Graphic illustration of the word Fear, spider

Fear—a Four-Letter Word, Defined

October 28, 2020

How would philosophers and psychologists define fear? What about architects and English professors? During October, Halloween puts many people in a receptive frame of mind toward all things scary and spooky. But in 2020, fear has taken on new meaning as truth proves scarier than fiction. Given this historic moment, we set out to define fear from a cross-disciplinary perspective.

[Note: This is the first in a planned series of thoughtful investigations into timely four-letter words.]


From Psychological and Philosophical Perspectives: Fear Can Mean the Loss of the Physical Self

Fear has a clear evolutionary purpose. According to Professor Amy Wachholtz, PhD, director of the Clinical Health Psychology Program at CU Denver, “Fear is an adaptive response to things that endanger the body or the mind. It’s a complex biomechanical process that involves adrenaline and a number of areas of the brain.”

To experience psychological fear, there must be the possibility of losing your life, or at least thinking you could.

“There are some basic fears that exist cross-culturally any time you’re in a life-or-death situation due to violence, illness, even weather events,” Wachholtz said. “But the sense of fear happens when you’re in the midst of them [life-or-death situations],” she added. In response to such stimuli, real or perceived, the body processes fear in a very specific way, firing up certain areas of the brain and producing certain hormones, including adrenaline. Once the immediate danger passes, though, generally your emotion ceases to be fear.

Fear, Not Anxiety

Professor Sarah Tyson, PhD, who teaches in the Philosophy Department at CU Denver and co-hosts the New Books in Philosophy podcast on the New Books Network, also makes this distinction: “I think of fear as an acute experience that is triggered by something specific, whereas anxiety is more a structure of experience over a long time. Fear resolves when the danger is passed, [but] anxiety does not have that kind of resolution.”

Fear is tied not only to life-threatening situations involving the body, but also the mind. Any circumstance that threatens someone’s sense of self can also be said to incite fear—existential fear.

From a Literary Viewpoint: Fear Can Mean Existential Loss

Humans often equate the mind (or soul) with the self. Existence goes beyond your physical body, so the potential to cease to exist—as you define yourself—can also cause fear. Setting aside the issue of whether the self is even capable of truly conceptualizing its own nonexistence, how do we begin to articulate the innumerable things and situations we imagine that can give rise to existential fear?

Over the centuries, in mediums ranging from campfire stories to feature films, the horror genre has served an excellent purpose of cataloging our fears.

Professor Andrew Scahill, PhD, who teaches literature and film in the English Department at CU Denver, said, “It [horror] gives form to things that would otherwise not be articulated.” Among such existential threats, there is one particularly great literary theme that arises in various guises: the double.

Meeting an Other of Our Own Making

A frequently used device in literature, the double, or doppelgänger, is the combination of the Self and the Other. Freud called it the Uncanny (das Unheimliche), this phenomenon combining the familiar and the unfamiliar.

“The monster that is me and is unrecognizable as me … The doppelgänger is part of that.” As evidence, Scahill points to several pivotal horror movies that play out this fear of doubling: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Us, as well as countless monster and zombie movies.

“They terrify us because they’re categorically threatening to us: a werewolf is between a man and a beast; a monster child is both childlike and not,” said Scahill.

Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian short story master and grandfather of magical realism (which itself combines the real and the imaginary), similarly took up this theme with mirrors, which “have something monstrous about them” since they multiply men (from Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”).

But fears of this mirror-like Other and of indefinably blurred boundaries are hardly confined to print or film. As the Gothic reminds both readers and occupants, setting and structure are equally capable of conveying a sense of fear.

“In a sense, architecture is essentially about fear; the entire point is building boundaries, separating and putting things in places—fear of weather, fear of the elements, fear of the Other.”

Professor Amir Ameri, PhD, College of Architecture and Planning

abandoned theater; photo by v2osk via unsplash

In Architecture: Fear Can Mean the Sensation of Being Displaced or Trapped

Erasure of the self takes a different form in architecture when we get lost between physical or perceptual borders. Professor Amir Ameri, PhD, who teaches architecture history and theory in CU Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning, explains, “In a sense, architecture is essentially about fear; the entire point is building boundaries, separating and putting things in places—fear of weather, fear of the elements, fear of the Other.”

