Defying Gravity: The Primal Fear of Elevators

Before I was an author, I was a lawyer toiling away in big law firms in high-rise buildings. If it’s true that we all spend a third of our lives in bed, I often felt that I spent at least another third riding up and down in elevators. Because my firms occupied multiple floors of their buildings, I not only took the elevator morning and night, but also many times throughout the day as my work took me from conference room to library to other lawyers’ offices and back again.

To me, the elevator was fraught with peril.

Many people have a primal fear of elevators, but I’m not claustrophobic, or enochlophobic (afraid of crowds), or xenophobic (afraid of strangers), or even basophobic (afraid of falling). (But note: it can’t be an accident that the word elevator connotes only rising up and never crashing down; Mr. Otis knew what he was doing when he hit upon that descriptor).

None of these fears is unfounded. Incidents involving elevators and escalators kill about 30 and seriously injure about 17,000 people each year in the United States.* (For a thrilling account of the more inventive ways an elevator can kill you, go read Linwood Barclay’s Elevator Pitch).

The most common fear is of being stuck in a malfunctioning elevator. Some people trapped in this situation imagine that they’re running out of oxygen. They become anxious, and start to experience cold sweats, a racing heartbeat, hyperventilation, shaking, nausea, disorientation – all the classic symptoms of a panic attack.

My fear was a bit different. Yes, I was afraid of being stuck in a broken-down elevator, but only if I were stuck with someone else. I wasn’t afraid of elevators per se. I was afraid of my fellow passengers, or at least of a potential conflict with my fellow passengers. See, I have a fear of confrontation – an unfortunate trait for a trial lawyer, you might say, but it really only surfaced when I found myself trapped in a small space with opposing counsel or some other man with whom I might have exchanged heated words. My lurid imagination would kick in. I’d imagine that the elevator broke down, that I was trapped with this nemesis for endless hours. I’d imagine shouting matches that turned to scuffles and escalated (see what I did there?) to murder, mayhem, and sexual assault. Sometimes I’d even imagine that he was hurting me.

Joking aside, it was this fear that inspired my new novel, THE CAGE. In the opening scene, two women working late on a Sunday night step onto an elevator going down. The car stalls.

Why do they call them cars? one of the women wonders. Elevators weren’t cars. In a car you were in control. You could stop, pull over, get out, walk free. They should call them what they were. Cages.

By the time rescue finally arrives, one of the women is dead of a gunshot to the head. Was it suicide brought on by a panic attack as the survivor claims? Or was it murder?

That’s the launchpad for THE CAGE, and the answer doesn’t touch down, the doors don’t open, until the final page.

*According to data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.