It's All Fun and Games until Someone Gets Hurt

June 7, 2010
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You’re sitting in slightly padded, two-person, rusting steel, old car and the only thing holding you into the car is the ten year old lap bar. The car slowly climbs hundreds of feet up into the night sky as you here the chain that drags the car up “click.” You can hear the wooden supports below creak as the car moves past them. You don’t feel safe at all, but that makes it all the better. Why is it that people love situations like this? Why is fear such a craved feeling in today’s society?

I performed some research into the sublime to find an insight towards the answer to this question. It was first commented upon by Longinus, a Greek literary critic in either the first or third century AD. Longinus talked about how our sense of sublime is an illusion. He meant by “sense of illusion,” that one cannot completely understand the sublime. He said that it is a rare feeling and a feeling of almost overwhelming. This overwhelming feeling is not of fear, but a feeling of joy and excitement according to Longinus. Longinus also suggested that in order to understand the sublime we must have some sort of knowledge of what is beyond human experience. Longinus is basically stating that the sublime is the highest degree of one’s emotions. He said that the sublime can only be brought upon by beauty and peace (Patten).

Edmund Burke also published his opinion on the sublime. Burke’s viewpoint appeared more parallel to my initial question. Burke agreed with Longinus that the sublime is the highest degree of one’s emotions, but his opinion differed in that he felt that beauty was not the only way to experience it. He suggested that the sublime was extremely evident in nature and that while there are some small parts in nature that are beautiful, some are also fearful. He related that terror, darkness, dismemberment, and the fear of death with experiencing feelings of sublime. Burke explained that he thought darkness was related with fear because in the dark one cannot certify personal safety. He claimed that fear took away the minds sense of reason, which created feelings of the sublime (Patten). If fear could create such feelings, maybe this could be a reason that humanity craves the feelings brought on by fear. Because fear is such a strong emotion, people enjoy the feeling. However, because fear is usually only felt in dangerous situations, people rarely get to feel fear while knowing they are safe.

An article in the New York Times, Embracing Fear as Fun To Practice for Reality; Why People Like to Terrify Themselves, discussed why David Blum, writer and editor for The New York Times and graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in English literature, thought that people embraced fear as a way to practice reality. Blum speaks about the notion of how people desire to experience “safe fear” throughout their entire lives. He acknowledges examples for young children as popular fairy tales. A fairytale that has a storyline that frightens children is “Jack and Jill.” In this story two children are thrown into an oven by an evil witch. These types of stories are commonly related to elicit a slight feeling of fear (Blum).

Teenage girls enjoy going to horror movies even though they know they are going to be scared and scream. David Blum assesses that teenage girls will always state their disdain of horror movies, but they continue to be drawn to them because they enjoy the sense of fear, all the while knowing they are safe. Blum says that people will strap themselves into a car and enjoy as it climbs towards the sky, listening while the wooden supports creak and as the cars head towards the huge drop. It is an experience that sounds dangerous, but because it is known to almost always have a safe outcome, people will take their chances in order to experience the thrill. Blum uses a very good analogy in his article relating the fearful situations people put themselves into as, “Boot camp for the psyche.” The analogy is good because it relates the situations we put ourselves into as a way of training for real life situations that involve real danger (Blum).

In David Blum’s article he interviewed the director for the “Scream” movies, Wes Craven. Craven said, “In real life human beings are packaged in the flimsiest of packages, threatened by real and sometimes horrifying dangers, events like Columbine. But the narrative form puts those fears into a manageable series of events. It gives us a way of thinking rationally about our fears” (Blum). Surprises are a rarity in horror movies, and yet this almost completely opposite in real life. Because these are completely opposite, it allows us to have a different viewpoint on our fears. This new viewpoint allows us to predict what is going to happen next, so we feel that if a situation like the one in the movie were to happen to us, we would know what to do to prevent a tragic outcome.

Wes Craven’s viewpoint is also shared by psychologist Michael Otto, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Otto told David Blum that, “If you see a snake in a movie or someone dressed up as a snake for Halloween, you know the snake can't bite you. It's the anxiety that bites you, and if you're lucky, after awhile you realize that anxiety doesn't hurt.”The suspense and thrill of the idea of something normally scary creates feelings of sublime, giving the audience a feeling of enjoyment (Blum).

David Blum’s article also interviewed Marina Warner, an English scholar, who has done research on fear in childhood fairytales. Warner said in Blum’s article, “More people experience fears because there's so much more of it around, and it's far more frightening than ever before.” Movie directors have also noticed the massive popularity of fear craved by people today and are capitalizing on this by creating more and more horror movies. Directors are remaking older horror movies and updating them with today’s higher technology to make the films more believable. The more believable the movie is; the more afraid audiences are going to feel and enjoy the movie more. Modern directors are creating films from the viewpoint of personal video cameras to make it look like the movie was recorded in real life. This effect gives an audience a stronger sense of the possibility that the actions in the movie are actual events (Blum).

