Has Fear by Joanna Bourke been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.
Are you petrified every time you step onto an airplane? Do you live in fear of the thought of a house fire? Perhaps it’s spiders or snakes that make you tremble most of all? Most of us have something that stirs up our greatest fears, and the same has been true throughout history; fearful people have existed across societies, continents and generations.
But this doesn’t mean that we’ve always been scared of the same things – or in the same way. Fears that used to dominate society in the past, be they the thought of nuclear war or witches, no longer grip us in the same way. So, how has fear changed throughout history? This book summary will take a look.
In this summary of Fear by Joanna Bourke, you’ll also find out
- how mass panic affects the design of concert halls;
- why scaring soldiers can sometimes make them braver; and
- which fear has remained constant across history.
Fear Key Idea #1: Death is our greatest fear, and one that worsens when poverty strikes.
Many people grow uncomfortable after spending too long in hospitals, retirement homes and cemeteries. These environments draw our minds toward the greatest human fear – mortality.
Nearly all human fears can be traced back, in one way or another, to a fear of dying. Those afraid of spiders, snakes and crocodiles don’t fear the creatures per se, but rather the prospect that these animals could kill them.
Similarly, people who live in fear of losing their jobs struggle with the deeper fear that they might lose their livelihoods, their homes and, in the worst case scenario, ultimately die after being forced to live on the streets.
For thousands of years, rituals, ceremonies and beliefs celebrating the afterlife negated the human fear of death. But in the nineteenth century, these comforts were taken away from the lower class in the West, exacerbating the fear of death and creating pauperization.
The bodies of deceased paupers were piled into mass graves, without tombstones or inscriptions to commemorate the dead. In addition, their bodies were covered in a caustic quicklime solution to speed up their decomposition.
Graves of nineteenth-century paupers were also unprotected, making them easy prey for Victorian bodysnatchers who made a living from selling corpses to anatomists and medical students. Knowing that this was the gruesome fate that awaited their bodies after death, people grew more afraid of dying than ever before.
Indeed, the fear of dying was enough to kill people in itself – an elderly woman by the name of Susan Starr died from shock in 1871 after social relief services threatened to cut off her financial support.
Fear Key Idea #2: The human tendency to panic in fear shaped modern public architecture and engineering.
With their narrow rows of seats, dim lighting and tightly packed, cozy atmosphere, old-fashioned cinemas can make us quite nostalgic. And yet, there are good reasons for the spacious layout of a modern theater.
Modern public buildings are designed to be quick and easy to evacuate should the people inside panic. Unfortunately, it took many tragedies before we learned the danger of mass panic in crowded spaces.
On the 16th of June in 1883, 1,200 children gathered in Sunderland’s Victoria Hall, England, to watch a stage performance. The children had been told a gift would be given at the end of the performance, so when the show finished, children raced toward the stage.
A swing door leading down to the stage had accidentally been left locked with an iron bolt. The first children to arrive at the door fell after crashing into it. The children behind them, worried they’d miss out on receiving a present, kept pushing forward. In the ensuing panic, as many as 183 children were trampled to death.
Similar incidents occurred when fires started in public theaters. A fire in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater in 1903 led to a massive loss of life: 600 people were killed in the stampede to escape the burning building.
It was clear that the human tendency to panic necessitated stringent safety measures in public buildings, which sparked a series of new design innovations. In Indianapolis, inventor Carl Prinzler developed the first doors that could be opened by pushing against a panic relief bar.
In Britain, firefighter William Paul Gerhard championed the design of theaters that could be evacuated in as little as four minutes in the case of a fire. Emergency exits located on both sides of aisles of seats, as well as wider aisles, stairways and doorways, were established as new standards for buildings.
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Fear Key Idea #3: Society disapproves of fearful children, and typically blames mothers.
Children have many fears, not least of which are vicious monsters living under their bed. Should parents provide their kids with a night light to help them cope, or leave them alone in the dark to toughen them up? Opinions vary among educators, families and psychologists.
There’s a long-standing belief that children must be taught not to fear things. Parenting guides from the 1950s and 1960s argued that a fearful child was an embarrassment; fears were thought to prevent children from growing into healthy, independent adults.
