Fear of a Blank Planet

No, I’m not referring to the most recent Porcupine Tree album (although I do highly recommend it). I am referring to my rather strange phobia.

This fear — well, not really so much a fear as just a source of inexplicable anxiety — is something that’s been with me for so long (and is so inconsequential most of the time) that I scarcely think about it, and even more scarcely ever think about how weird it is. But today in conversation with a couple of co-workers, I happened to mention it for some reason, and I really think they thought I was nuts.

So what is this phobia of mine? I’m afraid of blank spaces on maps. What does this mean exactly? It means that studying a map, and letting my eyes drift off into an unmarked void (or even worse, scrolling Google Maps to a point where recognizable features disappear) freaks the shit out of me. It’s even worse when I have Google Maps in aerial view, and I scroll off into open water, or God forbid, zoom in to a level where they don’t have any photos. (And don’t even talk to me about the cheese on Google Moon!) I’m immediately overcome with a visceral agitation at the site of, well… nothing, and I have to scroll the map back to civilization (or at least non-nothingness) or close the window immediately.

I searched for any sign online of anyone else with this particular quirk, but came up empty. The promising term “cartophobia” turned out to refer to the much more mundane (and much more understandable, I suppose) “fear” of maps in the sense that a person is intimidated by maps and doesn’t understand how to read them. My problem, I think, is precisely the opposite: I love maps and can study their minutiae in detail for hours. And I think that is exactly why “voids” on the maps freak me out so much… it’s like stepping into non-existence.

Although I don’t know the date, I can pinpoint the first moment in my life when I was struck by this fear: I was probably around 10 or 11, and my parents had gotten me a large poster-sized map of the world, for which I was quite grateful. I enthusiastically unrolled it and began examining it in detail. After what was probably several hours, I got ready to put it away, and then I made that most dreadful mistake: I looked at the blank reverse side. It’s nearly impossible to convey this in a way that doesn’t sound completely stupid, or that effectively communicates the apocalyptic panic that ensued. It really felt like I was staring right into the heart of nothingness, like the universe didn’t exist.

Certainly this phobia of mine is a minor inconvenience at best. It is not incapacitating in any way. As I said, I rarely think of it, and although I think I’ve talked to SLP about it, this is probably the first time I’ve ever mentioned it to anyone else in my entire life. But still, it’s real. And still, I wonder if anyone else has ever experienced it.