The cursed painting that brought death to the exam hall… and the fear lives on.

Fear is a natural biological response to threat or danger. It keeps us on our toes – it produces the flight-fight-freeze reactions that protect us and preserve life.

But what if this natural response goes into overdrive. What happens if fear triggers become irrational and instead of being life-enabling, they become life-inhibiting?

The painting “Man Proposes, God Disposes” (1864) by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) sits in the Picture Gallery of Royal Holloway, University of London. Purchased by college founder Thomas Holloway (1881), the painting depicts a gruesome scene of two polar bears savagely attacking human remains, said to be based on the mysterious and grisly tale of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 failed Arctic expedition to find the Canadian North-West passage.

The macabre spectacle is probably enough to distract even the most conscientious student. But since the first exams were taken in the Picture Gallery in the 1920s and 1930s, it’s been a painting associated with failure and bad luck. According to the myth, if you sit directly in front of the painting in an exam, you will fail – unless it’s covered up.

The painting was first covered in the 1970s, when fear of the curse reached fever pitch and a student point blank refused to be seated near it. To get the exams started, the registrar went off to find the biggest thing available to cover the picture. It turned out to be a massive union jack flag. The same flag has adorned the painting every year during exams ever since.

When fear becomes irrational

Over the decades, the urban myth itself has diverged. When I attended the University (1995-98) it was said that a student had stared directly into the polar bears’ eyes during an exam and been driven mad. In a trance-like state, the student etched the words “The polar bears made me do it” onto their exam paper before taking their own life by shoving a sharpened pencil up their nose. No evidence exists in the University’s archives to suggest this incident happened.

Nevertheless, the superstition continues, and to this day no exams ever take place without the comfort of the covering flag to relieves fears of instant failure, madness, or worse!

But when fear of failure becomes irrational, we do not always have the comfort of a flag to cover the gruesome scenes that fill our minds. Almost all fear comes from within us. Our fears of failure. Our fears of the unknown. Our fears that something “bad” will happen if we do something to change our life for the better.

Instead of our fear being life-enabling, they become life-inhibiting. We undergo the same set of responses the flight-fight-freeze reaction.

Flight – you run away from the problem and try to pretend it doesn’t really exist.

Fight – you rationalise and argue with yourself why you should not make changes.

Freeze – you do nothing at all, you procrastinate, you stay stuck in your situation endlessly.

This is no myth. This is your life. Isn’t it time you faced your fears?

Click to start your journey of courage to live a life you’ll love.


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