fear is the most contagious emotion -- 11/02/16

Today's selection -- from Haunted by Leo Brandy. Fear, horror, terror -- in popular culture and politics -- all are a reaction to a collective uncertainty of the future and nostalgia for the safety of the knowable past. Fear can leave us vulnerable and be infectious. And some social scientists believe fear is seven times more likely to spread than any other social attitude.

"Both Freud and Jung suggest that horror might be defined as what every culture, no matter how different, seeks to submerge in the name of social order. Whether fictional terror was an escape from the real world, or a kind of training for its conflicts, was a question taken up by the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in the twenti­eth century, when he argued in The Uses of Enchantment that stories like the Grimm fairy tales (first published in 1812) helped children master their other­wise overpowering fears of the invisible world. The desire to experience fear, to go to horror movies, to scream on roller coasters, all to a certain extent are explainable through Bettelheim's ideas.

"But surrounding the individual effort to master fears by turning them into stories, there is also a historical context for their eruption. In eras when an oversupply of free-floating fear fills the atmosphere, there are more light­ning rods raised to experience those fears and to overcome them, including the dusting off of old myths and the invocation of monsters from the past, to deal with the confusions of the present. In this way personal fear is trans­formed into group fear, whether of a community, a district, or even a nation. It is intriguing to think that the same era that saw the rise of newspapers, newsletters, and other forms of communication also could reasonably be termed the birthplace of widespread and often groundless fears. The estab­lishment of a concept of public opinion and the desire to shape and feed it is inevitably accompanied by the possibility of rumor, false or half-baked infor­mation, and bias, to which paranoia is a ready response. Paranoia, after all, can be a form of solace, a distorted effort to regain control in the midst of chaos. ...

"Sociologists like Barry Glassner in The Culture of Fear have recently docu­mented how a distinct characteristic of the modern world -- in which tremen­dous fears sweep through large segments of the population, fears of terrorism, fears of epidemic diseases, fears of crime, fears of interloping strangers -- is abetted by an ever expanding web of communications, manipulated by politi­cians and newscasters, liberals and conservatives alike. Certainly the speed with which the flimsiest rumor can become viral is something that has changed remarkably since the end of the eighteenth century, as has the daily increasing number of possible sources of information or disinformation. So­cial scientists have estimated that fear is seven times more likely to spread than any other social attitude. Historically, such bouts of group paranoia can be dated from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the belief that Satan walked the earth (as exemplified in the Salem witch trials) or that armed men supported by foreign invaders or the local aristocracy were on the attack (like the Great Fear of the early French Revolution) aroused fears that reason was helpless to stem. Thus, while fear is always phrased in terms of contem­porary issues, it is often animated and shaped by more long-lasting stories and images. Old myths, earlier fears, are repurposed to make sense of the new horrors of the world. Even when other explanations are available, the lan­guage of fear gives an emotional weight to the argument. Story floods in to fill the factual gaps in rumor and hearsay. Anti-Semitism and ethnic cleansing become the modern political versions of accusations of heresy and witchcraft. Pandora's box becomes the appropriate image for the prospect of worldwide nuclear destruction. Preschool children make accusations of witchcraft and satanic rituals that come virtually straight out of the works of the Brothers Grimm."

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Leo Braudy


Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds


Yale University Press


Copyright 2016 by Leo Braudy


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