Fear is a relative term, at least from the human perspective. This suggests that humanity has experienced its own sets of fears, depending on the prevailing dangers of a particular physical environment and epoch. In this regard, it has always been common knowledge that survival is an integral part of every species, including the Homo sapiens, and that compromising the sense of safety of animals and humans is most likely to instigate a reaction of fear. As such, it can also be said that fear is a beneficial aspect of existence, given that it triggers reactions of alertness, fighting and even of escape. More so, it can also be regarded that the present standards of fear existing in humanity is a cumulative product of fears experienced throughout the long process of evolution; from the period of hominids, the hunter-gatherer, and finally the modern man. In this regard, this paper will delve on the factors that have contributed to the development of fears in ancient man, the defense mechanisms that aided in his survival, and finally the complex correlation between horror films and mankind’s seeming penchant for creating make-believe dangers that nonetheless result to the development of fear.
It is understandably easy to presume the reasons for fear during the time period of the hominids. This is true given the harshness of their physical environment, their frequent encounters with wild carnivorous animals, and even the absence of a social system that made killing fellow hominids a negligible offense. Consequently, during the hunter-gatherer era early human beings were faced with a daunting task of having to exist in a naturally dangerous environment, the risk of venomous snakes and other reptiles, and especially of larger wars with competitor tribes. More so, the complexity of fear must also be noted in terms of the modern society’s tendency to deliberately elicit from mediums of entertainment, especially films, given that this artificial form of danger suggests a willing desire for the flight or fight mechanisms to be stimulated. This difference of fear in films, as opposed to the natural worlds of the hominids and hunter-gatherers, indeed presents a dilemma given that similar psychological factors come into play in these three diverse scenarios.
Fear during the Hominid Era
The scientific contention that human beings originate from primates suggests that Homo sapiens innately has a long evolutionary history, which includes, among others, a skill set of survival instincts. This evolution theory likewise implies that modern humans have diverged from the species line of chimpanzees 7 million years ago and have successfully evolved into our present species only about 200,000 years in the past. As such, “All living humans are thus descended from a very long line of well-adapted organisms” (Clasen, 2012: p. 223), of which embedded within the human genes include several skills necessary in maximizing the chances of survival in an unforgiving environment.
It also must be understood that the hominids, being the ancestors of the modern man, lived in an extremely violent world where laws on natural food chain is the norm for everyday existence. As such, given the presence of larger animals that possess anatomically superior tools such as bigger and sharper teeth and claws, faster running speed, and heightened senses of sight and smell, the early hominids had to rely on their senses in order to survive. True enough, modern-day archaeological excavations reveal skull and bone fragments of hominids “with puncture marks that match perfectly the teeth of large feline predators” (Clasen, 2012: p. 223), thus clearly identifying the dangers that hominids have faced in their era.
However, it must be noted that in contrast with their more modern counterparts, the hominids are less intellectually capable of dealing with larger animals that preyed on their species. They are not like the modern man who can skillfully design offensive and defensive strategies both aimed to contain and overcome dangers, nor of hunter-gatherers who were in possession of crude yet efficient tools that can counter the innate advantages of larger animals, such as the ones mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Hence, it is highly probable that for the hominids, the most dominant type of defense mechanism was in the form of learned or acquired emotions that were passed from one generation to the next, such as fear and anxiety. By definition, emotion can be regarded as the “functional systems that guide behavior, deeply embedded in mammalian brain” (Clasen, 2012: p. 223), while fear and anxiety “are adaptations to dangerous environments. They help us stay clear of things that could be harmful to us” (Clasen, 2012: p. 223). Without emphasizing that hominids were limited to these emotions as their sole way of defense mechanism, it is nevertheless understandable that their innate mental limitations had restricted them into fostering fear and anxiety as primary means for survival.
It can be said the hominids are successful in their quest despite of merely relying on instincts and inherent senses to ensure their survival. This is true given the fact that science generally regards them as ancestors of the modern man, thus implying that they were able to overcome the dangers of their environment and their natural limitations and eventually allow the onset of the age of Homo sapiens. In this regard, equipped with only fear and anxiety, the hominids were able to defeat the risks of extinction. Arne Ohman (1986) explains this same sense of success when he claims that ‘As would be expected for prepared learning, these fear responses are extremely resistant to extinction’ (p. 129). As such, fear then is an integral factor in a species’ quest for survival.
Fear during the Hunter-Gatherer Era
Contemporary physical environmental examples that duplicate those from the hunter-gatherer era clearly explain the many dangers that people from the former era had to overcome. An example of this can be seen in the Ache’s in Paraguay, whereby 6% of deaths are caused by snake bites—which escalates to 14% among adult males, 8% caused by jaguar attacks, and 55% caused by violence with 36% of these in cases of adult males (Clasen, 2012: p. 223). From these given figures, it can be understood that this scenario invokes a fear not only on the dangers present in the natural environment, but also on the very nature of man to exert his or her desires through violent means, even at the expense of killing his or her own species.