Fear, then, can be seen as a motivational force in architecture. “So the confrontation with fear in architecture is always in those nebulous spaces,” Ameri said, such as doorways, hallways, staircases, attics, basements, vestibules, glass walls, windows, and, as Borges observed in his fiction, mirrors. “Fundamentally, it’s every time one confronts the possibility of displacement, one translates it into fear,” he added.

The Building Blocks of Fear in Architecture

A haunted house is scary because it’s in decay. “Decay is always fearful precisely because things are falling apart,” Ameri said. But is there any style of architecture that’s inherently scary? Yes and no. “In Romanesque architecture in the 11th and 12th centuries, they tried to create a sense of fear by scaring you into belief,” he said. They used carved demon figures, or gargoyles, for instance. “But it’s not just the figures, it’s the way they are hidden.”

When the juncture between outside and inside blurs—say, whenever one notices wild, stoney monsters adorning the tree-like columns inside a cavernous cathedral—then one experiences a sort of fear born of contradiction that’s similar to when the self and the double meet. But it’s not just Gothic cathedrals. In fact, some prisons were designed specifically to incite fear in observers in order to deter crime. Newgate Prison in London, an example of architecture’s “repulsive style” (from the French architecture terrible) featured “highly rusticated surfaces and blind windows—you introduce windows and then you cover them up,” Ameri said.

When asked about Medieval castles or Victorian mansions, which show up often in horror movies and Gothic novels, Ameri said they are not scary in and of themselves. Rather, it’s any architecture that makes you feel trapped: “It feels like you can escape but visually you’re always brought back to where you started from. It’s another way of saying there’s no outside, there’s no Other … The boundary is so powerful it is no longer a boundary.”

When boundaries blur together—when days begin to blend—one can feel lost.

From a Historical Lens: Fear Can Mean Becoming Lost

Rebecca Hunt, PhD, a historian who recently retired from CU Denver’s History Department, wastes no time in getting to her point. She puts it simply: “Having things change so that you no longer recognize the world you live in is fearful.”

COVID-19 has effaced life’s predictable patterns. The daily events that previously punctuated blocks of time—a class, a commute, a vacation—have largely disappeared. Without dwelling too much on the present, it’s clear that this historic pandemic is causing fear on multiple levels. But that’s why it’s important to us in this moment—empowering, even—to name and define fear:

Psychologically, anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus must face the possibility of their own mortality.

No matter what books or films they use to distract themselves, people who are stuck at home may still feel like themselves, but at the same time feel decidedly not themselves—the experience of facing their own double.

People who are working or studying and carrying on with their lives without ever leaving home find a blurring of life’s previous boundaries, and some of them doubtlessly are beginning to feel trapped in houses of their own haunting.

And the unsteady march of history reminds the world of its inevitability through the seemingly complete change to the routines of daily life. That creates fear—a sense of the loss of time, the fear of loss of the self to time, which is what history is, after all.

Philosophically (and Historically) Speaking

For a sense of grounding, we return to Tyson, the philosophy professor, who reminds us that pandemics are hardly new in the great course of history. “Many well-recognized philosophers have written about fear, anxiety, and pandemics, for centuries and around the world. And I think many people think about fear philosophically, whether they’re recognized as philosophers or not,” she said.

If it feels like time is slipping away, then it’s good to be reminded that it always has been.


What Is Fear, Then?

Ultimately, fear is innate and deeply rooted in self-preservation. People want to know they are not going to get eaten by a tiger. They want to know they are not going to turn into a monster. They want to know that when they reach the top of the stairs, their foot will find a landing. And they want to know that dinner is at 8 o’clock.

As Halloween 2020 approaches, remember that, if you feel a sense of fear (as many of us do), then it makes good evolutionary sense. Despite all of life’s dangers—the monsters we imagine and the invisible threats that are real—fear is evidence that you’re ready to stand and fight. Or take flight.

If you feel fearful all the time, however, it’s probably anxiety.