The Things We All Fear

I have a fascination with those things we all fear. I’ve written a bit about zombies and my suspicion that their place in the current zietgiest describes a kind of existential dread somehow related to our discomfort with our transhuman, technologically-drenched future. I’m not alone.

There are other people interested in these same ideas. They are more eloquent and more studied on the topic. One such person is Dan Engber, who became fascinated by the fear inspired by quicksand in the 1960s. He noticed that kids today aren’t really worried about quicksand the way they were a few years ago. It doesn’t show up in their games the way it did when he was a kid. He wondered where that fear went. Why did people stop being afraid?

Engber did a study of twentieth century films and discovered a sharp rise in the depiction of quicksand during the 1950s and 1960s. Radiolab does a great podcast with Engber, in which he speculates that rampant fear of quicksand corresponds to a distrust of exotic cultures and terrain in an age of extreme exploration and globalization. This fear became a metaphor for how people thought about the war in Vietnam. In short, the fear of quicksand represented a distrust about involvement in far away places and then became a controlling metaphor that shaped thought about that very involvement. If this interests you at all, you should give the podcast a listen. It is worth the 16 minutes.

I admire Engber and the way he conducted his exploration of the quicksand trope through twentieth century culture. This kind of study is fascinating and really, really useful. I’m interested in finding other studies that work along these lines. Links or citations are appreciated.

Fear is both an intensely personal experience and a culturally-defined expression. Fear is primal. It is also communal. The literatures of dread — horror films and stories — may not be meaningless drivel after all. A thoughtful mining of the nightmares we share with one another may give us our best look at ourselves, what we value, what we abhor and where we are headed as a species.

I know the zombie genre could keep researchers busy for a long time. What other cultural fears could we explore to find clues about ourselves?