Fear is an anticipatory emotive response to the prospect of a terrible or terrifying event. It exists as a personally, historically, and socially conditioned amalgam of apprehension, uncertainty, and anxiety. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), the eighteenth-century moral philosopher Adam Smith catalogs fear among the “strongest motives” (66) of mankind and “the most furious passions” alongside hatred and resentment.
As an affective response, fear requires activating conditions. More precisely, its activation hinges on past experience and on current expectation of terror. Smith, for instance, describes fear as an imaginative passion that increases the subject’s anxiety about future suffering, as opposed to what actual experience. Adela Pinch suggests that the Gothic’s trademark imitation and repetition of certain images, thoughts, and phrases can provoke or intensify conditioned feelings of fear in response to their continual (though fictional) iteration. Particular events or images trigger the fear response, and the knowledge and anticipation of that experience heightens the response. J. Halberstam evaluates the literary and filmic technologies and (re)productions of fear, but elides Ann Radcliffe’s distinction between horror (a “low” form of fear that tends to manifest itself in visual or bodily terms) and terror (horror’s “high” counterpart that uses elements of the sublime, typically operating via obscurity and imagination) in favor of an investigation of the mechanics of the horrific brand of fear.
Because fear is, in many respects, a communal affective response not contained within the body, its transmission allows for empathetic connections among subjects. Smith, for example, argues that we can sympathize more with fear than with physical agony. If one has become acquainted with the object that occasions the passion (or its expression) of another, one may experience an equivalent emotion after recognizing it in another. It follows that persons who are not the immediate objects of a passion (e.g. anger) may still feel the fear of another by imaginatively placing themselves in the position of one threatened by such a passion.
Fear impacts our other emotions, actions, and relationships. As a “furious” and widespread passion, fear has the potential to influence geopolitical populations by eliciting a common response to specific triggers. Fear can also function as a means of criminal deterrence. Smith, like other legal theorists, asserts that, in a successful judicial system, criminals must be made to repent for their socially disruptive actions so that others, “through fear of the like punishment, may be terrified from being guilty of the like offence. The natural gratification of this passion tends, of its own accord, to produce all the political ends of punishment; the correction of the criminal, and the example to the public” (84). The agony stimulated in one person can elicit a wider fear that serves as general deterrence. Fear also motivates social adhesion as the dread of solitude typically compels individual persons to seek refuge in the protection of social group. Apprehensions of religious transgression, too, can provoke the creation of similarly conventional communities. Fear has the potential to balance hope or inspire sympathy and, in so doing, to regulate human nature.
While moderate fear can support social systems, its excess can pose a threat to those same structures. Smith shows how an overabundance of fear and anger is difficult to restrain and can thus undermine personal and social integrity. Thus, Smith follows ancient philosophers in insisting that one must control strong passions like fear and anger. While Smith calls for a command of both fear and anger, he includes a differentiating caveat: “Fear is contrary to anger, and is often the motive which restrains it . . . . The indulgence of anger is sometimes an object of vanity. That of fear never is” (283). At the same time, the dual experience of great fear and attraction can stimulate the awing effects of the sublime. Moderate fear, on the other hand, preserves an equilibrium between courage and cowardice and motivates the subject to adhere to convention.
Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.
Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1999.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. Ryan Patrick Hanley. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Tomkins, Sylvan. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.