An A to Z of fear

5 December 2014

In our Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition we invited you to contribute to the gallery in different ways, from submitting Instagram photos to marking your height on the wall. For the letter “F” we asked you to leave your fears with us. Russell Dornan presents the most common ones along with a selection of the most interesting.

Our current exhibition, The Institute of Sexology, may have recently opened but the exhibition that occupied its space immediately before it was a highly participative exploration of what it means to be human.

In it, the alphabet ran along both of the longest sides of the gallery, each letter opposite itself; every letter stood for a theme relating to the human condition. On one side, we presented a selection of historical objects associated with each letter’s theme; on the other side the same themes were explored using participatory activities in the gallery so our visitors could engage with those themes directly, simultaneously contributing to the exhibition itself.

 "Three Monsters" and a scare devil on display under F is for Fears in the A to Z exhibition.
[object Object]

“Three Monsters” and a scare-devil on display under F is for Fears in the A to Z exhibition.

“F” stood for fear. Oxford dictionary defines it as follows:

An unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.

In the gallery, two objects represented this theme. Three Monsters is an image from the chronicle of strange births, De monstris, written by Fortunius Licetus in 1668. The Italian physician felt that true monstrosity inspired wonder rather than horror and he criticised the association of monsters with divine wrath.

The scare-devil, a painted wooden figure from the Nicobar Islands, would be set up outside the house of a sick person in order to scare and drive away the bad spirits thought to be causing the disease.

Opposite these objects, we asked you to leave your fears with us by writing them down, crumpling up the piece of paper and throwing it in our bin.

We received hundreds of fears over the summer as visitors passed through the exhibition, abandoning their worst fears with us. Although the bin filled up fast and was emptied regularly, we saved all of the submissions. Since the exhibition closed, we’ve gone through them.

All of the different fears were grouped together and tallied up, giving us an interesting and sometimes touching insight into what our visitors fear most. We begin by listing the top five of these below. Note: we recreated these and have not used any of the original submissions.

Five Most Common Fears

Losing someone






Being alone




Perhaps with the exception of spiders, the above fears will likely resonate with everyone to a degree. They may not be that surprising, but there’s still something reassuring about the fact that so many others are scared of being alone or of failure. Losing people we love, and especially dying, are sadly an inevitable part of life, yet they are also among our most common fears.

From deep and existential worries to the slightly more idiosyncratic. The list of fears was long and varied but a few of us at Wellcome Collection chose the ones we thought were the most interesting. They highlight the range of phobias people suffer from as well as the power and role of humour when people are asked to consider their greatest fears.

Our picks

“Automatic Doors”


“Spiders and a sudden wine shortage”




“Writing in public”


“S not doing her maths homework”


Exploring what scares us and why is fascinating. What physical effects does fear have on our bodies? Why are things scary to some and not others? How can we conquer fear? Why do we like talking about our fears so much? Do irrational fears serve a biological function? Why do some people seemingly enjoy being scared?

We have previously written about irrational fears and phobias after our #CuriousConversations on the subject proved popular.  As scared as humans are (of almost anything imaginable), we’re certainly not afraid of talking about it. Perhaps shedding light on what we’re afraid of helps keep the darkness at bay.

Russell is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection. Special thanks to Sophie Goggins and Muyiwa Osenie for producing and filming the reconstructed fears.