Published: Tammy 10 October 1981 to 5 December 1981
Artist: Juliana Buch
Writer: Alison Christie
Ever since she can remember, orphan Lara Wolfe has had a fear of crowds (ochlophobia) and panics like nobody’s business whenever she gets caught in one. Lara has no idea why she has this phobia. Gran says she will explain why when she feels Lara is old enough to understand. But when Gran finally decides the time has come, she dies of a heart attack before she can explain. Well timed, Gran.
Living in the country, where things are less crowded, has made it easier for Lara to cope with ochlophobia. But after Gran’s death, social welfare moves her to the city. In the city, things are even more crowded, both at school and at the children’s home Lara now lives in. This makes Lara’s phobia even worse. Then, after a bully at the home publicly humiliates Lara over her phobia, she vows she won’t tell anyone else about it. And she has the added frustration of still not knowing the reason for it all.
So now the stage is set for the setup that follows until the end of the story: Lara’s phobia, which drives her to either avoid crowds or flee from them in a blind panic, combined with her refusal to explain the problem, gets her into a whole heap of trouble. It leads to misunderstandings and spoiled opportunities and friendships that make her increasingly unpopular, both at the children’s home and at school. The girls all think Lara shuns them and doesn’t mix in anything (because of her fear) because she’s an antisocial, stuck-up loner. So they call her “Lara the Loner”. Lara can’t make or keep friends or do activities she would love to do because her fear keeps messing everything up.
The misunderstandings reach the point where the girls, both at the home and at school, turn right against Lara. A wonderful opportunity to be adopted is also spoiled by her phobia – and nearly gets her wrongly charged with shoplifting as well. Lara’s phobia even puts her in hospital – twice. But not even these hospitalisations or running off because she’s so miserable do anything to improve her popularity. Neither does nearly dying of pneumonia, which Lara contracts because of her phobia (forced to take a long walk in pouring rain because the bus is crowded). Matron has to force the girls at the home to make the “welcome home” banner for Lara.
Lara has only one friend at the home, a little girl named Susie. But Susie gets adopted – by the same couple who rejected Lara after the false impression she was a shoplifter. Now Lara has nobody and crying at how her phobia is ruining her whole life.
Another couple, the Maxwells, take an interest in adopting Lara. This time, when Lara gets into a panic in front of them, she tells them about her phobia before rushing off. Lara is astonished to find them very understanding because Mrs Maxwell has ochlophobia too. Now Lara and Mrs Maxwell have found they are kindred spirits, they draw even closer together.
Then Lara stumbles across a newspaper cutting at the Maxwells’. It informs her that when she was a baby, she, her parents, and the Maxwells’ daughter Susie got caught in an accident where a bus mounted a crowded pavement. She was thrown clear, but her parents and Susie were killed. So Lara and Mrs Maxwell have ochlophobia for the same reason!
Moments after Lara discovers the reason for her phobia, the accident is re-enacted when a van mounts a crowded pavement. Fearful that Mrs Maxwell has been caught up in it, Lara dashes out and, forgetting her fear, pushes her way into the crowd in search of her. Seeing Lara push her way into the crowd, a concerned Mrs Maxwell does the same. After this, they are overjoyed to find they are not scared of crowds anymore.
Now ochlophobia is no longer a barrier and there are no more panics from it, there is nothing to stop Lara mixing at school. She is now the biggest mixer of them all there, she has friends at last, and her popularity is on the rise.
Naturally, the Maxwells adopt Lara and she becomes Lara Maxwell.
Serials about a whole string of misunderstandings and unfair unpopularity caused by a phobia were more commonly found at DCT than at IPC. One example is “A Dog’s Life for Debbie” from Tracy. A fear of dogs keeps messing things up for Debbie Bruce and, like Lara, makes her increasingly unpopular because of all the misunderstandings her phobia causes.
A story with this format in an IPC title makes it more refreshing, as it appeared less often at IPC than DCT. Also of interest is that the story format deviates from DCT where a misunderstanding caused by Lara’s phobia always ends on a cliffhanger. It is not until the next episode that we see how it turns out. And until the final episode it is not in Lara’s favour! Had this story run at DCT, each misunderstanding would have been shown in a self-contained episode until the penultimate episode.
Lara’s phobia sure is one that can make life really difficult, for unless you live in serious isolation crowds are virtually unavoidable. And it is a serious barrier to socialising or even doing everyday things in public areas. Lara panicking in a crowd is also dangerous, not only for her but for others as well. This is shown on several occasions in the story. For example, in one episode Lara accidentally hits a girl with her hockey stick while she panics to get out of a crowd. In another, she causes a pile-up at the school disco – with her at the bottom.
These misunderstandings could have been sorted out and Lara not so unpopular if she had simply explained. But she has sworn not to tell anyone about her phobia after the bullying incident. So people continue to jump to the wrong conclusions about Lara and she becomes even more unpopular and miserable. It is fortunate for Lara that for once she forgot that vow and told the Maxwells. If not, it would have been another miserable misunderstanding for her. The message is clear: if you have a problem with a phobia, tell someone about it and try to get help for it.
Getting help with the phobia is something Lara never does. Gran does not help Lara overcome the problem either, although she is sympathetic and knows the reason for it. But help for phobias is available if you care to look.
Added to Lara’s misery is her not knowing why she is scared of crowds. In most other phobia serials the girl at least knows why she has the phobia, but not in this case. It also gives the element of mystery to the story to unravel, and girls just love mystery. So the mystery would have made them eager to follow the story even more. And when the reveal comes, we suspect it will hold the key to solving Lara’s problem. It’s no surprise to find it’s linked with how Lara got orphaned. The cure is also associated with the original incident: a re-enactment of it, which has both Lara and Mrs Maxwell face their ochlophobia. And they did it without even thinking about it because other thoughts overrode their fear.