Got the Fear? On the Ways We Are Afraid


‘Anti-City’: Smichov Waterfront, Prague

One Sunday afternoon in October my girlfriend and I walked out of Smichov along the north bank of the river. Nearby the Staropramen brewery belched out a smell like old tea-bags, a sort of damp, clammy odour at once evocative and strange. Pleasure boats swelled their horns in chorus. Gulls, wilier than the ones back home, scrapped and yelled around bridges. The road, running parallel with an increasingly desolate promenade, wound its way back to Mala Strana and the Castle above it. In the distance, the city seemed finally to give way to the river, train-bridges, and the dead scrubland littered between them.

Leaves bounced skittishly along the empty prom. Apart from us, one old tramp in a scuffed hat and stonewashed denim sat, eyeing us passively over a freshly tongued roll-up. And in the distance, where the prom sloped off into the grey river, a figure dressed in black was rattling at locked garage doors, the garages themselves built into the high wall of the embankment.

Alone and in unfamiliar territory, we decided to return to the road. We climbed up the nearest stairs, the figure in black following slowly behind. Above us a lone cyclist turned in circles, and an alarmingly thin mother in scruffy clothes walked her kids down to the promenade. Apart from that no one. Just us and the strange loners whose quiet world we seemed to be disturbing. A smattering of trees and benches. The choking odour of hops. As we made for the sound of traffic, the cyclist crept up behind us and whispered something indecipherable in my girlfriend’s ear. She froze with fright. We span back towards the city centre, the cyclist resuming his bored spinning. As we hurried along the road, the man in black came tumbling out of some nearby bushes. Our minds raced hopelessly. He gazed intently at us as we – with nowhere else to go – approached him. And as we passed – me tensing lamely against some feverishly anticipated impact – he sprang off in the direction of the train bridge and the scrubland ahead.

 Later, I wondered how the situation had been so drastically transformed. The waterfront had  changed quickly from a pleasant enough city street into a sort of Lynchian torture cell of the unconscious. Being mugged once before (in Catania, Sicily) had made us cautious. The feeling of a repeat was not so much surprising as grimly predictable. A few associative triggers (a weird smell; a figure in black; an empty promenade) had been enough to make us both afraid. The question I came to ask was not so much what were we afraid of, but how do we fear more generally? It’s a truism to say that emotions like fear are simply part of human nature (so are lungs, but we don’t often find that remarkable). The real question is: How are we made to fear? What responses need to be triggered to kick fear off, and what external phenomena initially provoke those responses?

Earlier, as we had walked under the bridge, watching an oddly Nordic fisherman spill his catch over the cobbles in wellingtons and waterproofs, we were already talking about fear: ‘Why do thrillers always culminate in dark, disused urban spaces?’ We were talking about being afraid before we were afraid. After all, nothing actually happened. But a few minor coincidences had provoked us both (over-sensitive as we are?) into imagining grave danger. It only took the addition of a man dressed in black and a stranger on a bike to convince us we’d stumbled into a hellish, deserted anti-city, the type film noir dreams of.

A Working Heuristic: Fear as Hesitation

Fear is linked through the old French doter (to be afraid) to doubt; but also to Latin through dubitare, which is more closely connected with hesitation. Hesitation – doubt – fear – uncertainty: all of them related in Romance languages; all connected in any with anxiety. Fear, then, should properly be distinguished, at least etymologically, from phobia, which in Greek (phobos) approaches something like flight – as in to take flight, or to panic and run away. An opposition can thus be constructed between those things that terrify us into running away – and, in evolutionary terms, this seems abstractly reasonable, even if its manifestations are oddly contrarian (why is it evolutionarily beneficial to run away from a house spider?) – and those things, related through fear to anxiety, which force us to hesitate. The former pressures us into stupefied, panicked action; the latter prevents us from acting. A proper conception of fear, as related to anxiety, might render us as impotent as Hamlet: fear, I am tempted to suggest, is partly expressed in an inability to act.

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan developed the notion of ‘the Real’ as a sort of semiotic stand-in for that which is beyond representation; a strategy for expressing what language cannot express; in Lacan’s own words, something facing which “all words cease and all categories fail.”[1] When the elaborate fantasies that sustain our ability to get on with daily life collapse around us the Real is what we encounter. As when he deploys the famous Freudian concept of castration, Lacan uses anxiety (related to the loss involved in recognising yourself as a human being with finite limitations and a constrained sense of self) as the force which is provoked when we confront the Real. Following Lacan then, we might suggest that fear is merely the local instantiation of our contact with anxiety, or the psychological phenomenon that arises from being confronted with this dreadful ‘Real’.

From this starting point, an investigation might look at fear as a distinctly historical phenomenon, tracing its cultural manifestations as well as the production of its effects in social phenomena. What follows, then, is a few small steps towards this.

