Loyola University Maryland

Emerging Scholars

Tim Babylon, Louis Hinkel

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Redefining Fear

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The purpose of this project is to develop an in depth understanding of fear, the human response to fear stimulation, and to reach a concise definition of what compromises this idea. After defining this idea, the project will attempt to decipher why it is that we as humans find the concept of things such as the disgusting, the grotesque and the foreign to be so intoxicating in nature. The project will fully define fear as a concept, explain why humans rush to confront their fear in popular media and how humans are psychologically hardwired to enjoy and seek out this experience.

The current basic definition of fear extends itself from the early idea of “The Uncanny” that was first discussed by Sigmund Freud. However, this definition is very general and does not go far enough into explaining what causes the fear response. It is a good starting point and in the first section of the project, “The Uncanny” will be used as a starting point and a more complete definition of fear will be presented. The full definition will use Freud’s idea as a base, but it will extend further and take other scholarly ideas into consideration and interpretation. After substantive research, there are more ideas that will need to be defined and homogenized together to create a final balanced definition of fear. These ideas are “The Grotesque,” “Disgust,” and “Otherness.” Fear is more than just the unease caused by the perversion of the normal, as Freud stated. It is also a visceral response to specific stimuli that evoke a feeling of unease or dread.

The concise definition of fear will take a look at specific situations and focused situations that cause people to become afraid. “The Grotesque has the power to move from the material world into the uncanny realm of mystery through its experience of disorientation, bewilderment, confusion and bafflement”, as Justin Edwards puts it. This is similar but somewhat different from the concept of disgust. Disgust is inherently involved with the internal functions of the body becoming mixed with the external life. Disgust also concerns itself with life existing where it should not, such as infection would present itself. This is important because it quantifies aspects of fear and clarifies the specific phenomena that must be present to evoke this response instead of giving a broad stoke, as Freud’s definition did.

Richard Kearney’s concept of “otherness” is also important to completing the first section of this project. Grotesquerie speaks to fear evoked by oddity and abnormality and disgust relates to viscera and rot. Otherness takes a step to qualifying our xenophobic fear of strangers and invasion. It belies our sense of safety. Freud set a line by giving a name to fear when he called it “the uncanny.” However, this project will take the necessary step to push the definition another level and clarify what exactly causes the idea of fear and why, instead of just saying that unusual events make us feel uneasy.

The second part of the paper will be an attempt to explain the fascination that people have with the genre. Why do we bring ourselves again and again to the cusp to view things that we know we are afraid of? Stephen Asma discusses a very interesting Darwinian idea that I hope to open this section with. Asma talks about Darwin’s study of monkeys as an example, given their natural fear of snakes. Darwin noted through his observations of monkeys that they would seek out an opportunity to look upon snakes and then run away from them afraid. Much like the monkeys felt a primal need to stare into the face of danger; humans have an ingrained desire to stare at things that are overtly terrifying to us, only to retreat to the relative safety of our lives.

The Pinedo, Ligotti, and Nelson books (among others) present ideas that provide an interesting framework that explains this phenomenon. Pinedo presents an argument that the horror genre is enjoyable as a ritual exercise because it has to come to an end, unless you choose to carry it with you, it is an experience that will only go on for a pre –determined amount of time. This makes it a safe medium to experience it in. Unlike the threat of real world fear or violence, it is contained to a certain period of time. That time is set by the number of pages or the runtime of a film and this provides a relative safety because the exposure to the fear evoking stimuli is limited. She speaks about the finite and spatial nature of film and the semi-public setting of a movie theatre.

Ligotti states that perhaps the idea of terror is a way for humans to confront the deadly and the macabre in a safe and comfortable way, while still stoking the primeval “flight or fight” responses that we no longer utilize since we worked our way to the top of the food chain. Victoria Nelson examines the phenomenon by looking into the concept of fandom and expresses that the nature of a human to act out fantasy could also be a reflection on the weighty psycho social impact that a specific genre carries with it as clout.

The final section of the project will tie the piece together. During this section of the paper I will review actual psychological research data that shows that the human fear response is something unique. Perhaps the drive to experience these types of controlled fears is more inherently chemical that we had initially thought. OR, I could totally disprove this whole theory and find myself back in the murky ether that seems to suggest that people’s individual likes are actually totally random. They could be nothing but the byproduct of nothing more than our repressed childhood fears, as Freud stated years ago.

I think the significance of this paper is that it will be a concise and pointed project that reaches a more solid conclusion about the nature of fear and enjoyment than has been previously researched. My plan to accomplish this lofty goal is to interpret existing bodies of work that are not naturally derivative in nature and piecing together something that is cohesive and more fully encompassing in nature. The framework of the project will first fully define fear and what encompasses the makeup of this feeling. Secondly, the project will demonstrate how humans rush to confront fear willingly. Finally, the project will address the psychological aspects of fear and explain why it is embedded in our human programming and that the desire to seek out the frightening is part of our hard coded wiring as human beings. The conclusion that is reached will be something that is very construct and grounded in scholarly research.

Cited Resources

Asma, Stephen T. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Crane, Jonathan Lake. Terror in Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of the Horror Film. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1994. Print.

Edwards, Justin. Grotesque. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Trans. David McClintock. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Groom, Nick. The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

Kearney, Richard. Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010. Print.

Miller, William Ian. The Anatomy of Disgust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. Print.

Nelson, Victoria. Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.

Phillips, Kendall R. Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Print.

Pinedo, Isabel Christina. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. New York: State University of New York Press, 1997. Print.

Schneider, Steven Jay, ed. Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud’s Worst Nightmare. New York: Columbia UP, 2004. Print.