The Rhetoric of Fear

Everyone has experienced fear at some point in his or her life. Whether it be the result of a traumatic experience or just something they are afraid of everyone has, at some point in their life, experienced some kind of fear. The elicitation of the fear response can be observed in many different forms, willingly or not, such as someone’s child running across a street in front of an oncoming car, sky-diving, or movies. The things that cause a fear reaction cover a very wide spectrum that has aspects that stay the same but also has aspects that can change dramatically.

In a so-called “safe” environment, nowadays some people enjoy being scared. Being scared causes a particular chemical reaction in the human brain that allows for a type of natural high and this is what “adrenaline junkie” is going after when they do seemingly extreme activities. One way of achieving this natural high is watching horror movies. Horror movies allow for people to view things that they are afraid of without feeling a need to get away from it.

Throughout history the things that people are truly afraid such as death, falling, being hurt, disease, etc. have changed very little. But the specific things that people are afraid of such as vampires, zombies, spiders, people in masks, etc. have developed as a result of cultural change throughout history. These changes can be heavily seen in the various forms of entertainment particularly in the genre of horror. So as a result of cultural change in relation of fear, what people find scary yet entertaining has changed as well. But before delving into how horror has changed in relation to the fears of society, it is important to understand what fear is as a whole.

According to Palevich on the rhetoric of fear, fear is defined as “a negative emotional state triggered by the presence of a stimulus that has the potential to cause harm, and anxiety as a negative emotional state in which the threat is not present but anticipated.” But if an average person were to give an example of fear it would probably be something like heights, or not passing a class. Fear is a complex emotion, which is especially seen in humans because of our ability to anticipate the future. Fear is also an emotion that can be seen in two vastly different scenarios, which are life and death situations and entertainment. The versatility of fear is what can make it a dreaded feeling and also an anticipated and desired one and this anticipation is what the creators of horror movies play on.

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The Psychology Behind Fear

But what exactly is fear? Fear is usually considered to be some sort of reaction to something that is a threat to one’s sense of security or safety. These can include anything from feeling like someone is going to jump out from behind a wall or bush, the feeling of being watched, or the feeling of being followed. These feelings are accompanied by feelings of dread and cause what’s called a fight or flight response to appear. The fight or flight response is known as the fear response and basically decides whether or not someone is going to stay and fight whatever the threat is or just run away from it and hope it goes away as well.

There is a section of the human brain that is called the hypothalamus, and during the fight or flight response it activates two other systems in the human body: the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. The sympathetic nervous system is the one responsible for becoming tense, an increase in alertness, and causes everything in one’s body to speed up, hence the idea of being able to run faster and longer than one normally can. This system is also responsible for the release of adrenaline into the person’s bloodstream. While this happens the hypothalamus releases CRF (corticotrophin-releasing factor) into the pituitary gland and as a result the adrenal-cortical system is activated. At this point the hormone adrenocorticotropic (ACTH) is released and while that moves through the bloodstream it releases about 30 more different hormones that prepares one’s body for the stress of the situation.

As people get older and their brains develop so do the things that they are afraid of and the way that they respond to them. When children are scared they have trouble distinguishing between something that is an actual threat and something that is just momentarily frightening and as a result will often cry or scream and can become immobile. As people age from childhood to adulthood they stop being afraid of the monsters under the bed or in the closet and instead develop the ability to distinguish something that is a threat versus something that isn’t. Childhood is also the time that particular phobias and anxieties tend to set in and appear.

Fear vs. Anxiety

People can often confuse fear with anxiety and while they are similar they are not the same thing. Anxiety is an overall “state of distress” that will last longer than the any of the effects of fear and doesn’t usually happen as the result of a specific instance even though it is accompanied by the horrible sense of dread. Psychologists trying to see if a response if fear or anxiety will often look for avoidance behaviors, which are basically movements seen as an attempt to escape. If avoidance behaviors are present in someone then it is a fear response but if not and the person stays in the situation then it is anxiety. The exceptions to this are phobias in which there are high anxiety levels but the person is also exhibiting avoidance behaviors.

Despite the differences between fear and anxiety they are both response that result in defensive behaviors that are used as a means to escape from a perceived sense of danger or conflict. The particular responses that can be seen depend on the context of the situation. In the presence of a perceived threat or danger, one will fall back on certain coping mechanisms to help them either escape or get through the situation with as little “harm” as possible. These coping mechanisms that are inadvertently used span across a wide spectrum and they have changed over the years as the various sources of fear have changed.

Why Fear?

The reasoning behind having an instinct for fear is to help the human race survive. In the earliest days of human history, people lived as hunters and gatherers and as a result had to worry about predators or other groups of people and the fight or flight response played and integral role in someone surviving during this time. As the history of the human race progressed so did the overall fears of the time. Slowly humans have become desensitized to the fears of early humans and instead people worry about things like technology, disease, world threats, etc.. The instinct of fear and the responses based on it that was seen in early humans is still an ingrained trait in a humans psyche even though the threats, so to speak, have changed. As a result of the lack of stimuli to the instinct of fear, humans have started turning to artificial forms of fear to get that rush.

In today’s society, people enjoy experiencing these feelings of fear and will go out of their way to elicit a fear response in their bodies. This includes activities such as sky diving, roller-coasters, haunted houses, horror movies, etc.. There is a chemical in the human brain called dopamine that is released during the fight or flight response that gives someone a natural high. This release of dopamine is what causes the desire for being scared. But to achieve this enjoyment from something that is considered negative, one would have to be in an environment that they feel safe in such as their own home or a movie theater. This is why horror movies are a great way for people to experience a fear response but still feel safe.

