Facing fear(s)


I was asked at the weekend if I liked horror. This was in the context of movies. Ordinarily, I would answer ‘no’, and think nothing more of it. This time, because I have decided my Second Innings is going to be about trying to say ‘yes’ to more things, more frequently, I hesitated. Then, because I was being asked by a woman whose company I very much enjoy, and who is very beautiful, I said that I might be interested. Beautiful women, therefore, moderate my fear, I conclude. I doubt I am alone in that. Which man cannot deny he would face a fear to impress a lady?

“Fear is stupid. So are regrets” – Marilyn Monroe

Only then did I ask myself why I didn’t like ‘horror’. Fear is not innate. We are not born fearful. We learn fear. In many cases it is passed on to us in a benign way, designed to arm us from harms. In other cases we learn, and have, irrational fears passed on to us. The more ignorant we are of danger, the less we feel fear. Knowledge imparts fear. We teach it to our children so they appreciate the real threats of open water, of fire, of sharp objects, and often of strangers. I realised that I probably had never actually watched a ‘horror movie’ and so I had no idea what frightened me about the prospect. The film we saw was ‘Us’, directed by Jordan Peele. Of which, more below.

What is fear? It is defined in my Chambers dictionary as a ‘painful emotion excited by danger’. It is the apprehension of danger or pain. Reactions are biochemical (common) and emotional (particular), sometimes together, sometimes separate. The chemical reactions in the brain are similar to many pleasurable stimuli, hence the presence amongst us of ‘thrill-seekers’, and ‘adrenaline junkies’. It motivates horror film fans in the way that it had repelled me. To be fear-less is to be daring and brave. Freud, in his General Theory of Neuroses, divided fear into ‘real fear’ and ‘neurotic fear’.

“If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now.” – Marcus Aurelius

A real fear is a reaction to the perception of external danger. It is the trigger for the flight instinct. We know that if fear is overwhelming it can paralyse and therefore inhabit the flight instinct. It can suffocate us. Fear comes in degrees. Freud noted that “most nervous people complain of and describe fear as their greatest source of suffering”. For me, when I was younger, fears tended to be physical fears. Fear of being hurt tackling at rugby, or being hit by a fast bowler when I was batting. These are real fears, but not something I think of in the context of anguish and suffering.

“Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or to be limited by the fear of it.” – Judy Blume

Interestingly, although we are not born with fear, it is very common in children. Freud believed that fear started at birth and the fundamental fear is separation from the mother. It is, in his words, “the ego’s reaction to danger”. It is certainly true that children build up their confidence and self esteem by developing layer upon layer of familiarity with objects and concepts, which leads to a tendency to fear the unfamiliar. The contradiction, though, is that children are often overwhelmed by curiosity and innocence. It draws them to the unfamiliar.

“The fearful are caught as often as the bold” – Helen Keller

As I thought more about my apparent fear of horror movies, I started to think more about specific fears. Probably the greatest common fear is death. My experience, though, is people generally fear death less than how they will die. This may be related to the weaker hold religion has upon modern society than in the past. When I was growing up I realised there were no good ways to die, but for some reason the prospect of drowning held the greatest fear for me. I think I still feel that way. As much as I love living by the river, and crossing Tower Bridge almost daily, I prefer to walk closer the the road when I am on the pavement. I am frightened of being drawn to the water and being compelled to jump. Weird, no?

The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear” – Nelson Mandela

The journal Science published a study conducted by researchers from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) using mice that showed how the brain actually has to re-experience a fear in order to extinguish it. The rodents were initially put into a small box and give a mild shock. Over a long period, the researchers returned the mice to the box but didn’t administer shocks. Initially, the mice froze but with repeated exposure to the box, and no additional shocks, they eventually relaxed. For humans, therapy is about confronting a fear in a secure environment and slowly managing down one’s anxiety levels. How that works when I experience fear watching Gloucester be blinded in a performance of ‘King Lear’, I don’t know, but loss of sight is one of my fears.

“Men are not afraid of things, but of how they view them.” – Epictetus

Of those with whom I have discussed fear, the word that recurs most often, is shame, closely followed by embarrassment. There is a deep rooted common horror of being exposed for having done something shameful and having it revealed very publicly. It seems to be less about the deed itself, and all about the public revelation. It made me think about Winnicott’s true self and false self again. Our true self may be compelled to pursue potentially shameful behaviours, but we present ourselves as quite different, and so, the fear is only related to discovery. Some people, however, become so uncomfortable with their true drives and desires, that they behave recklessly. It might be observed that they are crying for help and relief, and crying from their unconscious.

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do” – Henry Ford

So, perhaps it is what Freud thought of as ‘neurotic fear’ that is the significant issue. I wondered why I use to fear the reactions of some senior management when I was working. I certainly did not want to be feared when I was managing others. If ‘real fear’ is the catalyst for the ‘flight reaction’, it is probable that we can conclude it is of more benefit to us than a hindrance. If fear is “the greatest source of suffering”, it must be the neurotic kind. In this narrower definition fears are the manifestation of emotions that were attached to ideas that were suppressed and buried in individuals’ unconscious. The ‘fear of the unknown’ is an oft used phrase and plainly, if we repress, suppress and bury something, especially something traumatic, then we cannot know what it would be to face it and handle it. Managing fears is highly personalised, but I like the phrase ‘treat your anxiety as a storehouse of wisdom’.

“Knowing what must be done, does away with fear” – Rosa Parks

Back to the film. I shall try not to provide spoilers. To my pleasure, it did not scare me. I did not want to be scared, although I understand that is why many horror fans watch, and I did not want to reveal my fears to my companion. ‘Us’ is about an America where everyone has a ‘double’ living a subterranean life. These doubles are inarticulate. That apart, the only distinguishing difference between those above and those below ground is that the higher beings have a soul. Those below are known as the ‘tethered’. Initially created as a government programme to control the people above ground, the programme has failed. The tethered are coming to exact their revenge. You can guess much of the rest.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood” – Marie Curie

Since typing this I have become aware that there is quite a debate about what the director intended, and what is the meaning of the film. Critics seem split. As a riff on the world of the conscious and unconscious parts of each of us, it works really well, especially the sense that we are all controlled and motivated by our unconscious. The unconscious must stay hidden as it harbours the dark side of our true self. The ending of the film is confusing, or intriguing, depending on your perspective, but what has absolute clarity is that the plot hinges on a childhood trauma. Freudians will like that it is founded on separation from the mother. And the film rests on the audience’s reaction to confronting monsters. Monsters that represent the worst of ourselves.

“If you look into your own heart, and you find nothing wrong there, what is there to worry about? What is there to fear?” – Confucius

For me, it was a very small triumph. I conquered a ‘fear’ of horror movies, albeit that this may not be near the peak of the highest mountains of horrific content. Or perhaps that is the point. I watched it and realised it was nothing that I really needed to fear. My fear has been faced and has acquired a new, much smaller perspective. I am now thinking with a great deal more clarity about my other fears and how to face them, and to what they might really be attributed. I am looking back at my past with bemusement at all the things that once seemed so important. My Second Innings will see me say ‘yes’ more often, and it will allow me to explore the ‘unknown’ more enthusiastically.