Fear | Joanna Bourke

Summary of: Fear: A Cultural History
By: Joanna Bourke


Prepare to embark on an exploration of the roots of our deepest fears through Joanna Bourke’s ‘Fear: A Cultural History’. This comprehensive summary delves into the relationship between fear and our most primal instincts, and the diverse ways through which societies across history faced their mortal anxieties. Discover the origins of humanity’s fear of death, learn about the importance of design in addressing mass panic and the experiences of soldiers in combat, and contemplate how fear affects parenting and our nightly dreams. Bourke’s expert storytelling unravels the complexities of fear, ultimately casting light on the universal experience of facing unease, insecurity, and dread.

Fear of Death Unraveled

Human fear, in essence, is often rooted in the dread of our own mortality. Once, rituals and beliefs assuaged this innate dread, but the lower classes in the Western world were stripped of these comforts during the nineteenth century. To worsen the situation, deceased paupers were buried without memorials in mass graves, their bodies hastily decomposed with caustic solutions. Vulnerable to graverobbers, these individuals’ fears of their ultimate fate spiraled, occasionally even culminating in death itself due to the overwhelming anxiety.

Evolution of Public Space Safety

The nostalgic ambiance of old-fashioned cinemas and theaters may evoke warm feelings, but modern public buildings have evolved for a reason – safety. Past tragedies, such as the 1883 incident in Sunderland’s Victoria Hall where 1,200 children gathered for a performance, highlighted the importance of preventing mass panic in crowded spaces. An unfortunate locked door led to a deadly stampede, with 183 children trampled to death. Similarly, a fire at Chicago’s Iroquois Theater in 1903 resulted in 600 lives lost as people fought to escape. This realization of human panic in emergencies sparked innovative design solutions, like Indianapolis inventor Carl Prinzler’s development of panic relief bars on doors. In the UK, firefighter William Paul Gerhard advocated for improved theater designs, featuring easy evacuation within four minutes and the implementation of emergency exits, wider aisles, stairways, and doorways. The spacious layout of modern theaters is not mere modernity; it is a time-tested response to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone within these public spaces.

Overcoming Childhood Fears

Children’s fears, including the dread of monsters lurking beneath their beds, have sparked debates among educators, families, and psychologists alike. In the past, parenting guides considered a fearful child an embarrassment, halting their growth into a well-rounded and independent adult. Parents were expected to help their children conquer such fears; if they failed, mothers bore the brunt of the criticism. Overly gentle and protective mothers were believed to create shy, fearful, and lonely children, especially for boys, who faced accusations of being emasculated. In the 1950s, as more mothers entered the workforce, educators began to appreciate maternal protection, although concerns arose that children left alone would develop fearfulness. Ultimately, mothers faced blame for a fearful child, whether they were highly protective or left their children unguarded. Accommodating and addressing children’s fears without resorting to extremes is an essential aspect of balanced parenting, allowing them to grow into confident and emotionally stable adults.

Unveiling Night Terrors

The mystery of terrifying nighttime dreams has puzzled experts for centuries. Early beliefs blamed physical discomfort for nightmares, leading nineteenth-century physicians to recommend avoiding overeating or sleeping on one’s back. However, Sigmund Freud transformed dream analysis by unveiling their psychological causes. He uncovered the connection between dreams and repressed desires, hidden urges, and buried emotions. Dreams, according to Freud, let our guard down and permit ordinarily suppressed thoughts to surface in unexpected ways, often symbolically representing waking life activities. By analyzing patients’ dreams, Freud aimed to help them confront and accept their buried desires and perversions.

Panic in Unstable Times

Terrorist attacks and media coverage have led to heightened anxiety, making people more likely to panic at any perceived threat. This isn’t unprecedented; history has seen similar patterns of emotional insecurity during times of instability. For instance, in the 1920s, Great Britain experienced high unemployment and civil unrest, leading to growing insecurity among the population. A 1926 BBC satirical radio broadcast demonstrated this environment perfectly, with a seemingly legitimate news report describing protests by a working-class mob and outlandish claims about the destruction of Big Ben. Despite the absurd details, the broadcast led to widespread panic, revealing how societal instability can fuel fear and panic in the face of any perceived threat.

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