Recent work on fear in contemporary culture is at once remarkably wide-ranging and surprisingly interconnected. Despite the myriad of topics scrutinized under the academic study of fear, scholars are unified in their assessment that fear is deeply engrained in contemporary culture. If we ever thought that a total eclipse of fear was part of the natural maturation process of an enlightened society, it seems impossible to take that position today. And while much of the scholarship seeks to locate and interpret fear in its particular manifestations, there is also a consistent and urgent drive to push behind the specific examples in order to understand how fear itself may be, for good or ill, a foundational cultural element of liberal society.
While fear has been an occasional topic of scholarly interest for quite some time, the problem of fear in contemporary culture was first studied systematically in the late 1990s, when a host of books were published on what was called “the culture of fear.” These sociological studies criticized the media, politicians, and even some intellectuals for sensationalizing crime, disease, drugs, and other social problems in order to benefit from the fascinated paranoia of uninformed readers. Since this initial flurry of publications, the study of fear has widened its purview to consider terrorism, conspiracy theories, postmodernism, the arts, and political and ethical philosophy—to name the major topics of this essay.
Perhaps the most consistent conclusion of these recent studies has been that fear is a plague within our society because it is regularly and intentionally misused to further suspect economic, political, or ethnic motives. Fear is the instrument of choice in the hands of those agents, the powerful and the disenfranchised alike, who seek to achieve shortsighted goals at the expense of ignoring the deeper, more complex problems of liberal society. Furthermore, the perseverance of irrational fear within supposedly rationalistic societies is often explained as a result of a general sense of insecurity due to the failure of various religious, political, artistic, and scientific metanarratives in the twentieth century.
Others understand fear as a useful epistemological tool closely allied with suspicion. On this view, an unacknowledged foundation of the liberal tradition is its ability to employ fear as suspicion as a means to overcome the harmful effects of fear as prejudice. This conception of fear as constitutive, in part, of the liberal tradition has its supporters in political as well as ethical philosophy, and it has been spun out into new theories of multiculturalism, justice, and ethical judgment claiming that human flourishing will increase more by intentionally avoiding cruelty than by chasing elusive utopian figurations of “the good society.”
It seems clear that unless we come to a more nuanced view of the role fear plays in contemporary culture, we will have learned little from the amazing energy that has recently been put into the study of this emotion that looms so large in our social and cultural lives.
Fear in History
While fear is a universal human experience, an understanding of its various historical instantiations is crucial to an understanding of its operation in the social and cultural spheres. The books listed in this section attempt such a contextualization of fear in a number of eras and places. The books by Naphy and Roberts, Schultz, and Scott and Kosso each contain a general introductory essay that helps to locate fear within the time and place covered by the book. The other essays in these collections are quite specific readings of texts or events, from The Canterbury Tales to the American Revolution, that are related to fear.
- Delumeau, Jean. Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th–18th Centuries. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.
- Naphy, William G., and Penny Roberts, eds. Fear in Early Modern Society. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.
- Schultz, Nancy Lusignan, ed. Fear Itself: Enemies Real & Imagined in American Culture. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2001.
- Scott, Anne, and Cynthia Kosso, eds. Fear and Its Representations in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Turnhout: Brepolis, 2002.
- Tuan, Yi-fu. Landscapes of Fear. New York: Pantheon, 1979.
Diagnosing “the Culture of Fear”
The culture of fear was diagnosed first by sociologists in the late 1990s. The books below analyze a wide range of perceived social “problems” that have contributed to a culture of fear, and then show that many of these social problems are actually on the decline, for example, crime, drug use, and disease. Attempts to understand the underlying cultural trends that have led to the rise of the fear culture are various. They range from a reliance on an often unelaborated psychology of group behavior (Glassner and Giroux), to an explication of how mass media representations collaborate with institutional elites to create cultural frames, or narratives, that develop a public expectation of fearful national events (Altheide and Best). Berry is notable in forwarding a comprehensive, grassroots vision of societal change as an alternative to the public response of fearfulness after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
- Altheide, David L. Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 2002.