It can also be said that certain type of fear corresponds to deal with a specific form of danger. This is especially true in the case of hunter-gatherer period, whereby humans in the said era are faced with oftentimes fatal threat both from animals and humans. As such, “Different kinds of fears are aroused by predatorsthreatening strangers, hostile relatives, crucial social situations” (Nesse, 1990: p. 270); all of which are prevalent in the hunter-gatherer societies of antiquated times. Indeed, it can be said that the said era is characterized by a predatory way of life, not only among animals but also among human beings. Here, it is understandable for any typical human being to always be alert against wild beasts or venomous serpents in tropical settings such as spiders, snakes, scorpions, and others of the same kind.
Hunter-gatherer societies employ defensive strategies in aim of ensuring or at least enhancing, the survival of their species. This has been achieved by utilizing defensive strategies, “the most prominent of which are active escape, immobility, and attack” (Ohman, 1986: p. 128). Moreover, the aspect of evolution has embedded certain defensive mechanics that had been passed-on to succeeding generations. Examples of these defensive mechanisms that were highly useful in hunter-gatherer societies include “paired forward-looking eyes, particularly in the context of a rapidly approaching animalolfactory and auditory cues, and warnings and conspecifics” (Ohman, 1986: p. 128). Consequently, it is evident that the aforementioned alertness cues among hunter-gatherer societies had served their purpose, as what can be evidenced by the extensive existence of the said era in mankind’s history.
The argument that the alertness cues or alarm system in hunter-gatherer societies are primed to ensure survival of the species has been supported by various scholarly articles. Such is the case of the 2012 article by Mathias Clasen in the Review of General Psychology, wherein it states that “This system is biased to discover threat, and it results in a sympathetically dominated response as a support of potential flight or flight” (Clasen, 2012: p. 223). This strongly suggests that human beings from the hunter-gatherer era have themselves inherited certain psychological safety measures that helped in ensuring their survival against the perils brought about by their natural environment and by other people. Hence, as what is suggested in the preceding paragraph, situations like an oncoming beast with reptile or forward-looking pair of eyes allow them to instinctively become aware of the danger it presents, thereby allowing them to either escape of fight.
It is interesting to note how Randolph Nesse (1990) identifies some types of fear, the probable situations that initiate such reactions, and the appropriateness in associating these situations to the everyday lives of hunter-gatherers. First among these types of fear is panic, which corresponds to an imminent attack by a predator or another human being; agoraphobia, which is concerned about an environment where attack is likely to occur; and general anxiety, which is the general sense of apprehension towards a particular place (p. 271). In this context, it is easy to correlate that these fears have been important emotions in making certain that hunter-gatherers would endure, given that these also serve as forewarnings of impeding dangers in their natural world.
Fear in the Modern Man
The obvious reality is that the modern time is no longer as menacing, in the natural order of predator-prey, as the eras of the hominids and the hunter-gatherers. Nowadays people have ceased to rely on hunting as a primary way of finding food and are no longer interested in small tribal wars, except in small localized areas. More so, the modern man has mastered the skill of farming livestock that he no longer needs to hunt for food, except as a hobby. Hence, fear is no longer centrally concerned with the dangers of the wild world, such as attacks from wild animals and beasts, but on other things that are not related to everyday tasks such as search for food and disputes in jungle territories. Primarily, fear in the modern man generally consists of social aspects whereby the dangers inclusive therein are about rejection and psychological imbalance, as opposed to earlier forms of violence during the hominid and hunter-gatherer eras.
However, since humans “are born with preprogrammed instructions for what kind of dangers might exist in the world, and experience fills in the picture” (Clasen, 2012: p. 223) there is still a continued tendency to identify dangerous situations, even if these situations do not include physical safety but more on emotional and psychological in nature, as earlier stated. Arne Ohman defends this line of argument when he explains, “Perhaps dangercomes in too many unpredictable or morphologically complex forms to be adequately catalogued genetically in most cases” (Ohman, 1986: p. 129). As such, the modern man is still able to detect a dangerous situation even if it does not consist of physical danger. Consequently, nowadays human beings are prone to suffer more on pressures to effectively comingle with fellow humans and succeed in their academic and professional pursuits than on foraging for food in a jungle setting. Accordingly, it is this form of society-based fears that modern-day human beings face.
In order to counteract the perceived physical dangers experienced by the modern man, several physiological defensive mechanisms have been developed biologically. One of these is in cases of panic in the face of an imminent danger. Here, the human body increases blood sugar levels for added metabolism, epinephrine is also produced to reduce the sense of fatigue, and the nervous system redirects the blood flow to maximize muscle exertion (Nesse, 1990: p. 271). These measures prepare human beings in facing the risks in cases of physical dangers, hence maximizing his or her chances of survival.
