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‘A History of Terror’

The introduction from 'A History of Terror', published by Sutton Publishing

A History of Terror


Through the Jungle very softly flits a shadow and a sigh -

He is Fear, O Little Hunter, he is Fear!

(The Song of the Little Hunter: Rudyard Kipling)

In February 1998 The Sunday Times ran a story about a group of scientists who had discovered the seat of fear in the human brain, “proving that one of the most potent human emotions has a chemical basis and raising the prospect of a  new generation of drugs that could make man fearless.” The article was  dramatically illustrated by a photograph of soldiers, kneeling on a battlefield  during the Second World War and praying for courage to face the ordeal.

Apparently the sensation of fear is manufactured in tiny pathways between  nerve cells in a small, almond-shaped clump of tissue called the amygdala.  Professor Joseph LeDoux - an authority on the emotional brain - commented: “We have shown that the amygdala is like the hub in the centre of a wheel of fear. If we understand the pathways of fear, it will ultimately lead to better control.”

Such information urges a reappraisal of our view of fear. At one time it was  seen as something that spread over the body, making the knees shake, the stomach contract, but modern techniques of mind-mapping enable a precise location to be  fixed. The recent maps of the brain are not particularly accurate but rather like those 16th century maps of the world where, give or take a continent or two, things are approximately in the right place. But they will no doubt get better and better until perhaps the tiniest of our impulses will be  pin-pointed.

The scientist’s view is that basically the brain is an elaborate piece of  circuitry served by neurotransmitters and odd behaviour is usually traceable to a malfunction within this assemblage. For instance, a preposterously brave or  ‘fearless’ man could well be suffering from lack of responsiveness in the amygdala. The personality itself - the arena of presence - seems to be stationed in the frontal lobes. Those who lack a sense of personal definition - of agency - may be under-active in that sector. If your frontal lobes are not responding,  you may have a deficient sense of being a discrete, fully-fledged citizen of the  world.

Chemically speaking, fear is close to curiosity - hence many so-called terrors have an eerie attraction. That is why fear can be marketed as  entertainment. We start out by being afraid of things - spiders, ghosts, thunderstorms and volcanoes - and end up being immensely well-informed about  them. The natural sciences developed out of the study of creatures and objects that once inspired superstition and loathing. In a sense, the Renaissance is the most important watershed in human history, marking the period when curiosity swamped fear. People began to wash the clay of supersitiion from their eyes and explore the world. Dead bodies were cut open and their organs mapped; stars were observed as they moved in the courses; chemicals were mixed in retorts. The  power structure based on hell and damnation, which had been exploited by the Catholic Church, dissolved and with it much theological lore that had passed for knowledge. Hence today we find primitive fears are stock sources of amusement:  films and entertainments are devised that mock everything from God and Satan to werewolves and serial killers. Roughly speaking, moving through historic time, fear expresses itself in four stages, all of which overlap and sometimes run  parallel:

1)Primal Response

2) Superstition

3) Frisson

4) Satire or Comedy

If we take leprosy, for instance, that disease loomed as an awful possibility  throughout the early medieval period. It was a primal response, an authentic fear; and then, as conditions improved, the threat lessened; but there was a  powerful lingering superstition concerning the curative power of leper’s blood  and the flesh of the leper. When leprosy became a rare, almost exotic condition in Western Europe, it started to be employed as a literary device, to add a frisson or pleasurable shiver to a story, such as in the tale The Silver Man by  Kipling. The final stage is when the dreadful affliction becomes so distanced,  so remote, that it is recycled as pure farce in buffoonesqe comedies set in a  Middle Ages of roistering belchers, clanking knights and wimpled floozies.

Though it may seem tangible at times, fear is a protean, shifting sensation, endlessly altering its location and alliance. Down the centuries people feared the wrath of God until scientists assured them it is unlikely that the universe is presided over by a punitive deity. The information did not release them. Many felt oppressed at the idea of being abandoned in a ‘godless’ universe.  Similarly, when the terror of being assaulted at night was allayed by streetlighting, people began to fear other things, such as the safety of their  property. Insurance policies offered a temporary solution, but as people  prospered, more and more personal artefacts needed to be insured - was there enough money to cover these payments? Fear and worry melt constantly and reappear in altered guises. They are part of the intimate life of the  individual. In extreme forms, they lead to social paralysis, arrant prejudice and rigidity of outlook.

Fear has been divided into four components: the subjective experience of nervousness or apprehension; physiological changes; outward effects, like trembling or tension; and the tendency to back away from or avoid certain  situations. There are morbid anxieties such as the thought of teeth crumbling in the mouth or one’s eyes being pecked out by a gull. Other anxieties are not  relatable to tangible stimulation but belong to the realm of fantasy: the sky is going to fall or an entity from a UFO descend and kidnap one. Then there are inexplicable onslaughts of ‘panic’ which descend on men and women and have been linked with the ‘numinous’ or the threatening silence of God. And there are minor but specific phobias like a dread of spiders, chicken, rats or snakes. The  latter can be treated by methods of aversion therapy in which people like, say, arachnophobics, are taught to handle tarantulas and informed on their habits and ways, quelling fear by knowledge and first hand experience.