A God-Fearing Man

“Continue to work at your salvation,” Psalms 5:5 advises, “with fear and trembling.” In a panegyric  to Abraham, which adapts this advice for its title, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio) honours the famous filicidal father for his endurance of fear. In the “terrors of his trials” and the “anguish he suffered to preserve his faith” Kierkegaard sees an example of the rigours of devotion.[2] “God-fearing” required extravagant, often absurd devotional rites (it was God, Kierkegaard keeps reminding us, who tempted Abraham to disobey). But most importantly, fear required a sort of intense self-discipline. Belief, we have to assume, was a given, and certainly not so important as fear of revanchism on the part of the deity.

In a certain Christian tradition, then, fear entailed a regime of self-discipline, the modern equivalent being a particularly nasty stamina exercise at the gym. Fear was something – like death – to be endured in sternness and without despair. Though it detracts from our heuristic description of fear as hesitation, this Christian conception nonetheless retains, in the figure of endurance, something about motionlessness. Sudden action is not something, in the Christian tradition at least, that springs from fear.

Fast forward to Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade and fear – again of death – is returned to existential hesitation: “yet the dread/Of dying, and being dead/Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.” The poem is – as its name suggests – a song of morning desire and the dread of the coming day. Unlike more traditional romances, however, the narrator’s partner in this static tryst is death and it “rages out in furnace-fear”:

And so it stays on the edge of vision,

A small unfocused blur, a standing chill

That slows each impulse down to indecision.

Most things will never happen: this one will

The regular rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter of the lines are unbalanced by the overload of syllables in “indecision”, forcing this reader at least to stumble over it, dulling the impact of the already deflationary drollness of the punchline “this one will”. Larkin elevates fear to a level of terrifying importance, while also making it seem dull and anti-poetic, as “plain as a wardrobe” in his words. Death is at once obvious and incomprehensible, a thing which the “vast moth-eaten musical brocade” of religion was uselessly invented to deny. In this sense fear paralyses those in its company, reducing them to a paradoxical dumb contemplation.

Christian fear boils down to endurance in the face of divine terror; the root, in a sense, of the ascetic. Secular fear – though by no means expunged of the traces of religion; in fact, it is transfixed by the question of the divine – substitutes for endurance hesitation, an immobility which assumes titanic, existential proportions. This is not to concretely periodize either, but only tentatively to suggest the outline of a dialectic of fear in western culture: that is, as caught in a movement between endurance and hesitation, the Romanticism of individual Will and the empirical quietism of the Skeptic.

Such roughly adumbrated cultural schemas only secondarily reflect the direct experience of fear. For research into this direct experience, the things that provoke it and how it is triggered, we will have to look to psychology and sociology.

Pavlov’s Got the Fear

“All of us,” the psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “tense up when we approach a spot in which an unpleasant event occurred, even when there is no reason to expect it to happen again.”[3] Perhaps it is unlike fear, but I get a punch of visceral tension every time I see photos of Catania. One in particular shows my girlfriend the day before she was robbed, on the street where she was robbed, smiling. Which suggests certain feelings – for example, that of powerlessness – have a physical impact even when they are not directly stimulated.

Fear, for Kahneman, is a mode of emotional learning close to Pavlov’s dogs. Except where Pavlov’s dogs learned hope (the hope of reward through right behaviour) “learned fears are even more easily acquired.” Except, of course, the distinctly behavioural relation (good behaviour=reward) is absent in the fear of arbitrary violence. We don’t simply fear punishment for bad behaviour (the correlate of reward), but rather the sudden infliction of arbitrary suffering or horror. Don’t most of us fear the psychopath (statistically much rarer) more than the self-interested mugger?

In the case of fear, we are extensively trained in the art of hypothetical hazard spotting. What feed these hypotheses are the representations of danger in popular images. ‘Foot-steps on dark streets’ are not simply scary by evolutionary inheritance but through a structure of social archetypes (the stranger; the dark; the rain; the swish of coats; the fall of foot-steps).

Fear is learnt indirectly as much as it is acquired through direct experience, as one group of psychologists reports: “Our sociocultural environment provides other, indirect, means of attaining fear-relevant information, such as social observation and verbal communication.” We’d be poorly evolutionarily equipped if to learn fear we had to directly experience its objects. The report ultimately investigates how social fears are transmitted. Even the expression of fear in another can arouse fear in ourselves, i.e. through an “associative learning mechanism supported by neural processes.” Fears “learned by observing others” engage “the same neural mechanisms as fears acquired through direct experience.” Extrapolating from this, one might risk the argument that fears are constructed through observing the socially demonstrative acts of others, and are therefore – as with all interpreted behaviour – internalized according to certain expectations and needs.

Fear, then, is an intrinsically moral factor, a thing learnt from the examples of others. It is also one which manifests itself in relation to physical spaces, as suggested in the next section.

