I can still remember the genesis of my trypophobia. One day in the second grade, I stumbled upon a nest of yellow jackets, filled to the brim with milky pustules of larvae. I’m not especially frightened by wasps, but that cluster of worm-filled pores will linger in my mind’s eye for eternity.
As time progressed, my trypophobia—an irrational fear of hole clusters—only grew worse. A nature show featuring the Surinam toad, a harmless little amphibian who carries her babies on her back, would escalate this fear. Seed pods, egg spawns, mushroom arrays, and the abominable “lotus boob” (possibly NSFW) Photoshop were each more paralyzing than the next.
Trypophobia isn’t a clinically diagnosed phobia. You won’t find any mention of it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but its pervasiveness, particularly online, is undeniable. (I reached out to the American Psychological Association in regards to the addition of trypophobia to the manual but have not heard back as of the publication of this story.)
Yet, for a phenomenon so notoriously widespread, we understand next to nothing about the biological mechanisms behind it. Some critics even speculate that it doesn’t exist. This all begs the question: If trypophobia’s origins are really this nebulous, why is it still a thing?
Unlike other notable phobias, trypophobia is relatively new, at least in the English lexicon.
According to Snopes, a disturbing image of a woman’s breast containing lotus seed pods was distributed via email sometime around 2003. The doctored photo was allegedly sent along with “a copypasta story about an anthropologist whose breast was infected with larvae during an expedition in South America,” according to KnowYourMeme. However, I have not been able to independently verify this information.
The actual word “trypophobia” almost certainly first appeared on a now-archived Geocities page called “A Phobia of Holes,” on May 5, 2005. Its webmaster seems to have reached out to the Oxford English Dictionary about the neologism, and possibly even attempted to submit it for consideration as a new word. Until it shut down, the page functioned as an online support forum for “all of us weirdoes who have an irrational fear of HOLES.”
Several years later, trypophobia repeatedly popped up on Urban Dictionary, and in several YouTube videos. A Wikipedia page was proposed for the phobia on October 2, 2012, and according to the subject’s talk page, has since been plagued with deletion requests, discussions of image censorship, and debates over trypophobia’s status as a medically recognized condition. Today, there are many internet forums and self-help sites dedicated to the phobia.