Three Fun Facts about Fear
1. Fear is Forward Looking
When you put your hand on a hot stove you experience pain. Pain makes you recoil after you’ve been burnt, to prevent you from getting burnt worse. Fear, on the other hand, makes you pull back before you’ve touched the stove. It anticipates danger. It is a danger avoidance mechanism.
It is very unlikely that ants experience anything like fear, for the very simple reason that ants are not forward-looking creatures. When you tip over a stone to expose a colony of ants and they scurry for cover, although we cannot know what they are feeling, it is probably safe to say they are experiencing something like pain. When you put the rock back, the colony is still flooded with alarm pheromones, so it takes a while for the ants to get back to their usual business, but it is unlikely in the extreme that they are anticipating the possibility that the rock might be removed again. They simply don’t have the brains for that.
Frogs probably experience something like fear. For one thing, frogs exhibit forward-looking behavior. A frog will cower under lily pads with its eyes above water, scanning for danger, long after the little boy has gone away. For another, there are parts of the brains of frogs that are dedicated to this kind of response. Fear is such an effective life-saving response that it is one of the most basic and primitive “emotions” (if you will). In humans, the fear response is buried in the most primitive parts of the brain, sometimes called the “reptile brain.”
With rats, there is little question. Rats feel fear. While we can never know exactly what a rat experiences, rats’ behavior and their brain anatomy shows that they have a fear response that is very much like humans’. In fact, much of what we know about the neural mechanisms of human fear, we know because of rats. Frightful things have been done to rats, in the name of science. When rats anticipate danger (which they do) and try to avoid it (which they do), it is clearly because they feel something very much like what we call fear.
At bottom, fear is a danger avoidance mechanism. It anticipates possible harm and then prompts us to avoid it. It is forward looking. That’s why we have it.
2. Fear Operates Independently of Awareness
When you narrowly avoid being hit by an oncoming car, you might suppose that what happens is something like this. First, you see the oncoming car. Second, you recognize the danger. Third, your body springs into action and you leap out of the way. Countless experiments show that this is not, in fact, what happens.
What actually happens is this. First, your body springs into action. Second, you see the oncoming car. Third, you recognize the danger. This sequence is so counter-intuitive that it is hard to believe. How can the body respond to a danger before the eye sees it and the mind perceives it?
The answer is that most of what goes on in the eyes and in the mind goes on beneath the threshold of awareness. When I say, “I see an approaching car,” I usually mean that I am aware of it. But the real business of perception is to navigate the environment safely without needing to be aware of it. Awareness is dedicated to those few things that we consciously think about. If we waited until we thought about the danger to get out of the way of oncoming cars, much of the time it would be too late. The primitive part of the brain that registers danger and triggers fear does so without thought and before thought. In certain important ways, it takes control of thought. That is what it is for.
The brain’s fear response does basically three things. It pushes three buttons, so to speak. It galvanizes attention and so orients the body and the mind toward danger or the possibility of danger. It prepares the body for action, by releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream and tensing muscles, among other things. And it takes control of thought, pushing danger or the possibility of danger to the forefront of awareness. This is why it is extremely difficult if not impossible to turn fear off by simply willing it away.
When filmmakers and writers create suspense and fear, they are pushing these three buttons. Horror movies and thriller novels shows that, even though it is very difficult to turn off the fear response, it is not very difficult to turn it on.
3. Imaginary Ideas Can Engender Actual Fear
Fear is forward looking. What this means is that fear is, in a sense, always generated by an idea, by the idea of some particular danger. For example, when a rat smells cat urine, it is not the smell that makes the rat afraid. A smell cannot harm a rat. Neither can urine. But the smell of the urine triggers the idea of a cat. A rat’s idea of a cat is probably nothing like ours. It is certainly not symbolic or conceptual. It would probably be a stretch even to call it conscious. But it is an idea, nonetheless: a pattern of neural responses that prompt the rat to be on a lookout for a particular kind of predator. It is not a mere smell, in other words.
Humans’ “fear of darkness” works the same way. It is not darkness we are afraid of. Instead, darkness prompts ideas of dangers that we may not see in the darkness. Scary music also works this way. There is nothing scary about music per se, but certain kinds of music make us tense. When such music accompanies the scary ideas engendered by monster movies, for example, the music amplifies those ideas.
You might suppose that, when watching a horror movie, comfortably ensconced in a padded theater seat with a sack of buttered popcorn in your hand, you are not really afraid. But you are. Galvanized attention, tense muscles, mind focused on the possibility of harm… these are exactly the responses that scary movies produce. It is the idea of danger that triggers the fear. We use the same mental machinery to process the idea of danger whether it is danger to the self or danger to someone else. This applies even to characters in movies. We know they are just actors, of course. Still, the fear machinery churns away, beneath the level of this conscious stuff. We cannot turn this machinery off. That’s what is so fun about scary movies.