Fear and the City

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities the urban architectural and social critic Jane Jacobs defined a “ubiquitous principle” which underwrote not only her concerns about city planning, but also the direction reform should take. In it she described “the need of cities for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially.”[4] Big city planning – with its coarse regionalisation of urban landscapes (here industry; here commercial districts; here government offices, and so on) – was, she argued, catastrophically misguided. Such artificial controls on spontaneous, free-flowing urban existence thinned out the fabric of urban life, robbing neighbourhoods of their mutual support networks. Where one part of town became over-specialized (say, in shipbuilding) it risked greater suffering when that specialisation moved on or was rendered redundant. Spontaneous, ground-up integration – with residential neighbourhoods cultivating mini-entrepreneurs – was the solution.

Decades later, empirical research has seemingly backed up her claims, specifically in the area of fear. Investigating the nature of women’s (much stronger than men’s) fears in urban environments, one study suggests that maximal utility – that is, the highest number of social uses – of a space gives it the sense of being safer. When shown images of urban spaces “without an active use, it was noted by respondents that the presence of people within that space would be a factor that would make them feel less comfortable.” Is this mere class prejudice? Is it just the spectre of idleness that haunts us? As if to do nothing is to corrode social norms? Loitering, that is, without intent: a fear more pressing to the average citizen than all righteous loiterers combined. For evidence, just look at reactions to the London riots.

Maximal utility may not sound very contemporary, but the promises of ‘multi-functionality’, ‘openness’, the stress on flux, movement, and light are all recent tropes of the postmodern urban space. In their more utopian aims, don’t municipal authorities today strive for a certain deformation of Jacobs’ de-centralising dream? A walk down London’s South Bank, with its emphasis on spectacle, multi-faceted consumption, local street performers and local produce, and a good deal of ‘flux’ and architectural openness, will evidence this. Not to say authorities are wholly successful, only that, where the social fabric is thinned its redevelopment today depends less on direct subsidy than outside investment. One could thumb London’s Docklands, in which extraordinary spectacles of staged redevelopment vie alongside corrosive, irremediable decay, as the obverse of the South Bank in exemplifying this model of urban change.

Modern cities have always, or at least since electrification, contained this element of spectacle, even if it was not always predominant. People flocked to LA, its boosters claimed, not for strict compartmentalisation, but because the city “Brings It All Together.”[5] Immediately after electrification, the poor, still unlit areas of the city, “indicated” only “by blankness” – denying disclosure of themselves – “would” later “become part of the discourse of hard-boiled fiction and its filmic equivalents,”[6] according to one critic. Thus the glowing bauble-centre could always be contrasted with some kind of haunted periphery. With its celebration of the ‘rhizome’ and special emphasis on “urban patterns” (Hillier and Space Syntax) over strict regionalisation, contemporary urban theory follows Jacobs, yet fails to account for how anomalous pockets of relative decline can emerge across and throughout “well-integrated” urban space.

We continue to invest our fears in those environments – abandoned dockyards; disused industrial sites; closed down pleasure piers; under-used train stations; derelict government offices – where the urban parade has, at least momentarily, withdrawn. These are, not by coincidence, the places crime novels and murder thrillers are set. A contrast between two ideal-types of urban wanderer is apt here: on the one hand, the much-celebrated flaneur (Benjamin, Baudelaire), who delights in the flow of the electrified urban centre and the new commercialism (always more readily adaptable, via Paris, to American tastes), and on the other, the nocni chodec (literally, night walker – Nezval, Hudecek), who wanders wraith-like through the harsh industrial backwaters of sleeping cities. It is this latter – the night walker – that we find, and dread finding, in dark or disused places.

In this collection of fears – of what we might call intense ‘libidinal investments’ in scrubland and industrial decay – we find one of the essential mysteries of urban life: Where do the night walkers – the ashen-faced homeless; the restless – go to unwind? And what happens if you end up in those concealed peripheries yourself? The figure of fear suggested here has two forms: one Christian and heroic; the other Skeptical, secular and modest. Undoubtedly, my own experience of fear manifests itself as hesitation. But – at more than a faint risk of hubris –my fear is the fear of Hamlet and Larkin, a hesitation before something inexpressible, which, though secular, is hardly unconcerned with ghosts. Indeed, precisely because it cannot express them, it fails to “pass over” them in “silence”, but rather hesitates there, irresistibly. My fear is dogged by the question of what lies threateningly beyond the garden gate, beyond the cosy confines of language and experience.



[1] Lacan, qtd. in Barzlai, Lacan and the Matter of Origins, 37

[2] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

[3] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 237

[4] Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities, 14

[5] See: Davis, City of Quartz

[6] Willet, The Naked City: Urban Crime Fiction in the USA, 2