In turn, parents had the responsibility to help their children overcome their fears. But when they failed, mothers often came under fire.
For example, in the first half of the twentieth century, it was widely believed that overly gentle and protective mothers would lead children to become shy, fearful and lonely. This was particularly unacceptable when it came to young boys, whose mothers were accused of emasculating them.
Shyness and fearfulness weren’t the only “flaws” that mothers were blamed for. In 1941, psychologist Adelaide Chazan argued that children who refused to go to school were psychologically ill. The cause of this illness lay with the laxity, dependency, protectiveness and instability of the mother.
But as more and more mothers began to work in the 1950s, educators came to recognize the value of maternal protection. Their subsequent worry was that children left alone by their mothers would grow up fearful. New parenting guides such as Home and Children insisted that mothers were to stay by their child’s side for their first five years of life.
So, whether they left their children alone or remained highly protective of them, mothers would be blamed for a fearful child either way.
Fear Key Idea #4: Fearsome nightmares were blamed on a lack of blood flow to the brain until Freud argued that they arose from our own psyche.
Have you ever dreamed about something terrifying happening to the ones you love? Fear is most powerful at night, especially in nightmares, and scientists and psychologists have long sought to understand the causes of night terrors.
At first, nightmares were believed to arise from mere physical discomfort.
Having rejected old beliefs that nightmares were the work of demons, nineteenth-century physicians advised patients to avoid eating too much before sleeping, sleeping on their back or sleeping with the window closed to stave off nightmares.
According to these physicians, a full stomach put pressure on the diaphragm, the lungs and the heart, which slowed blood flow to the brain. This poor blood flow was seen as the chief cause of nightmares.
At the turn of the twentieth century, however, Sigmund Freud developed a new, groundbreaking interpretation of dreams, viewing them as the result of mental processes that gave an insight into repressed desires, primal urges and hidden emotions.
Freud argued that when we dream, we let our guard down. This, in turn, allows thoughts we’d normally suppress to rise to the surface and express themselves in surprising ways. For instance, a person who resented his mother might dream of watching the mother being eaten by a predator or murdered by someone else.
Freud also believed that many aspects of dreams were symbolic of activities in our waking life. Running into a house or up and down a staircase were, according to Freud, both symbols for sexual intercourse.
By analyzing his patients’ dreams, Freud sought to reveal their desires and perversions so they could finally come to terms with them.
Fear Key Idea #5: Unstable societies are breeding grounds for fear and panic.
With the rise of terrorist attacks around the world and their extensive coverage in the media, people are prone to panic at the sight of an unattended bag or feel nagging suspicions when they see foreigners. This isn’t the first time that insecurity has spiked among populations.
History is filled with shifting periods of stability and relative instability. It’s during unstable times that emotional insecurity, anxiety and fearfulness rise.
Consider Great Britain in the 1920s as an example. With 1.5 million people unemployed at the start of the decade, and many others struggling to get by on part-time employment, tensions were high. It was also during this time that British miners began to strike against their low wages and appalling working conditions.
The working class began to question the privileges of the middle and upper classes, who in turn began to fear an impending revolution. Their growing insecurity turned out to be the perfect environment for panic.
A satirical radio broadcast in 1926 by the BBC illustrated this situation perfectly; the program sounded like a normal news broadcast that was interrupted by live reports of protests by a working class mob in the city of London.
The broadcast was filled with outlandish details that underlined its fictional nature – the leader of the crowd was named as the chairman of the Committee for the Abolishment of Theatre Queues. The mob was said to have destroyed the Big Ben, after which the radio host announced that Greenwich time would have to be measured according to the clock of popular children’s writer Uncle Leslie. In spite of these bizarre details, the unstable nature of society led people to panic. The BBC was inundated with concerned telephone calls from fearful listeners.
Fear Key Idea #6: Intense fear during combat leads to both lasting illnesses and courage-boosting adrenaline rushes.
Soldiers are typically portrayed as fearless fighters. But the reality can be quite different on the battlefield.
Nearly all soldiers admit that fear is the predominant emotion experienced in combat. Back in 1947, a medical study interviewed soldiers from two infantry divisions deployed during World War II. Just 7 percent of men stated that they didn’t feel afraid during battle, while 90 percent of men reported suffering a range of health problems linked to traumatic experiences of fear.
