Agoraphobia (literally: “fear of the marketplace”) is an anxiety disorder associated with a fear of open spaces. But really it’s more complicated than that. In particular, sufferers may be afraid of public spaces like shopping malls, airports and, in extreme cases, even simply leaving the house. Any place where escape might be difficult or help is not easily at hand if things go wrong could be a problem environment.
Caught up in such stressful situations, agoraphobes often start hyperventilating, their hearts start racing, and they feel sweaty and nauseous. Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? We think it’s bad enough having a phobia of heights, spiders, or water. But at least then you can avoid the things you’re afraid of. Severe agoraphobes, on the other hand, can feel anxious anywhere outside of their comfort zone – and that space may be as small as a house, or even a room.
Celebrities are constantly hounded by photographers and fans and are surrounded by stress, so it’s perhaps not surprising that a fair number of them have developed agoraphobia over the years. What’s more, hyper-creative minds do seem especially prone to anxiety disorders such as this. Read on for the 10 most famous people with extreme cases of agoraphobia.
10. Philip K. Dick – Science Fiction Writer (1928-1982)
Classic sci-fi movies Blade Runner and Total Recall were both adapted from Philip K. Dick stories. So were less celebrated hits like A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report. Highlighting his influence on the sci-fi genre, Dick’s writing has been described as a kind of precursor to cyberpunk.
Dick liked to explore the borders between perception and reality, and he drew upon his own mental issues in order to do so. In his late teens, he spent two years undergoing intense treatment for agoraphobia. He was also diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and from the seventh grade onwards he suffered bouts of vertigo that recurred particularly strongly while he was an undergraduate.
Towards the end of his life, Dick struggled to hold onto reality and doubted his own perceptions and sanity. From 1974 until his death in 1982, he wrote his thoughts down into an 8,000-page, one-million-word tome he named Exegesis.
9. Paula Deen – TV Chef/Author (1947-)
Celebrity chef Paula Deen has been called the “Queen of Southern Cooking.” This white-haired whizz in the kitchen has headed several Food Network cookery shows, written bestselling cookery books, and launched the lifestyle magazine Cooking with Paula Deen. She also owns two restaurants and won the Outstanding Lifestyle Host Emmy in 2007.
Yet Deen’s exceptional culinary skills were born of a dark place in her life: she learned most of them during a two-decade battle with agoraphobia. After being left parentless in her early twenties, she suffered severe panic attacks and found herself unable to leave the house. The only place Deen could visit was the supermarket, but even then she found it difficult to go too far inside. “I learned to cook with the ingredients they kept close to the door,” she says.
With her options limited by her condition, Deen worked hard developing her cooking skills, through relentless repetition mastering all the classic Southern dishes she had been taught by her grandmother.
After divorcing her husband in 1989, she was forced to make a living on her own, so she started a food delivery service called The Bag Lady. The success of this business eventually led to her opening her own restaurant. And in 2002 she got her big TV break with the show Paula’s Home Cooking on the Food Network.
8. Shirley Jackson – Novelist (1916-1965)
American writer Shirley Jackson constantly struggled with personal demons. Born into a restrictive household with a demanding mother, she also had to deal with being an outsider in her own town and a husband who did not help her health condition.
Jackson suffered from a variety of psychosomatic illnesses throughout her life, including agoraphobia. Interestingly, her experiences are reflected in her fiction: stories like “The Lottery” have themes of a community’s fear and persecution of individuals, and many of her central characters, such as Eleanor Vance from The Haunting of Hill House, are also shut-ins.
One of Jackson’s most famous works is We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which concerns two women, one of them agoraphobic, who live with the hostility of the townspeople around them. Yet if the novel was meant to exorcise Jackson’s demons, it failed: she was exhausted by writing it and would not leave the house for almost three months.
In the final months of her life, Jackson suffered from particularly extreme agoraphobia, which made it impossible for her to leave her bedroom. She had ballooned in weight and was a heavy smoker, which, combined with prescription medication and her previous drug use, no doubt contributed to her early death by heart attack at the age of 48.
7. Howard Hughes – Entrepreneur/Aerospace Engineer/Director (1905-1976)
Throughout his life, Howard Hughes balanced incredible brilliance with incredible neuroticism. A successful businessman, filmmaker and aviator, Hughes also suffered from untreated OCD and agoraphobia.
Following a near-fatal plane crash in 1946, Hughes’s anxiety disorders became more and more extreme. The brilliant tycoon and engineer vanished from public view. And he would isolate himself in hotel rooms, lying naked in what he regarded as a germ-free zone.
On one occasion, Hughes spent four months living in the screening room of a studio near his home. His aides were instructed not to look at him or speak to him unless spoken to.
Towards the end of his life, these conditions drove Hughes even deeper into seclusion. And because he wasn’t shaving, cutting his hair or even trimming his nails, he was pretty much unrecognizable at the time. Hughes eventually died of kidney failure in 1976. He was suffering from malnutrition as a result of his out of control obsessive-compulsive disorder.
6. Marcel Proust – Novelist/Critic (1871-1922)
Born in 1871, Marcel Proust was a French writer best known for his book À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). He was also a tortured soul and seems to have suffered from a form of agoraphobia. As a result, he spent much of his later life isolating himself from the world.
Proust made his name writing for journals and literary magazines while still at school. Then, in 1903, the writer suffered a series of traumas. In February, his brother married and departed the family home; and in November, his father died. Even more devastatingly, his beloved mother passed away two years later.
Until his mid 30s, Proust remained an outgoing member of French high society, but after his mother’s death, he began to withdraw from the world. At the same time, however, his literary output vastly improved.
