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Fantasies of Fear


     “What’s that in the mirror.? Or in the corner of your eye? What’s that footstep following, but never passing by? Perhaps they’re all just waiting, perhaps when we’re all dead...out they’ll come a’slithering, from underneath the bed.”
     Humans are afraid of the threatening. We dread the dark, because it can hide dangers. We run from the misshapen and deformed, because external evils seem to denote internal ones. We cower at the unpredictable: natural disasters or erratic people. These external stimuli provoke an emotion every human is familiar with—fear. Its universality results in art, art defined as crystallized emotion, provoking a reaction in the art’s witness. By definition, the horror genre tells stories capitalizing on the terrifying or frightening. But who wants to be scared? Fear is typically induced by the gory, violent, or disturbing—i.e., horror is bad. But this is not the case. Approached with empathy, horror evokes the right variety of fear, fear that encourages companionship and kindness.
     Humans feel fear “due to a mental picture of some destructive or painful evil in the future,” (Aristotle's Rhetoric, II.5) or in other words, danger. Phobias divorced from real danger are perceived as silly and fickle. Only imminence separates a real danger from an imaginary one. Posit a situation in which you are terrified. Your heart is beating so hard, it can be felt through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain, it’s like rocket fuel. You could run faster and fight harder, you could jump higher than you ever could in your life. You are so alert, it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower. It’s every human’s superpower. There is danger is your fictitious situation, and its not necessarily the thing. It’s you. Both you and the frightener.
     What seems wrong with scared is horror’s exacerbation of distant danger. Authentic fear is good under the right conditions. Fear would be an asset fleeing a rabid dog. But misapplying a superpower makes potential heroes into villains. True fear causing that physical reaction, stemming from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’s Headless Horseman, would never be confessed. We should never fear the fictional to the point of adrenaline high. On the surface, any kind of fear related to horror is opposed to being “rational.” But the irrational is not necessarily evil. Fear or otherwise, when people sympathize with imaginary characters, they practice empathy. This is not the fear that exercises physical power, but the kind that cares about others, not ourselves. We should learn from that reaction, not shun it.
     Shunning that empathy would shun the good and decidedly irrational empathy we should feel for many. Just as the fictional suburban citizens attacked by serial killers are far away from your world, so are the sufferings of people a continent away. Miserable humans do not equate to figments of our imagination, but the emotions evoked are the same for both. Fear is fear, whether evoked by natural disasters or a horror move.
     Of course, fear can be misapplied. The goal of fearing fiction is not to stimulate our senses or give ourselves nightmares, but to better explore our world and learn principles by imagination. That imagination, through the lens of horror, has greater implications than self-preservation. Fear can be married to love. We don’t protect what we think is safe without us. That’s care and love. Horror isn’t necessarily a gory pit—it can be a training ground for the proper variety of fear, the fear that makes us kind and the fear that makes companions of us all.
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