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A Look at What We Fear and Why

Fear is a funny thing. We know it as soon as we feel it, and the feeling itself is pretty universal: elevated heart rate, tension, jumpiness. We’ve all felt it before. What’s less obvious is why we fear the things that we do. We certainly don’t choose to feel these things. That’d be too convenient. One look at a handful of horror films gives us insight into just how vast the subjects of our fears can be. The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, Friday the 13th, Insidious, Get Out, Dracula, the list goes on. When you think of the one thing that you fear the most—the worst thing you could possibly imagine—it’s mind blowing to think that another person may not even be phased by it. 

“A lot of the models that we use to think about how we acquire fear assume that we can learn fear responses,” explains Sonia Bishop. Bishop holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of London, and is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UC Berkeley. She’s also an expert in the cognitive neuroscience of anxiety.

When it comes to more common fears, like being afraid of animals, heights, or blood, these are fears that could stem from “evolutionary preparedness,” according to Bishop. This comes down to the idea that the experiences of our species from centuries ago, particularly the ones eliciting fear, have ingrained in us a natural instinct to also be afraid of such things. These natural fears helped our species survive back in the day, but when experienced in our modern world they can sometimes seem a bit silly. If you’ve ever wondered how an entire horror film could be based around birds, like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds from 1963, well this is why.

“One thing a lot of these things have in common, it’s not just random objects. It seems to cluster and a lot of them are actually natural,” Bishop explains. In other words, what may seem like an irrational or unexplainable fear, could simply be your brain making an association to one of your natural fears. A very common example would be your fear of heights leading to a phobia of flying. In the case of horror, your fear of ghosts could be tied to a fear of death and the greater unknown.

But the idea of evolutionary preparedness doesn’t necessarily explain why a movie franchise like Chucky, centered around the bloody rampage of a killer doll, could frighten the hell out of so many people. Bishop explains that there is no perfect answer for how these fears come to be, but there are a few possible explanations.

“One of the ideas is we might have had different direct experiences ourselves in our childhood,” says Bishop. I myself can relate. I have an irrational fear of murder. I dread sleeping in my home alone. As a teen getting home past my parent’s bedtime, I would get out of my car and run as fast as I possibly could to the front door. I even walked out of the movie theater, leaving my friends behind to watch the rest of Saw on their own. We tend to live with our fears without thinking much about them. So it never really occurred to me why this unlikely occurrence would haunt me, until a friend of mine probed. Then an old memory came back… and it all made a lot more sense. I grew up in the same town where a boy, Eddie Werner, was murdered at the age of 11. We actually shared a class the same year that he was killed.

This could also have been the result of another type of fear-learning, called “vicarious learning.” This is where we acquire a fear by watching someone else experience it. “They’ve done experiments with monkeys showing that even though a monkey has never seen a snake, if it watches its mother have a fear response to a snake then it will learn that response as well,” explains Bishop.

The third is a much simpler explanation—we learn to fear something when we are told to be afraid of it. Bishop notes that this is typically how fears are passed down from parents to their children. “We don’t always remember the important things that trigger in our childhood,” Bishop points out.

So you might never be able to uncover the exact reason why certain things scare you, but there may be an even more elusive question worth exploring: why do we watch scary movies at all? “We obviously enjoy it. Maybe that’s some kind of learning mechanism, maybe we enjoy it because we need to explore it. There’s a lot of research on exploration and how it’s good for us—as long as we don’t die in the process,” says Bishop.


Want more horror in your life? AMC’s annual horror movie spectacular, FearFest, is happening now through Halloween on-air, online, and on AMC+, the company’s premium subscription bundle (currently available to Comcast Xfinity, DISH and Sling TV customers).

This year’s library of spooky selections features 91 titles (see the full list here), including horror franchises such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Amityville Horror, Final Destination, Children of the Corn, Insidious, and many more.

Up Next: AMC Book Club: The History of Monsters

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