For the last three years of his life, Proust lived as a recluse in his soundproofed apartment, working continuously on In Search of Lost Time. At one point, he got so caught up in his work, he wrote non-stop for three days. Still, coming in just under 1.5 million words, the resulting seven-volume masterpiece is the longest novel ever published.
Proust’s health problems may have contributed to his isolation, as he was forced to keep the windows of his writing studio shut in order to protect himself against the asthma that had dogged him since childhood. His death in 1922 was the result of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess.
5. Brian Wilson – Musician/Songwriter (1942-)
Brilliant but troubled musician Brian Wilson is best known as The Beach Boys’ leader and principal songwriter. Famously harmonizing in falsetto, Wilson played a central role in classic songs like “Good Vibrations,” “Surfin’ USA” and “Little Deuce Coupe.”
After suffering from a nervous breakdown, between 1964 and 1968 Wilson’s creative control over The Beach Boys gradually slipped away from him. He stopped touring and began to have a more distant relationship with the group. During the early 1970s, Wilson would spend weeks or months in bed, taking drugs, and overeating wildly to the point where his wife Marilyn was forced to put padlocks on the refrigerators.
Following the death of his abusive father in 1973, Wilson spent the best part of two years living in seclusion in the chauffeur’s quarters of his home, drinking, chain-smoking and snorting cocaine. In addition to his agoraphobia, he was suffering from depression and the auditory hallucinations that often accompany schizophrenia.
4. Edvard Munch – Artist (1863-1944)
Edvard Munch’s The Scream is one of the most iconic works of art of all time. In May 2012, the fourth, pastel version of the piece sold for US$119,922,500 at Sotheby’s. This bleakly powerful painting seems to reflect intense uncertainty towards nature and humanity’s place in it, which is understandable when you learn that the artist suffered from agoraphobia.
Munch was born in 1863 and had entered into art by 1880. However, his enthusiasm for the bohemian lifestyle and “free love” was offset by his intense anxiety. He apparently found it difficult to even cross the road and needed to hug the walls of buildings when he walked across town. He was also frightened of mountains and walked with his eyes downcast to prevent him from seeing them.
Munch claimed his inspiration for his most famous painting was an experience he had when he and two friends were walking over an exposed bridge. This seemingly mundane act left him “trembling with fear,” and he said that he sensed “an endless scream passing through nature.”
3. Emily Dickinson – Poet (1830-1886)
Emily Dickinson’s obsessive focus on death, illness and immortality in her poems may have been connected with agoraphobia, as well as her remarkably introverted personality. Born into a prominent family in 1830, she lived as a lonely spinster for most of her life.
Dickinson produced approaching 2,000 poems during her lifetime, many of which broke the rules of verse at the time by including unconventional rhymes and short lines. Her creativity was only matched by her profound isolation. She was discouraged from having a social life by her overbearing father, and she rarely left her parents’ house in Amherst.
During the later years of her life, Dickinson became ever more reclusive, frequently speaking to visitors from the other side of a closed door rather than face-to-face. Her last excursions into the outside world were to visit a doctor for eye problems in 1864 and 1865. Following the late 1860s, she never left her parents’ property again.
Dickinson experienced most of her mature friendships through letters, writing extensively to her best friend Susan Gilbert.
2. Kim Basinger – Actress (1953-)
Hollywood actress and sex symbol Kim Basinger has admitted to suffering from agoraphobia. Basinger, who has appeared in movies like L.A. Confidential and 9 ½ Weeks, was shy and withdrawn as a child. And from an early age, she has suffered from panic attacks and a crippling fear of public spaces.
Basinger suffered an especially bad episode in her 20s that left her “sweating,” “shaking,” and unable to leave her home for six months. She claims that during some of the lower points of her condition she would spend literally every day indoors crying.
The star blames her issues on insecurity about her appearance during her early years as an actress. She said, “When I came to Hollywood, I could wear a bikini, but I was in misery because people were looking at me. So I wore baggy clothes and watched other girls get the big parts and awards…And this led to my agoraphobia.”
1. H.L. Gold – Science-Fiction Writer/Editor (1914-1996)
H.L. Gold was a visionary science fiction writer and editor and one of the key figures in the genre to emerge after the Second World War. However, while held in high regard for his achievements in sci-fi, his mental health was badly affected by his wartime experiences, and he suffered from acute agoraphobia.
Although Gold wrote for DC Comics and published many short stories during his career, he did his most famous work as the editor of Galaxy Science Fiction, one of the leading science fiction magazines of the 1950s. Authors like Ray Bradbury and Alfred Bester published some of their best-known stories in Galaxy during Gold’s tenure.
Gold’s agoraphobia meant that he had to edit the magazine from his apartment, and he carried out much of his work during this period over the telephone. For more than two decades, he was apparently unable to leave his home. He eventually retired due to ill health related to his condition in 1961 and lived mostly in isolation, occasionally publishing stories during the early 1980s.
Bonus Entry: Macaulay Culkin – Actor (1980-)
Child movie stars often struggle when they enter adulthood, and Macaulay Culkin was no exception. The big attraction of ‘90s hits like Home Alone and My Girl, Culkin’s star faded as he entered his teenage years and he began to rarely leave the house, living as a recluse.
In a 2004 interview with Larry King, Culkin admitted to suffering from agoraphobia. The celebrity stated that he battled with concerns of photographers invading his privacy and began to feel that buildings would “eat” him if he went outside. Self-medication for his condition was also blamed for the actor’s 2004 drug arrest.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though: Culkin said that he bought a dog in order to get him out of the house by taking it for walks. Maybe he could unleash it on the photographers as well.