The Evolution of Fear: How A Human Survival Trait Has Changed

The thing that numbs the heart is this:
That men cannot devise
Some scheme of life to banish fear
That lurks in most men's eyes.
- James Norman Hall, Fear

      The maturation of the human mind from primeval animal to reasoning being is an enigmatic but fascinating story. As the first tools began to be used to facilitate everyday prehistoric life and humankind began to hunt in organized groups, spoken language was developed, agriculture was invented, discoveries were made, and humans transformed themselves in a slow but constantly accelerating pace toward the modern age. Yet though we now live in nearly artificial societies surrounded by technology and manmade artifacts to the extent that we hardly realize our thorough separation from nature, we still maintain unconscious, primal instincts that act to preserve us. Arguably the most powerful of these instincts is fear. For the great majority of our existence, we lived in small hunter-gatherer groups, facing dangerous predators and prey alike - even other humans - and kept a well-developed sense of fear to help us remember which elements of the world to avoid.

      However, although "our brain is the product of thousands of generations of evolution" (Perry 13), we have not, perhaps, evolved as far as we might think. That same advanced brain "has evolved specialized systems for a hunter-gatherer world permeated with threat" (Perry 13); that level of hard-coding is among the deepest components of our collective psyche. Since most humans in modern society no longer regularly need a fight-or-flee reaction from predators and hazardous living conditions, they seem to have developed an instinctual need to keep their minds and abilities sharp via frightening films and novels, thrill rides, and negative newscasts. The instinct of fear is necessary as a survival trait, and its current form is a compelling study of how our world is reflected in our entertainment, but by creating, programming, and exploiting fear which nurtures a constant state of alarm, we run the risks of dulling our own protective senses.

      The reason for fear as an ingrained trait is simple and obvious - it helps us to survive, by injecting us with memories and chemicals so that we can recognize and avoid danger - although its process is complex. Since fear "can play a direct role in life-and-death struggles, it's not surprising to find that the brain contains elaborate machinery dedicated to its routines" (Johnson and Selim). Upon encountering a threatening situation, a primitive organ in the brain called the amygdala sends out a distress signal. The human body flushes itself with adrenaline, pauses nonessential functions such as digestion, redirects blood into muscles for any needed bursts of energy, and succumbs to a highly sensitive fight-or-flight response. Although many people think of fear as a reaction that hinders our ability to act, Gavin de Becker in his book The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence argues that "real fear is not paralyzing - it is energizing" (284). Although there will be situations in which remaining still and unnoticed is a strategy for survival, the chemical response created by true fear is a galvanizing force for action.

      This instinct remains within us, despite the fact that our immersion in modern society shields us from most of the threats ancient humans used to face. Of course, there remain perils and hazards that occur with daunting frequency: natural disasters, violent crime, war, and technological accidents, which, if we are involved in them, trigger our fear response and help us survive. However, the everyday life of a modern human in urban and suburban environments is more or less sheltered, and those threats are often thrust into our subconscious. Many people will worry about potential auto accidents or muggings or world events, but they may not fear them until they happen; until then, such things happen to other people. The fear instinct, then, having no need for everyday exercise, seems to have been redirected. We have bolstered our fear reaction over millennia by telling frightening stories to each other. Every culture in the world has a place for the storyteller, and there has always been a fascination with sitting around a campfire exchanging unlikely tales of horror. As fear has become fascination, fear has become a form of therapy. Wes Craven, known best as the mind behind the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, suggests,

Artificial horror vents real horror that is resident in the audience [...] they don't pay to be scared, they pay to have their fears exorcised. Fear is typically repressed by the psyche until such a time that it can be vented in a safe way. That's what therapy does. That's what horror films, ghost stories around the campfire, and nightmares do also. The narrative process tones and tempers the chaos of horror, which otherwise seems formless and endless, and gives it some sense and resolution. (qtd. in Scarbrough)

      We worry about the current events of the world, new technologies, crime, diseases, and threats from nations different from our own, and we channel the fears and phobias generated by such events into our entertainment. It is a safe method of processing our fear instinct, generating the intensity of terror without the risk of physical consequences, and functions as an aid in understanding or coping with what we find alarming.