- Berry, Wendell. In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World. Barrington, MA: The Orion Society, 2001.
- Best, Joel. Random Violence: How We Talk about New Crimes and New Victims. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
- Cohl, H. Aaron. Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death? How Pessimism, Paranoia, and a Misguided Media are Leading us Toward Disaster. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.
- Furedi, Frank. The Culture of Fear: Risk-Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation. New York: Continuum, 2002.
- Giroux, Henry A. The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
- Glassner, Barry. The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things. New York: Basic, 1999.
- Showalter, Elaine. Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Fear and Liberal Society
As strong as the sociological current has been in denouncing “the culture of fear,” there has been no shortage of work done on the benefits of fear to humans in society. Several books have appeared recently that emphasize the usefulness of fear in human survival and flourishing. These works describe the biological (Dozier), social (De Becker), and emotional (Scruton) roots of fear within an evolutionary paradigm that lionizes fear as the prime source of humanity’s continued survival. Another group of scholars, following on the work of political philosopher Judith Shklar, especially her influential article “The Liberalism of Fear,”11xJudith Shklar, “The Liberalism of Fear,” Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989). has begun to give substantial attention to fear’s foundational role in the Western tradition of political liberalism. These thinkers outline a negative politics that emphasizes the necessity of coupling a liberal attitude of suspicion with the well-established tradition of positive liberal rights. They elaborate how a solid fear of both the weakness of the individual and the tendency of the state to oppression can produce more effective policies than can a political philosophy based solely upon a utopian imagining of the potential good society (Levy). Robin provides a nice counter to these attitudes. His work, while obviously indebted to that of Shklar, finally sees fear as an efficacious political tool that must nonetheless be overcome if liberal society is to live up to its promise by envisioning and achieving “the good society.”
- De Becker, Gavin. The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997.
- Dozier, Jr., Ralph W. Fear Itself: The Origin and Nature of the Powerful Emotion that Shapes Our Lives and Our World. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998.
- Levy, Jacob T. The Multiculturalism of Fear. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Robin, Corey. Fear: The History of a Political Idea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Scruton, David L., ed. Sociophobics: The Anthropology of Fear. Boulder: Westview, 1986.
Traditional Studies of Terrorism
Most of the books listed in this first group take terrorism to be a method of unconventional warfare employed by illegitimate, marginal groups to fight against established governmental powers by attacking non-combatants and spreading fear within the populace. The rise of globalization has considerably complicated this picture, though, and during the terrorist era culminating in the September 11, 2001 attacks on American targets, much more attention has been given to the cultural roots of terrorism and its cultural implications. Townshend provides a good general introduction that considers the complexity of the issue since September 11, and Jurgensmeyer gives due attention to the role of religion in terrorism. Walter includes a rare early account of how the acts of legitimate states can be recast as terrorist activities.
- Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
- Jurgensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
- Laquer, Walter. A History of Terrorism. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2001.
- Townshend, Charles. Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Walter, Eugene V. Terror and Resistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
- Whittaker, David, ed. The Terrorism Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Terrorism and the State
Especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been a move in studies of terrorism to complicate the definition and location of terrorism. This critique has developed from curious parentage—the seemingly polarized camps of postmodern cultural theory (Zizek and Baudrillard) and Christian theology (Berquist, Hauerwas, and Williams). If terrorism is defined in a more general way as the systematic use of tactics of fear and violence, rather than law, to achieve political goals, then even established democratic states are not immune to charges of terrorist activity. This line of argument, which grows out of an anti-globalization stance of distrust toward capitalist democratic states, focuses more on the use of fear than earlier studies of terrorism do and implicates the modern state for using methods that they consider no better than those of extremist groups clamoring for power and influence. The more expansive accounts (Baudrillard and Zizek) psychologize the September 11 attacks as examples of globalization turning against itself—the successful employment of the technological instruments of modernization and industrialization (i.e., airplanes and sky scrapers) as weapons against those progressive processes of Western civilization.
- Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism. New York: Verso, 2002.
