Admit it, you love being afraid. But only so long as you can control the fear, channel it in just the right doses.
You love the idea of fear, the way it grips your heart, thickens your blood, and gives you a rush of adrenaline. Fear like this, it helps us escape life, if just briefly, get out of our own heads.
When I was married years ago, my (then) wife and I went on a double date with another couple, Adam and Mary, a blonde-haired and blue-eyed Mormon couple with three kids under five at home. We paid money to go to a haunted amusement park experience, something called Scarywood, one where all the lanes, alleys, and roller coasters had been decorated in frightening images. People in costume hid behind walls, jumping out to say ‘Boo’, and everyone screamed. Our friend Mary was tiny, thin and slight, and thus, perhaps, the easiest target for the teenagers in costumes, continually screamed and then would immediately scold the person who scared her. “Rarrrr!” yelled the ghost girl, the 15 year-old underpaid student in grey and white make-up. “Eeeeek!” yelled Mary as she threw her hands up, then she immediately got a stern Mom-look on her face as she pointed at the ghost-girl and exclaimed “How could you! Does your mother know you’re here!” And we all laughed and laughed and waited for the next person to jump out.
But was it funny? I think back to this isolated experience and the actual things we witnessed. A section of the park had dozens of fake clown corpses, hanging on ropes from the ceiling, and you had to push the bodies aside in order to walk through. In another section, a man stood over a fire and pretended to cook humans in a pot, then when you walked close, he rushed at you with a chainsaw as everyone in the party screamed and fled.
There is a multi-billion dollar industry out there capitalizing on these fears. Companies design realistic make-up to give children leprous sores on their faces so they can stagger around as zombies, they design realistic severed heads with bugged out eyes and knife marks on the neck where the red plastic blood drips out and the bones protrude, they build withered corpses to sit up from coffins as maniacal laughter plays from the ground.
Why do we love it so much, being scared, these chemical rushes in our bodies? Why is it customary to walk my children in the grocery store to buy a bag of apples and to pass an aisle full of plastic rats and spiders, vampire fangs and fake blood? Why do we put millions of our hard-earned dollars toward the latest scary movie franchise, about teenage witches and killer clowns and mass-murdering dream monsters and vengeful devil spirits? If I asked you to name 25 scary movies off the top of your head, you could. Easily. Because we have been making them for decades, and we love them.
I get that there is suspension of disbelief there, something that is just outside of reality and thus we remain safe, and that’s why I say we like to control the fear. We like knowing we can go home afterward and lock our doors and climb under our blankets. But we are titillated by reality as well. We latch ourselves on to serial biopics of serial killers and serial rapists, mass shootings and gruesome medical conditions. When we hear someone committed suicide, we don’t generally ask ‘Are you okay?’ first to the bearer of the news, instead we ask ‘How did they do it?’ We simply must know. And then we retreat to the safety of our lives again afterwards.
Real fear, though, that is something else entirely. Fear comes in all kinds of shades. Fear is associated with loneliness, love, anger, sadness, joy, depression. Fear is tied to worry, to unease, to suspicion, angst, panic, and dread. It’s tied to despair, stagnancy, apprehension, and excitement. There are clinical terms for fear of everything, phobias of heights, of teeth, of hair, of small spaces, of blood, of blades, of elevators. Fear of bathing, fear of babies, fear of falling sleep.
We say we love being afraid, but I don’ think we do. Real fear, the stuff that shuts us down, well, it’s really, truly scary.
Maybe I’ll make a scary movie one day about fear. Real actual fear. In this movie, an old woman sits in the park, and she invites people to experience their truly greatest fear for just $20. Anyone who pays her simply shakes her hand, looks into her eyes, and for one full minute lives their truly greatest fear. These wouldn’t be ghost hunts and werewolves, these fears would be deeply rooted in human insecurity, family and personal history, and in relationships, and they would be truly terrifying. One woman would be cornered in her room, like she was as a child, with her uncle closing in telling her that she could never tell anyone about what he did to her. One man might find out his mother had breast cancer all over again, and he would have to watch her suffer for years only to lose her. A father might go in to check on his baby and find her dead, suddenly, and they would never find out why. A young girl might go to high school and see a man with a gun enter and begin killing her friends. A woman may discover that her husband was lying to her, cheating on her all the time, and he never loved her, never found her attractive. A man might go bankrupt, be homeless, and die alone on the streets.
Real fears, the abject deep and personal ones, are not capitalized on. Fears of abandonment, bankruptcy, cancer, and trauma, of losing our loved ones, of being assaulted, of having our belief systems shattered, of growing old, of never measuring up or being enough. You don’t see these for sale in grocery stores.
I’ve learned to embrace my fears as part of me. They help drive me. They are deeply connected to every other emotion. And I will always have fear. My greatest fears change along with me, every birthday bringing with it a new set of things to be afraid of. And just like anyone, I can enjoy a good scary film, a nice suspense thriller, or a book that leaves me eagerly turning the pages to see what comes next. But real fear, well, the older I get, the less funny it all is. Most people are truly afraid of the things they have already experienced. And in that, I’m proud to say, I’ve faced a lot of my fears and walked out the other side, resilient. But there is still so much to be afraid of…