Freud held that many fears arose from conditioning and negative stimuli, like a father regularly beating a child because he upsets a drink. When he grows up, the child continues to feel the same shrinking terror each time he spills a drop  of beer, even though his father is long dead and he a married man. Then there  are fears learned by experience, like a dread of heights, fires, plants and  insects that sting. Such fears are educative and necessary for survival. Fear of  pain will make people proceed with caution. Fear of being discovered will make a  burglar tread less noisily. Fear of fire will make people acquire flameproof furnishings. Fearlessness can be foolishness as well as courage.

Being more contained than horror or revulsion, fear impinges directly on the  ‘human situation’, implicit in which is an almost a permanent sense of unease.  As one matures it may take on a specific character: old age, the onset of disease, a sense of encroaching isolation or impending catastrophe. Like a stick  of rock, one is stamped through with mortality, but life demands a focussing, a  goal, a plan, and the obsessive pattern-making that defines civilisation can be  seen a massive distraction from the primal silence that preceded creation. On the slender foundations of fears witheld and secreted, we build cities, ruins  and dreams.

Poets and literary critics often evoked fear in the highly specialised sense of an intense frisson or feeling of awe before the sublimity and wonder of creation. Graham Greene’s story The Ministry of Fear derives from Wordsworth who expressed gratitude for the sanctimonious “ministry of fear”. He is aware that  he is a guest in an infinite universe whose deeper meaning appears hidden. It is  a feeling of reverence tempered by a shiver of unease.

A reflexive manifestation of fear can be found in acts of violence against individuals and races. No one knows what the first uttered word was - but it may have been generated by fear. Consider how many pleasures involve silent communion like digging a garden, smelling wild garlic in a wood, or listening to  music, and then think how sound becomes of urgent import when danger threatens: the shout to warn a child playing in the road of an impending vehicle, the  scream uttered by a drowning woman, the yelp of a frightened animal. The first  word might well have been a negative. A cave-man finds himself encircled by enemies who intend to crush him with heavy stone implements; he shrivels and squirms. In utter loss and abandonment, his gut struggles into his mouth which  yanks open and utters “No!” - a pure fusion of sound and terror. In a sense,  fear had given birth to a cry, and from that point it can articulated as part of the shared experience of mankind.

Comparitively little attention has been  given in this present work to the reigns of terror imposed by Stalin and Hitler, and this is because, psychologically speaking, tyrannies that rule by instant death penalties are similar. In the 1820s, the Zulu chieftain Chaka killed around a million during his wars of conquest. He built an empire on fear. Once  he massacred a whole tribe of 40,000, including women and children, although some of the more nubile girls were retained for his men’s pleasure. After each battle, Chaka ordered his chiefs to “bring forth the cowards” who were impaled  on the spot. If a tribesman coughed, sneezed or irritated him in a minor way, he  was liable to be taken away and beaten to death with sticks. When Chaka’s mother died, his men executed around 7,000 out of ”sympathy” for their leader’s grief.  Chaka’s system was arbitrary, erratic, moody. No one knew what would happen - who would die - next. Men were conditioned to a state of unerring cruelty. Instead of autonomous beings, they were extensions of their leader’s nervous  system. To please him, they would volunteer to kill themselves and their own  children. The system worked until Chaka was assassinated by his half-brothers in 1828. An attempt was made by his successor to introduce a liberal regime, but the result was a series of tribal rebellions and, to restore stability, a more  moderate ‘reign of terror’ was installed.

The essence of Chaka’s reign was control by breeding a terrifying, absolute uncertainty. The ways in which tyrants establish such networks differ, but the  generated ‘fear’ is similar. Hence, to avoid a diet of horror and repetition,  large sections of this present work analyse the shapes of fear as they have come down to us through the ages: the Devil, hell, ghosts, vampires, werewolves,  ghouls and little grey men from outer space. We differ in what we appear to be frightened of, but the same primitive dread lurks behind manifold apparitions. It is the translation in the mind of the perceiver that differs rather than the experience itself.

Anyone glancing through the ensuing chapters may be affronted by disproportions and credulities that beg the question. How can one mention  Hiroshima and Nazi death camps alongside frivolities like Fatima, the Angel of Mons and the shenanigans of UFO abductees? Well, beyond the hard facts of history, there are times when waves of hysteria sweep over groups and nations.  Whether the upshot of groundless anxiety or delusive vision, there are marked  changes of attitude. During the Middle Ages, for instance, the prophecies of  Revelation triggered dramatic sieges and persecutions - but today, aside from cultic exceptions like Waco, such texts are ignored. Yet men and women are still  beset by inner demons, bedevilled by outrageous passions, irrational horrors,  and this book, written at the very start of the third millennium, can be sampled as both warning and entertainment.