Soldiers went home with trembling limbs, sleeplessness and sweating palms, as well as digestive issues such as diarrhea and constipation. Spending time in constant fear of an attack derailed soldiers’ nervous and digestive systems, seriously weakening a large part of the armed forces.
At the same time, fear can be a driving force behind heroic actions in battle, giving soldiers an adrenaline boost that leads them to act recklessly. In 1944, a young American soldier named William Manchester was fighting on the island of Okinawa in Japan when a sniper began to shoot down his fellow soldiers.
Observing the trajectory of the shots, Manchester realized that the sniper had to be hiding in a fisherman’s cabin at the foot of a nearby hill. Shaking with fear, Manchester began to sprint and duck his way toward the shack, only to realize that he’d left his steel helmet behind.
His jaw began to twitch and his eyes could no longer focus. But he kept moving, smashed his way into the shack and managed to shoot the Japanese sniper. After this, Manchester vomited and wet himself due to the sheer intensity of his fear, which had ultimately provided him with the adrenaline he needed to act.
Fear Key Idea #7: The threat of nuclear war terrified entire nations.
While WWII was terrifying, it was a later event in the twentieth century that would raise popular fear to unprecedented levels. As the Cold War set in and the nuclear arms race began, strategic moves of world powers were more threatening than ever.
The successful launch of Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 was a serious cause for worry among Americans. The installation of missiles in Cuba by Soviet President Khrushchev five years later, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, caused panic.
Fear and anxiety among the US population continued to grow. The 1980s saw another spike in fear, as US President Ronald Reagan began to develop a space-based nuclear weaponry system, which exacerbated tensions among existing nuclear powers.
The prospect of nuclear war and Armageddon struck fear into the hearts of many during this period. A 1983 survey by TV Times in the UK revealed that 75 percent of respondents believed a nuclear war was imminent.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that people of the West were so fearful. Government initiatives intended to better prepare civilians in the event of a nuclear war largely increased fear in populations.
On February 8, 1951, the US government simulated a nuclear attack on the city of New York, with such drills eventually becoming commonplace. Even children in schools were trained to throw themselves under their desks when teachers yelled at them to take cover.
Not only were these drills ineffective, they also instilled terror in children and teachers. One teacher at a school in Queens, New York reportedly screamed at a child who failed to take cover correctly: “Now your right leg is burned off, your left arm is amputated and your skin is burned away!” Entire generations of children grew up in these fearful environments.
Fear Key Idea #8: Fears of life-threatening illnesses change as medicine evolves.
Today, people wearing surgical masks on the street might be thought of as hypochondriacs. But the fact is that health-based fears are always shifting – what might seem hysterical at first may soon become the norm.
In the nineteenth century, it wasn’t cancer that people feared most, but infectious diseases such as smallpox or consumption. In one 1896 survey in the American Journal of Psychology, just five percent of respondents described cancer as an illness they feared.
But as infectious diseases became less of a medical threat in the twentieth century, chronic diseases began to stir fears in the popular imagination instead. Among these, cancer was, and still is today, the illness feared most. A public survey held in 1954 in Manchester, UK, showed that 70 percent of women feared cancer more than any other disease.
For cancer sufferers, battling the disease is much like battling fear itself. Take the story of Edna Kaehele from Denver, Colorado; she was diagnosed with cancer and was told she had six months to live in 1946.
Kaehele commenced radiation treatment and medication. Her doctors reassured her, but informed her relatives that there was nothing that they could do. Though Kaehele was overwhelmed with fear at the prospect of dying, she wasn’t ready to be defeated by cancer so easily.
Embracing the belief that cancer could be cured with a protein-based diet and refusing to let her illness scare her, Kaechele’s fear disappeared. Twelve years after her diagnosis, Kaehele published an inspiring book on her battle with sickness called Sealed Orders. We can’t know whether Kaehele’s refusal to fear death helped her live longer, but it certainly made her final years more enjoyable.
In Review: Fear Book Summary
The key message in this book:
Since the nineteenth century, the human fear of death has played a key role in the popular imagination. From nuclear war to cancer to parenting and public architecture, fear and the struggle to cope with it shape many aspects of our societies and day-to-day lives.