However, as earlier mentioned, instances of actual physical harm due to predator-prey practices have almost ceased to exist in the modern times, and instead have been replaced by social fears pertaining to his or her psychological homeostasis. In this aspect, one of the foremost ways that modern man deals and avoids conflict is through the social submissiveness system. Under this system, “social fear is only one pole of a system that includes social dominance at the other end” (Ohman, 1986: p. 129). This further implies that in order to evade a conflict situation that may result to damage or injury, there is a tendency for modern man to simply exude a defeated stance and in the process avoid unnecessary harm. Ohman explains this precept as a “communicative signal telling the threatener that he has won, and that he ought to stop the harassment” (Ohman, 1986: p. 129). In this respect, it must be remembered that the modern era is characterized by the greatly-lessened chances of violence in a predator-prey manner. This likewise implies that submission will not necessarily mean being relegated to an inferior rank in the food chain, albeit the damages may include worry, embarrassment and a lack of self confidence.
Fear and the Enigma of Horror Movies and Literature
There are scientific evidences that prove that the factors that influence human risk detection and handling skills that have been developed through mankind’s long history of evolution are the very same aspects that affect man’s reactions to horror films. Mathias Clasen, in this respect, identifies two probable conclusions to explain this phenomenon, which are: “Horror movies cause predictable, reliable emotional states across subjects, and horror films engender actual emotions of fear and anxiety, not simulacra or perversions of these emotions” (Clasen, 2012: p. 224). As such, horror films allow humans to live-out fictional experiences as though they were real, inclusive of which are the different normal biological and psychological reactions when confronted with dangerous situations.
Perhaps it can be said that the proximity of terror and danger present in horror films and literature with real life is the main allure for mankind’s seemingly unquenchable craving for the said genre. This can be evidenced by the huge success of films and literature, of which the former garners about 5% of total market shares in films produced. A prime example of this success is the film Paranormal Activity, which was “produced for a measly $15,000, has grossed close to $200,000,000 worldwide” (Clasen, 2012: p. 222). Moreover, there are many horror-themed novels that have shared the same level of success, such as those written by the renowned author, Stephen King.
The magnitude of success allocated to the horror genre can be directly associated with the human awareness. Mathias Clasen enlightens on this principle when he explains, “I argue that horror stories do not reflect empirical reality but rather the psychology of our species” (Clasen, 2012: p. 222). This is understandable given the long history of Homo sapiens of being exposed to fatal dangers, from the era of pre-erect human beings to the time of hunter-gatherers, and even in some instances of the modern age. As such, human evolution is to be blamed for humanity’s love for the horror genre. We have for so long been hard-wired to seek and identify signs of dangers in our environment, and that the same systems involved in this pursuit are also influential in equipping us with ingenious imaginations. At last, “these two capacities together give rise to a multitude of fictional monsters” (Clasen, 2012: p. 224). Hence, it can be logically reasoned that the main basis for mankind’s fondness is that the horror aspects in these works of fiction awaken our innate senses to be cautious of the dangers around us, which is even more enhanced by embedding aesthetically impressive monsters by making the said genre highly appealing.
It is likewise interesting to assess how the horror genre directly correlates with real-life dangers being faced by mankind in the modern era. In this regard, Clansen identifies several modern ‘monsters’ and relates their specific meaning to real-world scenario. One of these is the werewolf, which serves as a “metaphor for the ‘beast within man’ and as a literal, tweaked predator reminiscent of the kind of monsters that stalked our ancestors” (Clasen, 2012: p. 225). Another is the zombie, which symbolizes our “isolated cultural anxieties” (Clasen, 2012: p. 225), as what can be evidenced by the huge success of Dawn of the Dead after the 9/11 Attacks and the general fear prevailing about terror and biogas weapons. Another example is the ghost, which symbolizes the mystery and fear of human beings consisting of both body and soul. As such, taking into consideration all these examples, what can be ascertained is that the horror genre allows modern man to be stimulated of his innate alarm systems, hence instigating not only fear but more so excitement, interest, and entertainment.
Fear indeed is a relative term which is dependent on a particular epoch. As such, the instigators of fear factors have been diverse during the hominid era, the hunter-gatherer, the modern time, and even in considering the fictional world of horror films and literature. More so, while fear had been beneficial for the survival of mankind and his ancestors, in that it allowed him to develop several measures of safeness to prevent a probable fatal incident, modern films and novels have manipulated fear to initiate interest and excitement. This proves that mankind has successfully embedded survival traits that have been developed in ancient times, and that these traits can be witnessed on our love to stimulated, even through artificial means.
Clasen, M. (2012) Monsters evolve: A biocultural approach to horror stories. Review of General Psychology. 16 (2), 222-229. Print.
Nesse, R. (1990) Evolutionary explanations of emotions. Human Nature. 1 (3), 261-289. Print.
Ohman, A. (1986) Face the beast and fear the face: Animal and social fears as prototypes for evolutionary analyses of emotion. Psychophysiology. 23 (2), 123- 145. Print.