I feel that the strong popularity gain for horror movies is due to updates in technology. Because technology has improved tremendously in the past decade, movie directors are able to make their creations more believable, therefore making their movie scarier. Also, I think directors are looking at older horror movies in where the fear was created by strong storylines and updating them with new technology to make an almost “super-horror movie,” a movie with a great scary storyline and looks believable.

The closing paragraph of David Blum’s article is the most entertaining. It is at this point that he reveals which theory of fear is supported by almost every expert. The theory best supported is that the more one experiences a “safe fear”; the more one is able to pacify the effect of the fear in their mind. When one is able to understand that the danger isn't real and no danger is involved, one can take the experience of fear to new levels of imagination and enjoyment (Blum). This theory correlates my research on the sublime. Edmund Burke’s theory on the sublime stated that people’s “Imaginations cannot create anything new, they recreate and combine basic sense perceptions.” By combining these two ideas, the conclusion that can be made is that people will create imaginations based on the experience and feeling they received from their own safe-fear situations. For example, the scariest part of the horror film will etch a picture in the audience’s mind; hence allowing the brain to re-enact it in a nightmare (Blum).

David Blum interviewed Seymour Epstein, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts. Epstein told Blum, “Why have people, ever since the beginning of recorded history, been going to plays? It's a simple explanation. It's because plays are so real -- the people are so close -- that their dramatized situations create an emotional involvement, a feeling of fear that we desire. I've never met anyone who wasn't afraid of something. But most of us like the way those emotions feel, or else we'd all be staying home with the TV off.” Epstein's statement proves that fear has been an emotion that has been coveted by people for centuries (Blum).

William Shakespeare was able to realize how strong of an emotion fear was and therefore incorporated a sense of fear into all of his plays. Shakespeare’s most popular plays were the ones in which fear was the main emotion portrayed by the plot. Plays like Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and even Romeo and Juliet were strongly focused on the emotion of fear. When the audience would watch these plays they knew there was no personal danger and therefore were able to take their imaginations and enjoyment to a new level. The enjoyment the audience felt also related to feelings of sublime, which triggered the highest point of emotion one could feel. Because Shakespeare’s plays were one of the only ways people in that time period could experience these feelings, his plays became a hot commodity. This gave his plays even more originality that the audience appreciated. Shakespeare was able to create one of the first ways a group of people could gather together and experience the sublime. Because this was one of the only ways people could experience the sublime and because people crave feelings caused by sublime, people almost became “addicted” to his plays. They would pay money and re-watch plays that they had already seen just to experience these feelings.

My research on the sublime allowed me to gain an insight into how one can achieve the highest degree of his or her emotions. To achieve this degree it was originally thought of as only brought on by on feelings of beauty. Longinus originally created this idea and until Edmund Burke published his viewpoint on the sublime, beauty was thought to be the only way to achieve these feelings. Burke’s theory agreed with Longinus on how the sublime was the highest degree of one’s emotions and that it could be brought upon from beauty, but Burke also said that fear was able to create feelings of the sublime as well.

David Blum’s article provided me with a huge amount of insight into why people crave the feeling of fear. Blum retrieved viewpoints from many experts and all of their ideas appeared related to each other. From reading his article, I was able to learn that when a person is able to understand that the fear they are experiencing is not harmful, they can then allow their mind to reach new levels of imagination and enjoyment. These new levels or imagination and enjoyment can be directly related to the sublime and the highest degree of one’s emotions. His article states that there are different levels of fear for each individual and that the levels are created by how much the individual realizes is safe. The more the individual finds the fear safe, the more he or she will be able to sense feelings of sublime, which the individual will find enjoying.

By performing this research I have been able to find the reasons why people crave the feeling of fear and the rush that follows it. I have learned that the reason people love fear is that it provokes feelings of sublime, which is the highest degree of emotion. This is a feeling people enjoy. I have also learned why fear creates such an amazing feeling. Fear is able to create feelings of sublime because when one feels afraid they are able to sense a foreseeable danger. This foreseeable danger evokes feelings of the sublime. Also I learned that there are different levels of fear that people find enjoyable. These levels all depend on how safe one feels when experiencing the feeling of fear. If a person feels they are in harm, they will enjoy it less, but if a person is able to realize that they are safe, the mind is free to imagine, based on these feelings, and create the highest degree of one’s emotions, the sublime. So therefore, fear is all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

Blum, David. "Embracing Fear as Fun To Practice for Reality; Why People Like to Terrify Themselves". New York Times. October 30, 1999 <>.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful With Several Other Additions. New York, New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1914.
Patten, "The Sublime". San Jose State University. May 2, 2010 <>.

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