But why is this fun, really? Humans are the only creatures that actively seek out fearful experiences. We take roller coaster rides. We skydive. We go to scary movies. We even pay money to do these things. That seems irrational. Paradoxical. Why do we do it?
Three Reasons Humans Court Fear
1. Adrenaline is Adrenaline
At the most basic level, the arousal engendered by the thought of sex is no different than the arousal produced by fear. Adrenaline is adrenaline. Adrenaline is also exciting. It produces a chemical rush in the body and the brain. Furthermore, humans (like rats) are curious creatures, hardwired to explore the environment, to play with things, to nose up against boundaries. Novel experiences produce their own enjoyable chemical kick in the nervous system.
Ordinarily, this chemical kick is trumped by the chemical kick of fear. Nobody in her right mind would jump out of an airplane, for example—unless she had a parachute. A parachute does two things. It reduces the actual danger, in ways we consciously understand. This allows us (some of us, anyway) to deliberately override our fear. And, second, even though the actual danger might still be substantial, a ripcord in the hand gives us a sense of control over the danger.
Fear by itself is no fun. It is a danger avoidance mechanism. But to experience the rush produced by fear where there is minimal actual danger, particularly when accompanied by a sense of control, can be an exhilarating experience. Well worth the price of a movie ticket, for most people.
2. Cognitive Mastery
Speaking of control, when I watch scary movies at home, I usually have my thumb on the fast-forward button. When the movie gets too tense, I press it. This allows me to manage the level of suspense to suit my personal fear-tolerance threshold. But I get a certain pleasure from not pressing that button. This is related to the adrenaline rush I described above, but it is not the same thing. It derives as much from my ability to overcome my physical and emotional responses. It results in a gratifying sense of mastery of fear.
Skydiving takes this a step further. Skydiving involves overcoming not just fear, but actual danger. It requires not only courage, but a parachute, plus the knowledge and the skill to use it. This involves mastery of a threatening environment and control of a technical apparatus—both of which are pleasurable in and of themselves.
Since movies are not actually dangerous, most of what has been written about the pleasure of scary movies has to do not with mastery of actual danger or even with mastery of fear, but rather with the mastery of frightening ideas. This is a third kind of cognitive mastery. It is the most interesting because it is the most complex.
A movie monster is not just a dangerous creature, it also typically invokes ideas that we do not like to think about because they are repellent (putrescent flesh, spiders, deviant sexual behavior, cannibalism, etc.) or ideas that are difficult to think about because they violate our normal conceptual categories (dead yet alive, artificial yet sentient, destructive mothers, vengeful birds, and so on). By imagining something disgusting or threatening, we take a step toward comprehending it. By trying to comprehend it, we take a step toward being able to manage or control it. This is a uniquely human capacity, but it addresses a basic biological need, by helping us feel and be safe.
3. Rehearsing Responses to Danger
Film scholars have most often explained the satisfaction produced by the cognitive mastery of fearful ideas in quasi-Freudian terms, either as a manifestation of repression or as a kind of ego affirmation. It is far simpler to explain it as an extension of our natural human capacity to manage danger by thinking about it, especially by thinking about it in social terms.
Fear is forward looking. Deliberately entertaining fearsome ideas is a way of looking far forward—over the horizon, as it were. By entertaining imaginary dangers, we rehearse responses to actual or possible dangers. In this way, we develop important survival skills. Fiction in general may serve this purpose. It allows us to take situations, including painful or sad situations such as death, and think through how we might or should respond to them.
Furthermore, the kinds of threat that appear in scary movies rarely affect individuals alone. They are social threats. They invite us to imagine social responses. A large part of the pleasure of horror is the pleasure of connecting to other people, imaginatively, through empathy with characters in the fiction, and actually, by sharing a frightening experience with other moviegoers. (In fact, most of the people who watch horror movies in theaters are young men, in groups, and young couples, on dates.) Because we are social creatures, connecting with other people gives us pleasure. Or it might be more apt to say that we find it irresistible. It is something we are hardwired to do.
So, entertaining fearful ideas is not just about cognitive mastery. It is about making connections to other people, real and imaginary, as a way of practicing social skills that are useful in coping with actual dangers. I have seen little scholarship on this social aspect of the pleasure of horror movies. It seems like a new and very fruitful avenue of research. (If there is literature on this topic out there, I would be pleased if readers would point me to it, with a comment on this post.)
The fun of fear sounds like a paradox. It is not a paradox at all. It stems from the fact that we are thinking creatures—creatures that use thought and imagination not just to interact with our environment but to control and shape it. And it stems from the fact that we are social creatures, dependent for our survival on the ability to make connections with other people. And most of all, it depends upon that fact that fear is forward looking. It helps creatures anticipate danger. So, here’s looking forward to Halloween.
For further reading:
Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart (NY: Routledge, 1990).
Freeland, Cynthia. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002).
Frijda, Nico. The Laws of Emotion (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007).
Ledoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998).