“Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel. Right now you could run faster and you can fight harder. You can jump higher than ever in your life and you are so alert it’s like you can slow down time.”
What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower, your superpower! There is danger in this room. And guess what? It’s you.”
—The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), “Listen,” Doctor Who
We are a society in love with fear.
We crave it. We spend hard earned money for the chance to experience it, if even for a moment, and in doing so we prop up a billion dollar industry dedicated to delivering it to us in easily digested packages. And as we move into the final weeks of October, that industry is in full gear, churning out slasher flicks, haunted houses, horror fiction and ghoulish costumes, all designed to sate our need for a good scare, and to whet our appetite for more.
Why do we want to be frightened? Why are we willing to go to such great lengths to lose our nerve?
Think back on those lines from Doctor Who, which I quoted at the beginning of this post. Fear makes our blood race, makes us stronger, alters our perception of the world around us. Fear is a drug – totally legal and, given the industry that has grown up around it, highly addictive.
We want to feel afraid because we enjoy the rush we feel when the boogyman jumps out at us from the darkness.
And I’m not standing here saying that there is, by necessity, anything wrong with that.
I myself, enjoy a good scare – from time to time.
All things in moderation, after all.
I’m just not so sure that, for society at large, ‘moderation’ is on the menu these days.
Look at the way certain media outlets, and WAY too many regular people, are simply pissing themselves over the scourge of Ebola, which even now rides roughshod across the United States like Pestilence upon his White Horse, killing fewer people to date than an average drive-by shooting.
We are, by far, the safest, most comfortable, best cared for and educated society, that this world has ever seen, and we are, by all indications, frightened of absolutely everything.
And the only reason which I can find for it, the only reason that makes any sense, is that, missing that essential component of danger which our more ancient ancestors lived with on a constant basis, our bodies crave fear in concentrated doses in order to compensate. Unfortunately, like the drunk who cannot afford another round of the “good stuff” and must take his ease in a bottle of cheap cough suppressant, we find ourselves fishing about for something to keep us nervous until the next big scare comes along.
The ancients, I suspect, did not have this problem. While the conventional image many people hold, is one of frightened savages clinging to each other in the dark as lightning crashed above and hungry wolves prowled outside the light of the camp fire, there has never been any real evidence to support this view.
Our ancestors seem to have been a people, deeply rooted in the rhythms of the natural world. They hunted, and were hunted, they lived and worked and died and I rather suspect, hadn’t the time (or need) for the sort of fear we revel in.
Oh sure, there are stories of kings who were frightened into violent action by the appearance of a rogue star in the sky. But consider for a moment, it is the royalty in these stories, the most comfortable members of their society, who are driven mad with fear. Certainly there have been uprisings, inquisitions, executions and mass suicides, which were driven by unreasoning fear. But these things seem far more common in later ages, when security and comfort were in greater supply.
The days leading up to Samhain have always been understood to include an thinning of the borders between the lands of the living and the dead, but it is only in later centuries that this season has been met with, first religious dread, and more recently with a strangely commoditized variety of fear.
And so, where is the harm?
If just the thought of a hand snaking out from under your bed to grab your ankle, makes you shiver – what harm?
If there really is some deficiency of experience that is satisfied by repeated doses of pre-packaged fear, isn’t that just what the doctor ordered?
But I’ve been thinking more and more about that quote from Doctor Who that I used to start this whole thing off. It’s been gnawing at me for a while now, and I wasn’t sure why until I started to write this post.
“What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower, your superpower! There is danger in this room. And guess what? It’s you.”
The real danger may not be in the thing that makes us afraid, but what WE do once the fear really sets in. The casual drug user may be fun at a party, but an addict is a very real danger to both himself and others.
Perhaps we have grown too comfortable for our own safety. Or is it that we are too safe for our own comfort? Either way, what we really need may be a world which is less safe, and sure, and comfortable, than the one to which we have grown accustomed.
Above all, we are terrified of change. We don’t want to lose the things we have gained for ourselves. Yet, what if the only answer, the only escape from this season of fear, was to let go of our creature comforts and actually live in the world again, rather than despite it, as we currently do.
Are you afraid?