Frights and Flights of the Imagination

We all have fears. Some are raw and strike us as obvious—heights, lions, tigers, bears, dark places. Others are strange and entangled with threads upon threads of culture. We can all literally scare the shit out of ourselves, with a little help from our imaginations. I would like to share two fear inducing flights of the imagination that, to this day, make my whole body tense up. In fact they do so on a regular basis. Let’s call the first one the pool shark, and the second one, the dark-basement grandpa.

The pool shark is triggered by the deep ends of swimming pools. I have had this fear as long as I can remember—maybe since the first time I jumped off a diving board. As I swim across the deep end of the pool, I stare at the bottom, waiting for it to explode into pieces as a gigantic great white shark pummels me, mouth wide open with razor sharp teeth.

The dark-basement grandpa is triggered by dark basement passages, especially corners. As I look down a dark corridor, I wait in suspense for a creature to emerge from around the corner. This creature takes one of two forms: my late grandpa, or a dwarf-sized man with wrinkled skin and a rapid waddle or crawl.

I am thirty years old and I confess that these fears continue to operate in situations I find myself in on a regular basis. I do laundry about once a week. This requires me to descend the stairs into my basement and stand in the proximity of a dark corner. When the mood is right, I find myself bolting up the stairwell, leaping three steps at a time.

I’ve swam several times a week for years. Upon entering the deep end of the pool, my body spends the first minute in a very tense state. As a kid who just jumped off the diving board, this feeling would send me scrambling to the ladder and leaping out of the water. Now it tends to dissolve after a few minutes of being in the water; although it will reappear at unexpected moments during my workout.

We are the only species who can experience a real physiological fight or flight response in response to an imagined scenario. This does not happen to animals. They need real cues; sounds, vibrations, branches ruffling. Although one might argue that the cues are there for us; in this case, respectively depth and darkness. These conditions appear to be more primers than cues. They are environments that put the body on edge. They work in the way that turning off the lights does when we tell scary stories at sleepovers.

I know that the probability of these scenarios coming true are, for practical purposes, zero. How, then, can I still have such a strong visceral response to them? This illustrates so starkly to me the dominating power of emotion over intellect on the body.

Somewhere along the line, the emotion tied to these scenarios was strong enough to persist. Likely from repetition. My strong emotional response to these imagined scenarios was likely conditioned by repetition; by replaying the frightful scenario in the respective circumstances. Or perhaps the first instance of my flight response to these ridiculous scenarios was enough to bind them with this emotion forever.

These fears result from a mix of cultural and genetic forces. I am repeatedly drawn to the daunting process of picking these pieces apart and telling their gene-culture stories. Our imaginative \ elaborative powers of cognition - the same ones responsible for the cultural explosion - have woven countless scary stories from inherited genetic and cultural material.

Our fear of snakes and cultural obsession with serpents is the clearest example, one elucidated by E.O. Wilson. For millions of years, primates have been scared of snakes. They can even tell which ones are poisonous. This was clearly an adaptation as snakes were deadly and abundant on the savannah. With the birth and growth of culture, this inherited fear of snakes was elaborated into an obsession with serpents and snake-like forms. It was in our survival interest to pay extra special attention to these creatures and their unique features.

Movies have certainly been responsible for seeding these images as well as strengthening a fear response to them. From fifth to eight grade, I watched an absurd number of absurd horror flicks. Demonic Toys, Ticks, Killer Bees, Killer Ants, Orca, Jaws, Poltergeist, Child’s Play, Hellraiser, Basket Case, to name a few. With reasonable confidence, I can trace the pool shark and basement grandpa to specific movies: respectively, Jaws and Orca, and Hellraiser and Poltergeist.

The movie Jaws is responsible for several generations worth of a heightened fear and awareness of sharks. We were certainly prepared for this fear. Sharks have big mouths, lots of sharp teeth, and are carnivores. They also inhabit an ecosystem in which we are visitors and relatively helpless. The collective cultural fear might not catch as well had the movie been about a killer squirrel.

I’ve barely begun to unravel the gene-culture evolutions of these two fears. Could we all benefit from an approach to personal fears that took these millions of years old stories into account? Sure, the body will do what it does in the face of scary things—both real and imagined—but could we feel less alone with our fears if were reminded of our common genetic heritage? Could we reconsolidate these imaginations with new emotional responses? Next time I do my laundry, I’m going to shine some science on my dark-basement grandpa.

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3 Responses to “Frights and Flights of the Imagination”

  1. Alita says:

    i had the exact depth fright as yours, on the diving board, i will think of nothing but as soon as my body about to enter the pool, my mind will start playing jaws movie automatically and i will always imagine that big fish will come and get my leg or my arm or anywhere and shake me like a rag doll, and i will end up swam frantically and end up almost drowned few time because of muscle cramp. But now, i think, i had overcome the fear. The only fear that i can’t seems to get rid off was a haunted house. I will always have this fear everytime i wanted to buy a house. I will always asked the agent, how long had the house been emptied, why is it so cheap, how long did the last owner stay,etc…sometimes i will imagine what will happen if i bought the house and all strange thing will start to happen 3days after we moved in. Eii…scary..!! And another one that I am horrified with are clowns and mascots. They don’t look funny to me, their makeup is so eeriee and I will always imagine that the suits move on his own…i will never get over them anytime soon.
    When I was a kid I used to watch Exorcist, Poltergeist, Jaws, Childs Play and IT.

    My hubby has a fear of height even he’s a 6 footer guy. I love to watch Aircrash Investigations [National Geographic], and sometimes he will watch ‘em as well. We’re a frequent flyer and when come to the flight date, he will always change his mind and he said he’s more than willing to drive to my hometown [a 3hours drive]. He told me before that if certain scenario will happen like in the TV, what should he do to save me and most importantly himself, I laughed him off of course, and everytime i do that he will become stiffer and tighten his seat belt like he can’t breathe and he will not talk and he will only seat straight, while i on the other hand, crossing my legs at him and he will be in a very stress motion, you can tell from his expression. I find it hillarious for a tall guy to fear of height. Even when we’re entertaining our daughter in an amusement park, he will never join her if it there’s a flying thinging involved.

    Like you said, they won’t do anything like we imagine and they were not even there as we imagine. The repetition of watching those scary movies really screwing their absurd and unforgettable scene into our head tight. A great job well done to the producers and the directors and our mind for remembering it all in details ;p

  2. dan says:

    I love these phobia videos from talk shows-> There are so many good ones. It’s tough to know where to stop and start.
    Personally, I have trouble with small elevators. I’m not really a fan of elevators at all. It’s a loss of control I believe. It’s more about the lack of exit than the actual size of the space I think.
    And Eva has a bunch of great modern ghost stories, short and long at her blog. This is a great modern fear I think-> and lots of one liners like this->

  3. Alita says:

    I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
    I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
    When we think it will all become clear
    ‘Cuz I’m being taken over by The Fear

    - The Fear, Lily Allen-

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