Fear of Fear

*Photos from 2012 Acres of Darkness

I have spent the past two evenings hiding in the woods trying to get pictures of terrified people in complete darkness.  Darkness is a funny thing.  We talk about it like it’s a bad thing.  Analogies about being in darkness and being brought into the light start with the notion that we hide in darkness and we are seen in the light.  After all, there is nothing inherently bad in darkness–it just makes it harder to see.

But why is darkness required to make something scary in the first place?  If we had the night-vision of owls or the sonar of bats, would we find the dark so frightening?  Is it only because darkness provides a “cover” for what frightens us by tucking it away where our human eyes can’t penetrate that we’re so startled when someone jumps out from behind a tree and says “boo!”?

Recently, I walked through the living room while thinking about something intently.  I passed my husband, who claims I looked right at him.  I went into the kitchen, poured myself a glass of water and then turned around to discover him standing behind me.  I screamed and threw up my hands, throwing water all over the kitchen.

I believe this incident proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that darkness is not a requirement for fear.  Rather, our history as a species dependent on detecting threats and potential meals largely based on the detection of movement causes us to be largely rational people who suddenly jump out of their skin if they failed to detect there was something present that might move.

Interestingly, expecting someone to jump out at you can actually serve to make it more scary when they oblige.  I frequently startle during movies and TV shows when suspense is climbing and then the bad guy suddenly jumps out at the hero(ine).  This startles me so much that my husband has taken the tactic of forewarning me.

Warning me seems to have quite the opposite effect.  The expectation that someone is about to jump out only increases the feeling of suspense and anxiety, making me jump even higher than I would have with no warning.

What is that mechanism?  At the haunt I’ve been volunteering at, we had two young girls who went through our haunted trail with a young man who was apparently one of the girl’s boyfriend.  He was walking ahead of the girls asking the actors not to scare her because she was really upset.  We found out later she’s actually got sick earlier on the trail because she was scared so badly.

I found myself puzzled as to what is the difference between a girl who gets physically ill from the fear of a staged scene in the woods while another person of the same age and experience may walk the same trail laughing at all our attempts to scare her/him.

Like so many things, fear is, in fact, all in our minds.

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2 responses to “Fear of Fear

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