oil poured onto the boy. More than anything, it was the sound — that hiss — that reverberated deep into my psyche and did some fundamental rewiring in my brain.
At the commercial break, I turned toward Mike and he was still staring at the screen, shell-shocked.
“Uh, I think my whole body just went numb,” I said.
“I don’t think I can feel my legs,” replied Mike.
The Lingering Effects: I’ll Wait in the Living Room While You’re Cooking Bacon
Mike was older than I was, so maybe he was not lastingly traumatized. I was lastingly traumatized. Even 26 years later, I had significant trouble even typing these last few paragraphs without having to stand up to leave the room. To this day I can’t be in the same room as someone frying an egg, or cooking bacon without significant discomfort. Every time I even think about hot cooking oil, my skin starts feeling numb — almost like it has been burned. Sometimes my wife will come in for a hug after she’s done frying onions and I’ll say, “No, please, don’t touch me! It’s not that I don’t love you, I just have a weird phobia!” It’s almost as if I was the one burned that day, not the little kid in the video — like I have PTSD just from watching television. It’s fascinating, really, that ten minutes of Hollywood re-creation could have a lasting, visceral effect on my body.
Exposure Therapy: Fail!
Exposure therapy doesn’t work either — at least it didn’t for me.
Back in high school when I arrived behind the counter of the seafood department at Price Chopper for my first day of work and saw the deep fryer, I didn’t think I’d even be able to walk past it. Imagine having to work next to a bucket teeming with poisonous snakes. That’s what it felt like to me. Just the presence of the fryer was enough to make me light-headed for the first few shifts. The only reason I didn’t quit or fake a shellfish allergy to get transferred to the bakery was that I was too embarrassed to make a scene.
The result was better exposure therapy than any shrink could have dreamed up. Not only did I have to figure out how to walk past the fryer, I had to actually learn to use it. I had to fry french fries, clams, breaded haddock. I never realized the extent to which the general population treats grocery store seafood departments like Long John Silvers. We had one older gentleman who’d come in for a box of fried fish every afternoon. “Cook it hard!” he’d implore me in his raspy voice. And cook it hard I did, even though at first this was — I am not joking here — something that made me see tiny little stars in the upper reaches of my vision. But I did it. And I never actually passed out. Soon, that terrible feeling that constantly said, “The fryer is right behind you — watch out!” disappeared. Instead of standing as far away as possible while I raised and lowered the basket of clams, I had no trouble standing next to the machine. Eventually I was able to clean it after it was turned off. By the time school started again and I left Price Chopper, using the fryer was no bigger a deal than reaching into the lobster tank. When I finally hung up my fish-smelling apron, I was cured. I’d faced down my darkest fear — and won.
Except I hadn’t. I don’t remember when it dawned on me, but it must have been the first time after my seafood stretch that I walked into a kitchen and someone else was frying something in hot oil. My skin got that old feeling again, and the room started to spin. It was the same fear — and it was back. In fact, it had never left. In practice, I was fine. I could do it myself. But in theory, the idea of hot oil still short circuited my brain, bypassing all of the lived experiences, straight back to that fateful night in 1991.
In the end, perhaps it merely comes down to an issue of control. Being able to work the fryer myself versus being terrified when someone else is doing so is not a whole lot different than the old wish of so many weak-kneed fliers:
“I wouldn’t be scared . . . if I could just fly the plane!”
At least I can do that much.