      What frightens us the most seems to be connected to whatever current geopolitical climate exists at the time, as suggested by the popularity of certain types of horror and other thrilling entertainment. This can be most accurately supported with observations of the last century in America. Following the horrors of the first World War, in which unprecedented numbers of soldiers and civilians perished, the public's reaction to combat-numbed soldiers returning almost as zombies seemed to reveal itself in silent films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. Later, the 1930s saw a boom in the horror genre as the American public was struggling with financial disaster. The darkest hours of the Great Depression would produce classic Hollywood horror archetypes: the monsters (Skal 115). Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde and the Wolfman, entities that were separate from "the human body and its processes, blurring the boundaries between Homo sapiens and other species," represented palpable threats that could be recognized and opposed, as opposed to the feelings of impotence and frustration resulting from the dire economic times (Skal 114).

      The 1940s, after the deaths of over 40 million people, had introduced new horrors in the form of weapons of mass destruction and the extermination camp, and the 1950s would reveal the public's uneasiness with two factors: the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the new atomic bomb (Skal 229). The former was a manifestation of a new enemy, one that could not be clearly defined and identified but whose ways could be insinuated into society, and the latter illustrated a fear of science grown beyond understanding and out of control. Horror movies of that time would depict alien invaders, often much different than we and intent upon enslaving Earth's people or controlling their minds and ideologies, or star "gigantic, stomping mutations, explicitly the product of atomic testing" (Skal 247). A lack of understanding of science but a fear of its uses, combined with McCarthyism and Red Scares, would be distorted into a cultural xenophobia. The 1960s saw a rise in movies depicting zombies and mutated offspring, reflected perhaps in the invention of modern birth control; conservative views of human life were compromised by the idea of having control over when or if life begins. The '70s and '80s realized a widening separation between standards of living which resulted in psychotic killer, or "slasher," films such as Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The idea, spawned somewhat by '60s movies like Psycho, reflected the public's increased awareness that their lives might be threatened not by faceless nations, wayward science or threats beyond their understanding, but by people just like them; the face of horror had become the boy next door, and the public began to realize that one could not ride one's bike down the street as safely as before. Movies had become an accurate reflection of the human fear response.

      Fear may be therapy, redirected through safe mediums such as literature and film, but fear can also be exercised, via thrill rides and haunted houses. Both are highly popular attractions, and both have a timeless quality to them; they do not reflect the outlooks of the age except by becoming more extreme. In a Psychology Today article, Eric Minton adds that "the biggest common denominator is that the two feed on the same basic fear: loss of control. Once a coaster takes off, passengers can do nothing but sit or, on some rides stand, and scream." Both attractions also share the appeal for fear that frightening films and literature do, in that "no matter how precarious a roller coaster or alarming a haunted house may appear, it must be totally safe" (Minton). Fear is channeled here as well, with the conscious realization of danger without consequence. The fear response is activated without the existence of true threat.

      However, this modern human tendency to redirect fear has resulted in a tendency to create fear where there should be none, or generate far worse fear from mundane circumstances than would be warranted. We worry about our jobs, world events, relationships, automotive mechanical failure, computer crashes, and other difficulties that are stressful but not directly life-threatening. According to Ernest Becker, "man's fears are fashioned out of the ways in which he perceives the world." Animals know what to fear by instinct, "but an animal who has no instinct (man) has no programmed fears" (qtd. in de Becker 294). Since fear is designed to protect us from harm, we absorb information where possible to learn what may be detrimental to our well-being and "allow the fear system to take control in threatening situations and prevent our conscious awareness from reigning. This may have been an optimal design for predator-rich environments in which survival was a minute-by-minute question, but it is not a good adaptation for modern environments in which the stressors can be job performance reviews" (Johnson and Selim).