Techniques in Horror

The creators of horror movies use many different techniques to portray a sense of suspense and to successfully scare someone while still maintaining the idea that the person watching it is safe. Successful horror movies are all about extreme exaggeration of the scene to increase the amount of suspense and the anticipation of being scared. Close-up shots are used to emphasize an object that is meant to have importance or to make the audience afraid of it. This is done to make the audience pay more attention to it than they would in anticipation of a fear response. For example in the movie The Conjuring 2 there is a music carousel that plays a song called The Crooked Man. It’s kind of like a lamp and on the inside of it is a projector that shows an oddly shaped, running man with an umbrella. As the song plays the picture moves like he is running around the lamp. Many times during the movie to camera angle will pan to a close up of the inside of this carousel while the song is playing and after about 3 or 4 times of this there is a major jump scare.

Another technique that is used the amount of lighting in a scene. Most scenes that are created with the intent to cause fear have very dark or low level lighting. This is done because a common fear is a fear of darkness and the creators play on this by keeping things fairly dark. In the movie Light’s Out the malevolent entity resides in the darkness and can’t come out if the lights are on. So as a result most of what happens in the form of scaring the audience happens when the lights go out.

Sound effects are another technique used within horror movies to incur suspense. Some horror movies, like Halloween, will use repetitive sequences of melody to build up suspense and tension within the audience. In the movie Halloween there is a particular melody that plays whenever Michael Myers is coming to get someone. Using sound effects in this way builds up the anticipation of the scene.

Background music in a horror film is one of the more important parts that ties it all together. Without any background music there would be no build-up of suspense. In horror movies the background music can be anything from high pitched violin music to children singing a nursery rhyme. Going back to the idea from The Conjuring 2 with the Crooked Man lullaby, it is sung by children and that adds to the suspense of each scene that the carousel is in. Background music will also build up in a crescendo and then cut completely out right before a jump scare.

One way that creators of horror movies tend to grab the audience’s attention rather quickly is to have a victim be attacked relatively early in the movie. The anticipation that comes along in situations like this is a common fear and the creators of horror movies really use that to their advantage. So anticipating the victim’s demise is what the creators are betting to make sure the audience continues to pay attention. One movie that does this very well is Light’s Out because within the first five minutes the entity, Diane, kills the husband of the person she is haunting.

Probably the absolute most important technique that is used in horror movies to really provide that fear reaction is timing. Basically the less the audience expects a something, the bigger the impact it will have on them. Tying in the with the background music it will build up in a crescendo to really pull people in and then everything will cut out and after a few seconds something will pop out. Although sometimes there isn’t a jump scare after a crescendo like that, just to keep the audience on their toes. A scene in The Conjuring 2 is a good example for this. There is a little girl who is home alone watching TV. The channels start switching on their own and when she goes to grab the remote, which was beside her, she can’t find it. Everything is dead quiet while she is looking for it and then suddenly the telephone rings. It’s one of those really loud, shrill phones. While she is talking with the person on the phone, her mom, she sees the remote on the chair that is behind the couch. She gets off the phone, picks up the remote, changes back to her channel, and puts the remote on the table in front of her. Suddenly the TV goes out so she gets up to adjust the antennas and when the TV goes black there is the reflection of the chair with someone sitting in it. When she turns around so does the camera and you can see the remote drop. There’s no one in the chair. By this time it is still dead silent and the camera is switching between looking at her and looking at the chair. Eventually after about 3 or 4 times of switching between them the camera pans back to her and someone is right next to her and yells “My House!” really loudly, and then the music starts up again. It is because of these techniques within horror movies that they are able to use fear the way they do.

Horror Movies Through Time

Throughout the history of the human race and the changes in societal culture, the things that people are afraid of have evolved with the times. This can be seen very well in looking at the evolution of the construct of horror movies as a whole in relation to what was going on at the time. In 1896 a French director named Georges Melies made what is considered the first horror movie called The Haunted Castle also known as The House of the Devil. This was a silent film because it was made right after movies themselves had been created, and it was meant to amuse the audience rather than scare them. This is vastly different from the horror movies today such as Rosemary’s Baby and Psycho which have been described as a couple of the scariest horror films ever made.

For a movie to be considered a “horror” movie it has to have some sort of supernatural aspect to it. In the 1890’s and the early 1900’s people were making horror movies such as Frankenstein, and Nosferatu. These movies were the first vampire/zombie movies and compared to later movies such as Resident Evil for example were very tame and followed the rule of amusement rather than trying to scare the audience. As the 1900’s progressed horror movies began to add a lot of blood to them an example being in Bram Stoker’s Dracula with the fountains of blood pouring into some of the scenes. This shows that the people as a whole were getting desensitized to external fear stimuli and were looking for a way trigger a fear response.

In the 1960’s the audience got what they wanted with two movies, Rosemary’s Baby and Psycho. These two movies are known as a sub-genre of horror movies called psychological horror films. Movies such as these that are deemed as psychological horror leave a lot to one’s imagination instead of just showing the audience what is going on. Now a days most horror movies like The Conjuring 2 and Light’s Out show the audience what is going on so that they their imagination can’t work over the imagery to make it scarier.