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Behind the Fiction, Past
A Fiction Column
By Michael G'Francisco

Fear, Terror & Horror's Relationship to Fiction

“Fear opens wide the eyes and mouth, the heart beats violently, the breath is quick and short, gives the countenance an air of wildness, covers it with deadly paleness, draws back the elbows parallel with the sides, lifts up the open hands, with fingers spread, at some distance before it. The body seems shrinking from danger. The heart beats violently, the breath is quick and short, and the whole body is thrown into a general tremor.” A quote from the book, Dialogue for Schools by Increase Cook, published in 1813.

To begin let’s first define the above synonyms to see if they really relate to one another.

The definition of FEAR: An unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

The definition of TERROR: Extreme fear of violence or threats of violence used for intimidation or coercion.

The definition of HORROR: An intense, painful feeling of repugnance, shock and fear.

On the surface FEAR, TERROR & HORROR seem synonyms, but not true. FEAR alerts the mind that something is going to happen. TERROR awakens the power of the mind, and HORROR, however, contracts, freezes and tries to annihilate FEAR and TERROR emotions.

The majority of people read and watch many things involving fiction and get “Make- Believe” emotional responses and attachments to the characters in what they are reading and watching (e.g., “The Living Dead” series). This presents proof that there is something quite incoherent in one’s emotional responses: A feeling for things that they know don’t exist, regardless of what is judged to be true. (For more information on this “make-believe” theory examine Philosopher Colin Radford’s 1975, essay on the “Paradox of Fiction”.

Kendall Walton, the Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan presents his theory called the “Pretend Theory”. This theory is a bit fool hearty, to put it mildly, because it make a person, in some cases pretend to have a violent emotional response. Example: A person while watching a horror movie knows in reality that they aren’t in harm’s way or danger. But, the person’s mind invents the feeling that there is a risk of danger which causes a precondition for fear. So, a person only mentally pretends that they are afraid when something shocking happens.

Another theory in the case of the three synonyms is the “Illusion Theory” which holds that readers or visional audiences are subject to a partial illusion when they are absorbed in a story. This account of an emotional response is because the eyes see a monster, (e.g., Frankenstein) on a screen and hear people talking about it as if it existed. They mentally entered into the movie and become part of the scene.

Still, there is another emotional response theory, namely the “Counterpart Theory” which is a bit superior to the other three theories because we sometimes actually associate fictional characters with real-life people and events. A person under the influence of this emotional response can begin to act out or create in real life similar situations.

So, what is an “emotional response”. It is a reaction to a particular intrapsychic feeling or feelings, accompanied by physiological changes that may or may not be outwardly manifested but that motivate or precipitate some action or behavioral response.

Emotions are complex and according to some theories are a state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence our behavior. Emotions are often the driving force behind motivations of positive or negative experiences which could curiously prompt the following question.

Is it possible that we, humans, consume fiction in all its art forms for the reason that in fact, WE NEED IT? Perhaps emotional responses are quite an important part of our everyday lives and our perception of reality. Yet, it could be possible that too much fictional emotional responses could result in the danger that emotional responses about fiction may become confused with emotional responses about reality and perhaps cause a global danger namely TERRORISM?


Now, go softly into the night. mgf

Comments always welcome


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