Escalating Problems

There are so many things to do at a shopping mall! For example, you could wear pancake makeup and new clothes, pose as a mannequin in the clothes department, occasionally screaming without warning; or stare at static on a display TV and challenge other shoppers whether they, too, can see the “hidden picture;” or teach pet store parrots new vocabulary that makes them unsellable; or ask a salesperson in the hardware department how well a particular saw cuts through bone; or even test mattresses in your pajamas. Last, but not least, at the bottom of the escalator shriek “My shoelaces! Help!”

Although in the case of escalators the danger could be real. In March 2017, shoppers, mall-walkers and other customers screamed in terror when an escalator suddenly changed direction and hurled people to the floor of a Hong Kong shopping center. Eighteen people were injured in the incident at Kowloon’s Mong Kok mall on Langham Place, including one man who was taken to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital to have his head injuries treated.

The incident was captured on CCTV, showing dozens of shoppers queuing to go upstairs on an escalator that was approximately 150 feet long. It is recognized as one of the longest escalators in Hong Kong. Authorities say it was acting as an “up” escalator when it unexpectedly turned into a “down” escalator instead. Witnesses estimate it sped up to anywhere between twice and quadruple its original speed, causing shoppers to pile onto each other at the bottom of the steps [ICD-10-CM code W10.0XXA, Fall (on)(from) escalator, initial encounter]. Viewing the chaos on the up escalator, those travelling down on the opposite side stampeded to get onto firmer ground. Shoppers not involved in the escalator malfunction hurried to pull people up and make sure they were not hurt.

Two mechanics were arrested after the escalator suddenly went into reverse. Police say the suspects might have tampered with the machine’s parts, which sent shoppers tumbling. The mechanics, aged 22 and 52, are facing charges of obstruction of justice, police said; they were also suspected to have handled the escalator’s mechanical parts following the incident. “The arrest of our mechanics was a surprise,” Ian Fok, a spokesman for the Otis Elevator Company, which employs the two men, said in a statement. “Our legal team is working with law enforcement to clarify the situation and intends to defend our mechanics.” The company says it is committed to assisting the investigation.

Of course, those sensible humans with a healthy fear of escalators would never be in this situation. Escalaphobia (ICD-10-CM code F40.248, Other situational type phobia) is the fear of escalators and is surprisingly common. According to the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, over 35,000 escalators in the United States and Canada move 245 million people per day. Yet despite their frequent usage, escalators are scary for some people. The fear of escalators may be mild or severe, and the reasons behind the fear range from misunderstandings about their construction to the perception of unusual rapid vertical motion.

Like most phobias, escalaphobia generally responds well to a variety of therapy treatments. One of the most popular is cognitive behavioral therapy, in which the patient learns to replace fearful thoughts about escalators with healthier messages. This can help put the patient in a better position to overcome escalaphobia by helping him understand for a fact that escalators are generally safe when used right. But for those few escalaphobics who are not successful making this mind shift, there are the timeless words of R. J. Cyler: “I don’t want to take the escalators; give me the stairs!”