Historical Figures Who Had Mental Illnesses or Crippling Phobias

Mental illness through history often gets overwritten or overlooked... largely because it makes certain people's stories less tragic. ("Organic" catastrophe is always more poetic.) But many disturbed historical figures lived during times when only physical afflictions ever garnered any validity or research, leaving the mentally burdened to fend for themselves in the only ways they could.

Moreover, if mentally ill historical figures did receive treatment, it generally came in the form of history's terrifying mental asylums, those outdated horror chambers that surely exacerbated more problems than they ever solved. All in all, being mentally ill proved to be a double whammy against you: No one took your diagnosis seriously, and if they did, they imprisoned or electro-shocked you for it.

Many of the great artists and innovators of the world were also historical figures with crazy phobias - disorders that are largely absent from textbooks or biographies. Thankfully, the modern world generally shows more sympathy for famous figures with anxiety and other forms of mental illness. But victims of archaic medicine enjoyed no such privilege, and for that reason their afflictions (some of which undoubtedly contributed to the works that the world continues to appreciate today) deserve recognition.

Photo: The Image Engine

  • The Brilliantly Theatrical Madness Of Antonin Artaud
    Photo: Agence de presse Meurisse / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Poet, director, playwright, and actor Antonin Artaud, a key figure in the Surrealist movement, is known for many things, including his electrifying and eccentric performances and his seminal work The Theatre and its Double. But he's equally famous for his insanity, which took on forms that were as insightfully bizarre as they were insightfully tragic. Always passionate and quirky, Artaud didn't actually cross the line into "bonafide insanity" until later. But when his madness began to flower, it came out in full force. He spit on imaginary figures, threatened pedestrians with his "magic cane," and took a trip to Ireland to find the tree-worshipping druids who'd fashioned said walking apparatus.

    Artaud spent his final years in institutions. He once described himself as “a dead man at the side of a living man who is no longer himself,” and once remarked, poignantly, that “blows were the only language in which [he] felt comfortable speaking." His work, however, lives on.

    • Age: Dec. at 51 (1896-1948)
    • Birthplace: Marseille, France
  • Hans Christian Andersen's Fear Of Being Buried Alive
    Photo: Thora Hallager / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Beloved Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote many of the world's most timeless and beautiful fairytales, which run the gamut from "The Little Mermaid" to "The Ugly Duckling" to "The Emperor's New Clothes." Though Andersen is a legend throughout the world, not many people know that he also suffered from taphephobia, otherwise known as a fear of being buried alive. (Though such terror actually wasn't all that uncommon back in the days before foolproof medical technology and foolproof embalming.)

    Premature burial was only one of Andersen's many phobias. According to his biographer, the author kept a note on or near him at all times which read, "I only appear to be dead." In his last days, he even begged his friends to cut his veins and bleed him out after his passing... all the better to ensure that he'd really bitten the dust.

    All of which is the stuff that great stories (and great horror stories) are made of.

    • Age: Dec. at 70 (1805-1875)
    • Birthplace: Odense, Denmark
  • Salvador Dali And His Fear Of Insects (And His Own Moles)
    Photo: Allan Warren / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    No list of famous phobias would be complete without Salvador Dali's raving genius (and multiple fears). In truth, there were few things Dali couldn’t turn into objects of surrealist terror (he feared female genitalia, for example, an aversion his muse Gala eventually cured him of... more or less). But he also suffered from a fear of insects, a condition otherwise known as Ekbom syndrome.

    According to the Smithsonian, the disorder induces "tactile hallucinations," meaning that the victim "feels" imaginary insects crawling along his skin. The piece goes on to describe the artist's hellish experience with the neurosis, which apparently debuted when he was alone in a hotel room and woke to the sight of what looked like a bug burrowing into his flesh. When he found no insects amid the sheets, Dali ran his hands over his body, and found a small bump on his back. In panic, he began gouging at it. As it turned out, the bug was one of his own moles, but as Dali explained in his autobiography:

    I made a drastic decision, and with the savagery proportionate to my frantic condition, and to my horror, I seized a razor blade, held the tick tightly between my nails, and began to cut the interstice between the tick and the skin, which offered an unbelievable resistance. But in a frenzy I cut and cut and cut, blinded by the blood which was already streaming. The tick finally yielded, and half-fainting, I fell to the floor in my own blood.

    Poe himself couldn't have described it more vividly.

    • Age: Dec. at 84 (1904-1989)
    • Birthplace: Figueres, Spain
  • Alfred Hitchcock's Abiding Fear Of Eggs
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Renowned film director Alfred Hitchcock had an assortment of fears (he was profoundly disturbed by cops, in particular), but not many people know of his deep loathing of eggs. His description of this particular phobia gets deeply visceral:

    That white round thing without any holes... have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its contents of yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red, by comparison. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I’ve never tasted it. And then I’m frightened of my own movies. I never go to see them. I don’t know how people can bear to watch my movies.


    • Age: Dec. at 80 (1899-1980)
    • Birthplace: Leytonstone, London, United Kingdom
  • Vivien Leigh And Her Struggle With Bipolar Disorder
    Photo: Hollywood, Fawcett Publications / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Vivien Leigh became famous for her brilliant acting ability and her magnificent beauty, but her legendary professionalism often masked her daunting struggle with bipolar disorder.

    Various witnesses state that Leigh's illness initially began manifesting in the 1930s (right around the time of Gone with the Wind), but didn't reach a zenith until the 1950s, right after she won an Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire. She apparently identified deeply with the character of Blanche DuBois, and the role significantly exacerbated her own neurosis.

    According to reports, Leigh's behavior escalated from there; she once stripped off her garments in the middle of a public park, an action that led to a round of electroshock therapy. She won a Tony Award for her role in the Broadway musical Tovarich, but during her last major performance, she suffered another breakdown, forgetting her lines, speeding up the opening number, and attacking her co-star.

    Nevertheless, the chaos of her personal life was likely exacerbated by her fame. She resisted going to a psychiatrist lest paparazzi follow her there. Furthermore, when her husband, legendary actor Laurence Olivier, told playwright Noel Coward that he feared for his wife's sanity, the witty Coward retorted, “Nonsense... if anyone’s having a nervous breakdown, you are.” Truly a nuanced observation, if there ever was one.

    • Age: Dec. at 53 (1913-1967)
    • Birthplace: Darjeeling, India
  • Howard Hughes And His Notorious OCD
    Photo: ACME Newspictures / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Legendary film tycoon, entrepreneur, aviator, and billionaire Howard Hughes is widely known for having suffered from a particularly debilitating species of obsessive compulsive disorder. In his final years, he barricaded himself in his bedroom, scorned almost all contact with the outside world, burned his clothing lest it be contaminated, and stored his urine in jars for “safety” reasons that remain unknown. (These incidents were later dramatized in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator.)

    Though Hughes was mostly sane in earlier years, some reports suggest that his profound phobia of germs may have originated in childhood. His mother constantly fretted over his health... a habit that became more obsessive after he contracted polio. At one point, the young Hughes was even said to have suffered paralysis for several months.

    Hughes's paranoia affected everyone around him; he tapped his wife Ava Gardner's phone, suspecting infidelity, and apparently “wrote a staff manual on how to open a can of peaches... including directions for removing the label, scrubbing the can down until it was bare metal, washing it again, and pouring the contents into a bowl without touching the can to the bowl.”

    • Age: Dec. at 70 (1905-1976)
    • Birthplace: Humble, Harris County, Texas, Contiguous United States, United States of America