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OPINION31 October 2018

What are we afraid of?

Opinion UK

Fear is supposed to be something that we avoid, yet people can’t get enough of the scares that Halloween provides.

How do we explain this apparent fear paradox, and what can the science of fear tell us about conventional frights relating to spooky ghosts and witches, for example, compared to broader societal and personal anxieties?

We conducted research that explores what people fear, from ‘losing freedom’, through to ‘loneliness’, ‘Donald Trump’, ‘ghosts’, and ‘witches’.

What’s clear is that fear is one of the most powerful emotions. It has a very strong effect on your mind and body, it can create strong signals of response when we’re in emergencies – for instance, if you’re caught in a fire or are being attacked. [i]

It can also take effect when you’re faced with non-dangerous events, like exams, public speaking, a new job, a date, or even a party. It’s a natural response to a threat that can be either perceived or real.

What makes you afraid?

Lots of things make us feel afraid. Being afraid of some things – like fires – can keep you safe. Fearing failure can make you try to do well so that you won’t fail, but it can also stop you doing well

The word ‘anxiety’ tends to be used to describe worry, or when fear is nagging and persists over time. It is used when the fear is about something in the future rather than what is happening right now. That fits with the results of our research, which shows that the longer-term concerns, those that blend fear and anticipation, impact people most strongly.

For instance, ‘losing freedom’ is the number one fear among people ( 67%), followed by ‘future of the NHS’ ( 60%), ‘pain’ ( 59%), ‘loneliness’ ( 52%), and ‘failure’ ( 52%). Broader societal fears also rate relatively highly – 42% fear ‘Donald Trump’ and 41% ‘Brexit’ – while people are less fearful of the more conventional and specific scares related to Halloween such as ‘ghosts’ ( 22%), ‘witches’ ( 15%), and skeletons ( 14%).

What do fear and anxiety feel like?

When you feel frightened, or seriously anxious, your mind and body work very quickly. Your heart might beat very fast – maybe it feels irregular, you breathe very fast, your muscles feel weak, you sweat a lot, your stomach churns or your bowels feel loose. You find it hard to concentrate on anything else, you feel dizzy, you feel frozen to the spot, you can’t eat, you have hot and cold sweats, you get a dry mouth, you get very tense muscles.

These things occur because your body, sensing fear, is preparing you for an emergency, so it makes your blood flow to the muscles, increases blood sugar, and gives you the mental ability to focus on the thing that your body perceives as a threat. [iv]

Why do I feel like this when I’m not in any real danger?

Early humans needed the fast, powerful responses that fear causes, as they were often in situations of physical danger; however, we no longer face the same threats in modern-day living.

Despite this, our minds and bodies still work in the same way as our early ancestors, and we have the same reactions to our modern worries about bills, travel, and social situations. But we can’t run away from, or physically attack, these problems.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow articulated this in his five-level ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. At number one is physiological need – the requirement for air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc. Second is to be safe and secure – protected from the elements, surrounded by security, order, law, limits, and stability. This explains, perhaps, why our research shows that phobias such as ‘heights’ ( 43%) remain so prominent.

Third in the Maslow hierarchy is the need for love and belonging, which includes work group, family, affection and relationships. It makes sense, then, that ‘loneliness’ ranked so highly in our research on fear. Fourth is esteem needs –self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, and managerial responsibility. Followed by self-actualisation, which requires realising personal potential, self-fulfilment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

It follows, therefore, that humans’ fears are directly related to their needs. Fear of pain is the fear of not being able to fulfil our physiological needs. Fear of public speaking (a fear for 48% in our research) is a mixture of our concern of losing our current self-esteem, not being loved, or losing out feeling of belonging.

Take this into account and, in every monster and scary situation, consider which needs are threatened. A possessed house? We need shelter, and on a lesser level safety and stability. Possessed daughter? That threatens our need for family and affection.

If you're writing a horror story for a game, film or book, consider which immaterial things your audience treasure most. If the crazed killer in your story keeps the protagonist from a source of water and food, the audience has a real empathic understanding of the desperation the protagonist is in.

When your characters call the police to warn them of the imminent danger, as anyone in the audience would do, have the police brush them off, tell them it is probably nothing to worry about. This will get your audience’s anxiety levels climbing as the characters run out of choices (the same choices your audience would want to rely on in a similar situation).

Threaten people’s physiological wellbeing, then their safety, and then take away any element of choice. That’s far more frightening than a Halloween witch on a moonless byway.

Rebecca Hutchins is associate director at Walnut Unlimited