Fear of Maps

Caitlin Dempsey


We seem to be in an age of heightened cartophilia, the love of maps.  The rise in use of maps in our everyday lives, especially on our smartphones, also seems to have triggered a growth in map blogs.  Sites like The Atlantic, Wired, Strange Maps, and of course, the original map blog of all, the Map Room run by Jonathan Crowe, feed the public’s insatiable desire for maps of all kinds.

On the flip side is the fear of maps. Unlike the days of actual monsters being depicted on maps to intentionally create fear, these modern day phobias occurs when looking at various types of maps.   Searching for “fear of maps” brings up plenty of blog and forum posts about people’s fear of maps and online mapping applications such as Google Maps and Google Earth.  

Is There a Scientific Term for the Fear of Maps?

I can’t find an actual scientific designation for this fear, and a series of emails to various academics went unanswered, so I will use the term cartophobia which seems to be the most prevalent way to name this phobia.  People with a fear of map experience such symptoms as racing hearts, dizziness, disorientation, and panic when looking at maps.

What Causes a Fear of Maps?

So why do some people feel intense anxiety and fear when looking at maps and aerial photography?  It seems a lot of the fear is related to a fear of wide open spaces such as being in the middle of the ocean, or a blank spot on the map.  Seeing these geographic spaces on a map induce fears such as a fear of falling or drowning, fear of nothingness (and being draw into it), and a fear of being lost.

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Michelle, who runs the Belle in the North blog explains:

Hi. My name is M., and I have an irrational fear of Google Street View. I think it will send me in to a body of water and I will drown right there while viewing it.

Scott Anderson on the Underdog of Perfection blog, has a fear of blank spaces on a map:

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 s[…] out of me.

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.

A commenter on Anderson’s blog proposed a name for this specific map phobia: “kenocartographobia That’s keno- (empty) + -cartograph- (map) + phobia (fear).”

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.