Live Science reported that about 18% of Americans suffer from some form of phobia or extreme fear. Interestingly, 18% is about the average Horror and Suspense movie market share for the past decade. It might not be the same folks, but I would bet that people who experience a little irrational fear make up a large portion of the audience.
(To read about fear and phobia in writing visit my blog: writinginadeadworld)
That is, after all, what these movies are all about. Horror films take our fears and phobias and make them far more extreme. They take these ideas that our rational minds claim make no sense and display them in a way that allow our emotional minds can scream “Ah Ha! I told you it could get bad!” Perhaps that is why the “best” horror films tend to draw from the things that already scare us. Film makers know that at some level we are prepared to respond in fear to certain things…all they need to do to earn that response is to take the truth within that fear and make it larger. Reading through the Top 10 phobias, it was apparent that they often make an appearance in horror films. Not all our winners of course, but all dealt with the underlining fears that make up America’s top ten phobias:
1. The Dentist: Look there is nothing pleasant about sitting in that chair. Even people like me, who visit the dentist every three months, sit down praying “oh please don’t discover anything that requires a drill.” Many films have played upon this phobia. My favorite is the Marathon Man. If you’ve ever had a root canal treatment or waited until a cavity had exposed the nerve before seeing the dentist, then you can well imagine what Dustin Hoffman experienced in that interrogation scene.
2. Dogs: Now I don’t really understand “cynophobia.” I have a large dog and while I am somewhat suspicious of the smaller breeds (or cats in a dog suit as I prefer to call them), I tend to love these loyal canines. So much so that I give monthly to ASPCA. I have of course had encounters that raised my blood pressure, but only because the canine was clearly dangerous. Stephen King took this phobia to a new height with CUJO. Proof for the cynophobes that even the most loving pet can become a monster. Phobias aren’t exactly based on a logical and rational thought process, so King simply confirmed the “possibility” rather than treat the “probability.”
3. Flying: Aviophobia or the fear of flying affects 25 million Americans. I don’t mind the plane I just hate airports. The probability of dying in a plane crash is 1 in 20,000 as compared to an auto which is 1 in 100. (Of course I board a jet about forty or fifty times a year so I’m thinking my chance of death is a little greater). Still, even without a fear of flying you can understand the phobia. A perfectly designed wing, vacuum and the unseen laws of physics are the only thing keeping you suspended at 30 thousand feet above the hard earth or dangerous shark filled ocean (okay that last is my fear). People worry about engine failure but a jet can fly on just one engine. Without pristine wing conditions you’re basically in a car with really bad steering. Matheson nailed this with his Twilight Zone episode 20,000 feet. Of course if the monster had taken a physics class he would have know to tear off the wing’s front and ignore the engine.
4. Thunder and Lightning: I knew storms frightened people, but I was unaware that it could be a phobia. In a survey of those who suffer from this fear, most stated that they kept it a secret because they found it to be embarrassing. I give them credit, I see a spider and I announce my fear by screaming like a 7 year old girl. l “Thunder and lightning” is often central to the mood of a horror story. In War of the Worlds, lightning is what the aliens rode down to earth and of course, it was also the fuel that resurrected the Frankenstein monster
5. The Dark: A no-brainer. Although for me it’s not the “dark” it’s about what is lurking in the “dark.” I think we can defend this fear. Back in the days without electricity or fire, walking around in the dark could mean breaking a leg or being the main course for something’s dinner. The Dark is a primal fear, most films use it as the main setting. I’m not certain Friday the 13th or Halloween would have had the same impact if they occurred on a sunny day. The best exploitation of this particular fear was “When Darkness Falls.” It made me a believer in the value of not slipping into a dark hallway.
6. Heights: 3 to 5 percent of Americans are afraid of heights. In general it makes sense although as they say it’s not the height that kills you it’s the landing. Still, before we judge acrophobia too harshly we should consider the studies on height perception. It was found that those who feared heights judge buildings as being ten feet taller then they actually were, when viewing it from the ground and forty feet taller when viewed from the roof top. So these folks actually “see” heights as greater than they are. The same is true for those who hate roller coasters. Studies of body response revealed that people with roller coaster phobia had real and painful physical responses to the ride. So I’ll ride the coaster provided you allow me to beat you about the head and face with a club while we do – just so we have the same experience. Vertigo, the classic film by Alfred Hitchcock is my choice for the best visual depiction of this fear.
7. People: About 15 million people suffer this social phobia. Although it is mostly related to public speaking (with many of the same symptoms of riding a coaster), it does extend to doing pretty much anything in front of a group (eating, drinking, dancing). I love public speaking and do it often. I do however embrace a certain mistrust of the masses. I’m not alone – Zombie movies by design represent a fear of the masses and what happens in the absence of social order and compassion.
8. Scary Spaces: This isn’t just claustrophobia, but is a fear of any place that does not provide easy escape – like marriage – okay, not really. Scary spaces are just critical to a great horror film. My personal favorite would be the movie Quarantine. It combined a dark, inescapable place with rabid zombies. The film makers used the elements of darkness, film type and film angles to convey that experience to the viewer.
9. Things with a lot of legs: I confess I don’t like bugs. Spiders or anything with skinny, nasty, multiple legs make me shiver. It’s just that they can be anywhere – like crawling up your back as you read this. While not a horror movie per se, I thought the movie “Bug” did a great job of demonstrating the phobia. After all when it comes to the creepy crawlies you really can believe that just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
10. Snakes: I feel sorry for the snakes. Much like sharks, the majority of them receive a bad rap. Most snakes are neither dangerous nor poisonous – it may be unfair, but like sharks I have to place them in the category of “sucks to suck.” I guess when you’re all teeth and no limbs you’re not gonna have a lot of friends. I imagine that for those with a snake phobia (unlike those of us who just give them a wide berth) the movie Anaconda probably provided a visual of how snake phobes see these slithering creatures. Snakes usually play a secondary role in horror films, but I do recall a film aptly titled “Ssssss” which was about a guy who turned into a snake, but I really don’t suggest it as a “must rent” movie.
Fear, if not phobias, are central to our survival. Without fear we’d probably do a bunch of dumb things that would result in death or injury. In horror movies these fears are an essential ingredient for a connection to the audience. It’s the component that stays with us long after the credits roll. It’s the part that receives quiet contemplation as we go about our regular lives. If done with a measure of truth, it becomes something we can rationalize but never really dismiss.