- Berquist, Jon L., ed. Strike Terror No More: Theology, Ethics, and the New War. St. Louis: Chalice, 2002.
- George, Alexander, ed. Western State Terrorism. Cambridge: Polity, 1991.
- Hauerwas, Stanley, and Frank Lentricchia, eds. Dissent from the Homeland: Essays after September 11. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.
- Perdue, William D. Terrorism and the State: A Critique of Domination through Fear. New York: Praeger, 1989.
- Williams, Rowan. Writing in the Dust: After September 11. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2002.
- Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real! New York: Verso, 2002.
Related to the anti-globalization arguments against “Western state terrorism” is the recent increase in popularity and respectability of global conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories rose to prominence in the early and mid-twentieth century in response to identifiable external enemies. In the post-Cold War era, however, the lack of a major international enemy has led the American public to turn their fears toward their own government and suspect their own leaders of devising the ills that trouble American society. This suspicion of institutional government has shown an amazing ability to unite surprisingly disparate political groups in a condemnation of the supposed secret operations of government. The rise of a respectable anti-globalization elite, some say, has even lent a degree of credence to conspiracy theories (Knight). Others scholars (Parish and Massumi) see conspiracy theories as desperate narratives of fear and suspicion that are prime examples of postmodern culture at work. Amidst the decline of grand ideas (metanarratives) about the meaning and structure of the world, they say, there has risen a multitude of idiosyncratic, fearful narratives that attempt to make sense out of a fundamentally incoherent political, economic, and social order.
- Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New York: Knopf, 1965.
- Knight, Peter. Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
- Massumi, Brian, ed. The Politics of Everyday Fear. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
- Melley, Timothy. Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.
- Parish, Jane, and Martin Parker, eds. The Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy Theory and the Human Sciences. Malden: Blackwell, 2001.
Fear in the Arts
Fear has become more and more prevalent in the arts in the twentieth century, and much work has been done in trying to understand why this is so. The origin of the art of fear is normally traced to the gothic revival in architecture and literature that began in eighteenth-century Europe. The conventions of horror stories have proved remarkably stable yet flexible enough to preserve a space for the projection of ever changing societal fears for more than two centuries. Most of the books below explain the propagation of horror stories as a cultural process of psychological expulsion and repression of those elements of society—visually identified with a certain race, class, or gender—that are fearful to the dominant majority. Notably different are philosophical (Carroll) and sociological (Tudor) approaches. Virilio and Steiner take a broader path by seeing the popularity of fear in art as a characteristic of the twentieth century, which commonly rejects beauty for the sake of a cold, often cruel scientism.
- Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.
- Clemens, Valdine. The Return of the Repressed: Gothic Horror from The Castle of Otronto to Alien. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
- Ellin, Nan. Architecture of Fear. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997.
- Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
- Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Norton, 1993.
- Steiner, Wendy. Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth Century Art. New York: Free, 2001.
- Tropp, Martin. How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818–1918). Jefferson: McFarland, 1990.
- Tudor, Andrew. Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989.
- Virilio, Paul. Art and Fear. New York: Continuum, 2003.
- Warner, Marina. No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999.
Fear in Philosophy
Recent philosophical discussions of fear often take the fearful images of art as their starting point. Rarely do these discussions take up fear as a topic directly, but a confrontation of individual and collective human fear, along with an attempt to describe how fear is culturally embedded in Western thought, is the driving motive behind the works listed below. These works advocate philosophy as a thoughtful cure to the cultural mania that often unfairly creates monsters and projects all dangers to the society on these mostly imaginative monstrosities. Further, they suggest that philosophy can employ critical judgment to discern carefully between those fears that are legitimate dangers and those that are fanciful. Here, Kearney is an excellent, readable synthesis of much recent continental philosophy as well as an application of its most important claims to familiar cultural events. I have included Burke and Kant as predecessors who are overwhelmingly important to contemporary discussions of fear and philosophy.
- Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 1757; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
- Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
- Ingebretson, Edward J. At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Public Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.
- Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. 1790; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- Kearney, Richard. Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness. New York: Routledge, 2003.
- Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.