David Bamfordʼs Weblog

Fear As Entertainment

I wrote an article for TEDXSalford which was posted up there the other day. Here it is:
Last week, I posted a simple Facebook status asking for someone to recommend a good horror film. I outlined parameters for my personal definition of ‘good’ (no found footage, no terribly-acted films involving possessed children, no independently-moving furniture, that kind of thing) and waited for responses. Some fifty-plus comments later, I had wound up with a list of sixty-seven different horror films (several of which I’d already seen, I’m a massive horror addict) and one burning question: what is it about fear that is so attractive to film-makers and their audiences?
Novelist Karen Thompson Walker at TEDGlobal 2012 spoke about fear as one of the catalysts for imaginative storytelling and how it makes us consider our own possible futures. She outlines the story of the doomed whale-ship Essex, the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, as an example of fears - or rather, stories - having the power to fool people into making what could be ultimately fatal decisions.
It’s interesting to consider our fears through another’s eyes: what’s terrifying to you or me may be laughable to someone else, and vice versa. But there does seem to remain a constant desire among horror audiences to be petrified. This relationship between fear and entertainment, of enjoying being scared could, at its simplest level, be boiled down to the rush of adrenalin you feel when experiencing fear, whether it’s watching Leatherface run after Sally Hardesty through the trees in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, going into an important business meeting or even just sitting on the front row of a roller coaster. Fear is exciting. Fear is sexy. Fear is one of the most complex, and yet simplistic, of human emotions, and we crave it, whether we think so or not.
But why is this, exactly? Well, bizarre as it may seem, it’s a safety thing. Horror films depict our worst nightmares without confronting us directly with them - you can always press the pause button; you can always flick a light switch if it gets too much. There is no pause button for life, no light switch for the darkness of reality. The trouble with fear becoming an entertainment source is that it can drive people to the worst levels of voyeuristic schadenfreude: see, as long as a screen separates the audience from ‘the bad thing’, they can pretend it’s not real. This was seen no more (unintentionally, I’m sure) cruelly than just over a week ago, when American journalist James Foley was decapitated on camera by an ISIS extremist and the video went viral on the Internet. People were suitably outraged by Foley’s cold, brutal murder and his forced statement alleging he was ashamed of his American heritage, of course they were - but that didn’t stop them posting it on their Facebook walls and sharing it on other social media sites. Eventually the video was deleted from YouTube and the world, shocked, moved on to the next disaster.
The fact that a global audience flocked to the nearest computer screen to gawp, ghoulishly, at a fellow human being being slaughtered like cattle is not a little disquieting. What have we become? What does fear mean to us these days? It seems we are becoming more and more desensitised to actual problems, really horrific events that are happening in the world in which we live. Humans are scared, fragile animals who have been jumping at shadows since the dawn of time, and of course there’s no way Hollywood’s not going to exploit that, but perhaps it’s time to step away from the television set, to put down the remote. We’ve grown fat on Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers for far too long. We are still human beings, we are still capable of compassion and emotional involvement, and we should constantly seek to remind ourselves that the suffering and fear of our fellow man is not a mere movie of the week. We are better than that.