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What is it about fear that we like?

By Peter Curson - posted Friday, 20 August 2004


For many of us the beginning of the twenty-first century is an apprehensive time, a time filled with a sense of unease and anxiety as much as hope. Nowhere is this better seen than in our reaction to the threat of disaster, terrorism, infectious diseases like SARS, climate change and severe droughts. Fear is something that underpins much of our reaction to such potential threats, yet fear is something of a paradox in our modern society. On the one hand, it is a means of coping with anxieties. On the other, it is a vicarious means of gaining pleasure and as such, is probably a product of the late twentieth century. Traditionally, fear was bound up with reverential awe usually of God. I vividly remember New Zealand’s national “motto” instilled in my generation of schoolchildren – “Fear God, Honour the King”.

Today our fascination with violence, death and disaster knows no bounds. We make death, disease and disaster an entertainment – perhaps in the hope that the things we really fear will become less fearful if we view representations of them rather than being confronted by the real thing.  Perhaps in this sense fear is a distancing and coping mechanism.  Aristotle understood this very well when he drew out the contradiction that exists between direct experience and the aesthetics of representation. We derive pleasure from looking at things, which in themselves we fear and find painful. Hence our preoccupation with disaster and horror movies and TV shows. Witness the extraordinary reaction to “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Fahrenheit 9/11”.

It is almost as if we derive some deep ecstatic relief from such “unreal” encounters divorced from the repugnance and terror of experiencing the real thing. We recognise this by our use of the word “scary” to cover a range of responses from alarm and terror to sheer delight. Humour also plays an important role in this as well. Witness the hundreds of cartoons produced by newspaper and magazine cartoonists during the SARS epidemic. I guess that by making the threat or “terror” appear humorous and everyday we release anxieties and tension and thus make it less fearful.

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Perhaps we also need to distinguish between disgust and fear. Disgust is excited by the threat of something offensive that assaults our moral sense and causes loathing and repugnance. Fear, on the other hand, is more concerned with anxiety and awe produced by perceptions of impending personal disaster. In the case of epidemics like SARS or the threat of bioterrorism, disgust and fear may combine into a broad reaction of horror, dread and terror. The growth of fear also stems in part from the way it is “manufactured” and marketed by the media. Fear sells, fear resonates with audiences, and fear is closely related to the media’s entertainment role.

Everyday, the media crowds our newspapers and TV screens with stories and images of new “Creeping Dangers”, virulent “Super Bugs” waiting to carry us off or the threat of bioterrorism. It is small wonder that fear dominates our lives and at times can degenerate into anti-social behaviour.

A part of this is that we must always have our scapegoats. We must have someone to blame. The rage born out of fear continues to be discharged on the “other” or the “outsider” – the gay person with regard to HIV/AIDS, the Chinese with SARS, the dirty, deranged and homeless on our inner-city streets with regard to drug abuse, the Islamic world for the perceived terrorist threat, the boat people for daring to head in our direction. There is of course a very long tradition of this in Western culture. Parents for centuries would threaten a naughty child with characters plucked from another time and space, such as Gypsies, Jews or Blacks, who would carry off unruly children.

Does fear serve a useful purpose in our society? Is there such a thing as “reasonable fear”?  How much fear is healthy? Perhaps, as some have argued, a certain amount of fear can lead to sensible and appropriate strategies of readiness, vigilance and preparedness. Are we more fearful today than we used to be? I think not. Certainly life is more secure and we are healthier than ever before and living longer. Interestingly enough however, this has not removed lingering fears about our health and deep underlying fears about contagion and “outsiders”, as well as fears about cancer and damage to our environment. Faced with a myriad of threats in our everyday lives, which ones should we be most fearful of? Will the next big episode be “SARS-like”, will it be a possible terrorist event, or perhaps a re-run of past influenza pandemics, or will half of South-Eastern Australia wither under a prolonged drought? Whatever it is, there is sure to be a movie in it.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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