Fear and Instinct: How Horror Helps

People do not often get eaten. That is not the way most of us meat our maker. While humanity preys on wild fauna and consumes domesticated flesh en masse, very few animals get the chance to pay us the same kindness. The average carnivorous American consumes 270 pounds of meat each year, but Grizzly bear attacks (arguably the most successful predator in North America) kills only, on average, three humans per year. Such a wide divide between consumer and provider is not a result of humanity reaching the top of the food pyramid, but the consequence of humanity escaping the cycle of life all together.

People do not feel fear. Of course, some of us get nervous before giving a presentation, or have a crippling fear of spiders or heights, or perspire uncontrollably on a first date. But true fear, that primal reaction to certain danger, is not common to most people’s experience. Beyond the high adrenaline junkies constantly chase, primal fear runs deeper. When we fear for our lives because of another creature, we creep closer to the anxiety of our primeval primate predecessors—creeping through high grasses, avoiding lions on the savannah. Some of us do face the constant threat of fulfilling our promise as prey—as hunter gatherers perhaps—but many of us do not. Those who do not, own televisions.

We screen-glued denizens of the earth still need this fear in some capacity. There is little chance a lion will burst through my front window, searching for a meal in Chicago. We reach primality through horror fiction. A well-crafted horror tale incites an instinctual response to danger. Cheap jump scares and gore hardly cut it; quality horror expands more gradually, similar to the constant attentiveness of an antelope living in lion territory. Success in the horror genre is marked, partially by the active danger presented. The malicious spirit, rabid animal, or invasive alien all have something in common: they all are active forces in the world. They hold the ability to do us harm; their actions are wholly beyond our control. The fear of the other’s action mirrors what prey feels while fulfilling its role in the food chain.

Already, one can notice how well we have distanced ourselves from our animal identity. At the tail end of July, 2016, a tiger mauled a woman to death in the Badaling Wildlife Park. Located in Beijing, the park remains surprisingly wild, while residing in one of the largest urban centers in the world. For those who are not familiar with the natural order of things, foraying into such territory can be deadly. Reportedly, the victim, while surrounded by multiple Siberian Tigers (the largest living big cat), left her car to switch seats with another person in the vehicle. She turned her back to a large male and, within a few seconds, the tiger dragged her away, into the brush. Such obliviousness hardly seems the sign of a creature aware of its place in the natural world. That is because it is not. Humans are quickly reaching the point of fully losing attention to our oldest relationship. The relationship with those who call us lunch.

While the creeping anxiety one feels when reading The Shining hardly compares with scrambling through thick vegetation, fighting to escape from a murderous jungle cat—horror allows us to practice an important physiological function we rarely utilize in our padded world. The genuine fear associated with survival instinct must still be exercised. If we fully lose that, we lose the final connection to our former place within the food chain. Perhaps if we protected deer from wolves, the deer would need to watch Friday the 13th to remain sane too.

Louis CK’s Food Chain: 

By Jacob Bretz

Image Source: Real Life Global

2 thoughts on “Fear and Instinct: How Horror Helps

  1. A thoughtful set of reflections Jake. Thanks. I wonder though, whether humans experience fear the way other kinds of animals experiences fear. We can’t necessarily know, of course, since I to some extent can only know (and know that I know) what it is like for me to experience something as humans do.

    The question you bring up about sanity is very interesting. What is sanity, if not an adopted (perhaps culturally or biologically conditioned) way of interpreting the world in which my existence matters, the extinction of my existence also matters, and that what matters to be is generally supported by the basic structures of reality. But my relationship to my “mattering” should not be too extreme. To have no fear of death would be insane, presumably because to treat one’s own “mattering” with such caprice is problematic. But to so cling to my life that I am crippled by the need to utterly protect it would be insanity as well, presumably because to make my “mattering” to whole of the context for anything mattering is problematic. So what is the middle ground? Perhaps I need to assume that I matter enough to go on preserving my individual existence, but I cannot be the source of my own mattering because to “matter” can only be understood contextually, and that context is the rest of the world.

    There are a host of fears you bring up which could be further distinguished. Anxiety (fear without an object of fear), Animal Fear (I may not know what my existence is, but my instincts tell me to get the hell out the immediate present situation – e.g. a tiger coming toward me), imagined fear (I know that Friday the 13th isn’t happening to me know, but I can imagine my way into the lives of others’ fear), human fear (my existence, which is being threatened right now, matters to mean), and finally human dread (not only is my existence threatened on occasion, but the very significance of my existence is threatened).

    As to your thesis – that humans need fear to be sane – I think you are onto something important there. Perhpas the only thing to fear, is a life-without-fear itself. Scary isn’t it?


  2. Thanks for your response Karl. I didn’t think to categorize the different fears I alluded to in this short reflection. Now that you have written some of them out, it is easy to see how they are different. I wonder though, if they could spill over into one another, compensating for one another. For example, is does anxiety show when a person experiences too little human fear?

    In some sense, I think of sanity as correct balance. Mania and depression are two extremes, both common mental illnesses. So perhaps finding sanity in the midst of fear is by definition this balance. I liked how you explained this balance in a physical way, “Perhaps I need to assume that I matter enough to go on preserving my individual existence”, but I’m not sure self-preservation is quite my aim here. A balance of fear impacts not only our mental and physical health but our ability to successfully act in the world. This is something I’d like to develop further.

    Perhaps humans and animals feel different sorts of fear. It is hard to image a deer worrying about his place in the universe, or a bluefin tuna swimming through the ocean, fretting about her eventual demise. According to reputable news outlet, The Onion, researchers recently taught a western lowland gorilla of his inevitable death: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJkWS4t4l0k

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