People love fear. Consider the enduring popularity, for instance, of thriller and horror movies since the invention of the motion picture. Think Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), M (1931) and Werewolf of London (1935), among scores of others. This year a sequel to the classic slasher-flick Halloween was released 40 years after the original.
Sociologist Isabel Cristina Pinedo refers to our collective appetite for horror films as “recreational terror.” Legions of people are also drawn to other forms of terror for entertainment purposes, most notably carnivals and haunted houses, as described in detail by Margee Kerr in her 2015 book, Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.
The love of fear also explains the popularity of thrill-seeking amusements such as skydiving, hanging off the edge of the CN Tower, and bungee jumping (right, Will Smith?). In these contexts, fear is temporary and contained by rules and regulations.
Beyond fun and games, fear serves a regulatory purpose and can be used as a tool of political control. It can expose vulnerabilities and make us targets of those who would do us harm or wish to manipulate us for their own ends. Fear is also espoused as something we should hide, as a narrator of a 2018 advertisement for the show, Chopped Canada, forcefully warns: “In the Chopped Canada kitchen, … never let the judges see or smell your fear.”
In gender socialization, fear is widely perceived and identified, especially among men, as a sign of weakness that transgresses the social expectations of boys and men to be tough, fearless, strong. Boys and men are trained to supposedly overcome or conquer fear, a practice of toxic masculinity, lest they are called a roster of misogynistic or homophobic names.
On the other hand, gender theorist Jack Halberstam notes in Female Masculinity that women who appear to be fearless may be perceived as masculine. Fear, then, is deployed in society to enforce gender norms and expectations.
Fear is a political tool
As a tool wielded by politicians to exploit anxieties that are already in the culture, fear sways public opinion and political allegiance. A pop-culture example mirrors real-life: In a chilling exchange at the end of season 4 of House of Cards, Claire and Frank Underwood (U.S. vice-president nominee and president, respectively) realize the potential to win the election by exploiting fears of the American people:
Frank: Create chaos?
Claire: More than chaos.
Frank [Leans in to listen intently]: War.
Frank: Fear. Brutal. Total.
Claire: I’m done trying to win over people’s hearts.
Frank: Let’s attack their hearts.
Claire: We can work with fear. [Smile of determination.]
Frank: Yes we can. [Leans back.]
Claire and Frank’s target is not made specific. Real political campaigns, however, vilify particular groups to incite hysteria among those who can be convinced that they are under threat from “different” others.
It was once widely taken as fact, for example, that gay men are all pedophiles, out to recruit boys into immoral lifestyles (a sentiment that has not disappeared entirely). Also persistent is the notion that Jewish people conspire to take over the world economy. Another entrenched argument, promulgated by men and women alike, is that feminists aim to emasculate men by tearing down their place in the world and in the family.
The targets of campaigns of fear change according to political contexts and circumstances. Especially since 2001, Muslims and those perceived as being Muslim have become the targets of restrictive national and local policies.
In his 2014 book, Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream, Christopher Bail argues that, through narratives of danger and vilification, fear serves a social function by uniting like-minded people and fuelling white nationalism.
Fear motivates change
Fear is a powerful force, but is it limited to the realm of thrills, chills, shame and political strategy? What might it mean to consider fear differently from the usual media-driven narratives of stigma and weakness?
Elite athletes might provide some insight into how they employ fear as motivation to maximize their performance under competition. People who are not elite athletes might find a similar purpose in fear: it can be what guides people to achieve. This is precisely what I explored in interviews with people about how fear motivated them to pursue a goal despite thinking of themselves as incapable.
Singing or speaking in public, nude modelling, public speaking, coming out as queer, diving off a cliff, leaving an abusive relationship, returning to school later in life, becoming a parent for the first time and facing competition in athletic events are just some examples of how fear motivates internal change and achievement.
For some people, fear represents an opportunity. One participant captured the point when she said:
“It’s the fear that makes you want to do it more… [it] means that it’s something that I really want to do.”
In the context of being in the rapids in a kayak, another said:
“Life happens when the water’s moving. Fear is where the fun starts … But you don’t have fun until you’re out there in the water, in the scary part …Life’s really short; it’s so sweet. That’s what fear gives me … fear is what sets your soul free.”
These comments mirror another participant’s perspective that, as a guiding voice, fear signals the need to continually problem-solve. Fear played a supporting but important role in earning her kayak instructor certification.
Such perspectives and experiences contradict those of influential leaders who have spoken about fear. Former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said in 1933 that, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Buddhist philosopher Thích Nhất Hạnh claimed that “Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy. When you touch nonfear, you are free.”
They were both wrong.