Now that National Novel Writing Month (November) has come and gone -- I met my goals of writing 50,000 words AND completing a rough draft of my book -- I'm thinking about my next writing project: my first horror novel. I've been digging down into the darkest depths of my psyche to determine what scares me the most. They say we should write what we know, from our own perspectives, and I figure if something scares me then it will probably terrify others as well.
So, I've been wondering: when we get down to it, where does fear come from? Is it something we are taught? Is it inherent? Or both?
I think it's both, depending on the thing we are afraid of. For example, at the very basic level, I think humans have an inherent fear of dying. It must be in us or else we would take too many risks that would decrease the population too rapidly. That would be bad for reproduction and for keeping the human race viable.
I have a fear of spiders. I believed, until I started this exercise, that I learned this one, from growing up in an environment where so much was out of my control with spiders hiding in the cracks in walls, in the doorjambs and falling on me when I was little. Cleaning house was not a strength in my family. My older sister claims she put the spiders on me just to terrorize me and I believe it. She pretty much lets anything living have their way in her own home now that she's a vegan Buddhist.
Anything that darts around on multiple legs, the way spiders do, or slithers along the ground like the snakes, creates a certain chemical reaction in people that I think is biological. It's really the motion that seems to strike terror in us (and other animals like cats and dogs that jump when they see a snake) and gets the adrenaline pumping. Adrenaline is actually a good thing. It helps us to marshal the energy and muscle functions needed to get away from danger (flight) or stand up to it (fight).
What other fears are inherent and which ones are taught?
Another major fear I've identified is a fear of drowning. Not the fear of water, per se, because I think that's different. I, for one, love the water. I grew up swimming in lakes and rivers like the fish. Or so my father would say. I think a fear of drowning, then, could be inherent or it could be learned. When I think about it, it's not the act of drowning that freaks me out, it's more the sense of being in a situation that is hopeless, without any recourse for saving one's self. Being caught underwater without the ability to swim up to the surface where life giving air will fill my lungs instead of liquid -- that's one of the worst situations I can imagine being in.
So, ultimately, maybe it isn't the thing, like snakes or spiders or drowning, that scares us. It's a lack of control in any given situation that might lead to our demise. That's where true fear comes from. Being stuck underwater, attacked by spiders and snakes or dealing with a pandemic is really all the same. The trick is to find what you can control and act on it.