      So, we watch news channels in order to discover new dangers. This, however, can develop the potential for fear to become a destructive emotion rather than a life-preserving instinct. Media agencies are quite cognizant of human psychology, and therefore construct their news stories to be as alarming and attention-getting as possible. The phrase "if it bleeds, it leads" is well known, and refers to the fact that we as a modern society are attracted to the negative. Our own long-ingrained fear reaction teaches us to examine sources of information for potential threats to our existence, and therefore news stories of violence, crime, disease, and natural disasters have a guaranteed audience, even if there is an infinitesimal likelihood of those tragedies happening to us. News media scare us with brand new diseases, unlikely crime sprees, and economic woes, and such negative information falsely triggers our fear response, creating anxiety, depression, and even phobias. Fear, to us, is no longer a primal response to physical danger, but something of which we may not even be aware, and to which we are even encouraged not to pay heed, despite huge amounts of alarming information broadcast by the news media. Fear "must be taught. While everyone has the capacity to fear, few believe they should pay it much attention. They either do not notice that they are afraid, or they dismiss their fears as dishonorable concerns" (Robin 1091). We are worried and afraid without realizing it.

      One of the primary rules given by Gavin de Becker is that "what you fear is rarely what you think you fear - it is what you link to fear" (282). When we conceive of what makes us truly afraid, we can connect it to a peril that will cause us pain or kill us. Too often we attach our fear to situations that are not directly harmful at all - but we create a path of occurrences so that the situations become fearful. For instance, a fear of a poor employment review stems from the possibility that it may lead to losing one's job, which may lead to loss of possessions and home, being forced to beg for food, and possibly growing sick and dying (de Becker 282). This kind of unconscious thought is what leads to phobias, and the level of stress experienced by people in non-life-threatening situations seems to be a symptom of our immersion in modern society. We are programmed to remain in a constant state of fear, which when triggered in a non-threat manner is detrimental. A well-developed sense of fear is an amazing life-preserving trait which teaches how to take precautions to avoid danger, but precautions are a strategy, not a chemical response; "precautions are constructive, whereas remaining in a state of fear is destructive. It can also lead to panic, and panic itself is usually more dangerous than the outcome we dread. Rock climbers and long-distance ocean swimmers will tell you it isn't the mountain or the water that kills - it is panic" (de Becker 279).

      Having a sensible approach to the possibilities of danger may be the most effective means of countering this barrage of stress; "[...] individuals must be taught to understand the rational properties of their fear. While nature has provided individuals with the capacity to fear, it is education that teaches them to act wisely and prudently in accordance with that fear" (Robin 1091). It is wise to be aware of what dangers the world contains, and healthy to exercise that fear in safe situations such as films and thrill rides, but it is also wise to recognize what is or is not actually perilous to us. Fear is an important survival emotion, but one must accede to it only when justified.

Works Cited

de Becker, Gavin. The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1997.

Johnson, Steven, and Jocelyn Selim. " Fear." Discover Mar. 2003: 31 pars. EBSCOhost. MasterFILE Premier. Fullerton College Lib., Fullerton. 15 April 2003

Minton, Eric. "Thrills & Chills: Designers of Amusement Park Attractions Exploit Fear." Psychology Today May 1999: 42 pars. 26 April 2003

Perry, Bruce D. "Tolerance: Overcoming Fear to Understand Others." Science World Feb. 2002: 13.

Robin, Corey. "Fear: A Genealogy of Morals." Social Research 67 (Winter 2000): 1085+.

Scarbrough, Marsha. "It's Alliive! Oh, The Horror! The Genre That Just Wouldn't Die..." Written By Oct. 1998: 48 pars. 15 April 2003

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

David Elsensohn, May 2003

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