The political implications of this are evident, with groups ‘playing off’ fear and anxiety, according to their aim. Between the 1950s and 1970s governments tried to convince people that their fears of nuclear war were ‘irrational’ anxieties rather than ‘rational’ fears, thus discouraging the impulse to unite with other fearful persons against the common threat.The same tactic is at work in the invention of new “phobias,” such as “homophobia,” as a defense against debate by those--the statistical majority, as it turns out--who do not share the ideas, beliefs, and values of this community or in the labeling of those who oppose open borders as “racists” simply because they believe in and endorse national sovereignty and the integrity of their homeland’s borders.
The isolation of the individual from his or her larger society so that the person is alone with his of her fears and must cope with them as best he or she can is a characteristic of contemporary culture and society, Bourke observes, which seems to have increased anxiety:
Whereas in the past the frightened individual might turn to the community or a religious institution for advice and comfort--a process that often involved the delineation of an evil ‘other’--as the twentieth century progressed, the emotion became increasingly individualized, appropriated by the therapist or, in the most isolated fashion, the contemporary ‘self-help’ movement. . . . As a consequence, anxiety may have been higher. . . .The information in this part of her book (and the chapter on “Combat”) are especially fertile for horror writers who wish to develop credible scenes in which the fear and anxiety derive from situations and behavioral tendencies that have been subjected to psychological scrutiny.
The “Combat” chapter of Bourke’s book offers these observations, many of which will help horror writers to create believable characters and realistic situations:
. . . [In combat] fear was beneficial, so long as it did not spill over into
hysteria or anxiety neuroses. . . .
According to Bourke’s survey of fear in combat situations, officers were less likely to suffer from incapacitating cowardice, because they have a greater “ego ideal” and feel responsible for not only their own welfare but for that of many others as well. Women are less likely to suffer hysterical breakdowns in combat situations than men are likely to suffer because men fear exhibiting cowardice more than they fear death itself and because society allows women to express their emotions, including their fears, directly and openly; consequently, many discuss these feelings with their peers, whereas men, for the most part, deal--or try to deal--with their fears by themselves. There is also a racial element to white officers’ characterizing black men as being especially prone to fear, anxiety, and panic, despite these officers’ own admissions that black soldiers fight every bit as valiantly as the most gallant white soldier. Physically, blacks, as soldiers, are the equals of their counterparts, such critics contend, but they are weaker mentally and lack the white soldier’s confidence and autonomy.
. . . in battle ‘normal’ was always pathological. In the words of the author of ‘Psychiatric Observations in the Tunisian Campaign’ (1943): ‘A state of tension and anxiety is so prevalent in the front lines that it must be regarded as a normal reaction to this grossly abnormal situation. Where ordinary psychological signs of fear end, and where signs and symptoms of a clinical syndrome begin, is often difficult to decide.’
[Lieutenant Colonel Stephen W. Ransom considered] “it. . . perfectly normal for combatants to suffer muscular tension, freezing, shaking and tremor, excessive perspiration, anorexia, nausea, abdominal distress, diarrhea, urinary frequency, incontinence of urine or faeces, abnormal heartbeat, breathlessness, a burning sense of weight oppressing the chest, faintness and giddiness.”
. . . the technology of long-distance killing, with its emphasis on anonymous agency and random aggression, placed an intolerable strain on men’s physiological inheritance.
. . . this physiological crisis was exacerbated by a cognitive problem: too many modern soldiers were educated, and thus resistant to rationalizations and primitive conversions (such as the psychological process of ‘converting’ fear into a physical symptom like mutism or paralysis).
The prolonged uncertainty, apparent randomness, and fear associated with military combat takes a toll on soldiers’ ability to think and act in a consciously purposeful manner, converting them to “automatons” who go through the motions of defensive and offensive operations. In addition, it was found that “if a combatant could not act, he was more susceptible to fear.” Likewise, soldiers feared most the advantages that indirect fire or long-distance enemy weapons gave them, for, again, it was impossible for the attacked to fight attackers that were not physically present before them and that they could not see: “It was a feeling of ‘inequality’--often described as ‘injustice’ by the men--which was at the heart of fear. When asked why they were afraid of a particular weapon, the ‘inability to retaliate,’ the ‘feeling of vulnerability,’ and the ‘speed and surprise of the attack’ were all as important as ’effectiveness’ or ’accuracy.’”
Recognizing that “The only difference between a brave man and a coward is the fear of the one is controlled whilst the fear of the other is uncontrolled,” as the author of Psychology and the Soldier declares, the military seeks to reduce this tendency in various ways. Since soldiers were found to fear most that which they couldn’t fight against directly, such as passivity (for example, “crew in medium bombers” that “were forced to keep to course irrespective of danger” or to take cover in trenches during enemy artillery attacks which sometimes buried them alive), officers were encouraged to assign their troops busy work to occupy them during breaks between combat and to keep their minds off their fears. They were allowed to expend ammunition even after a target had moved beyond the range of their weapons so as to expend their fear. Men were trained “to respond automatically to orders, to ignore rumours, to focus on the leaders and comrades and to be accustomed to the fog and noise of battle,” but “automatic training” was found to be “less important than training men to obey orders immediately. . . . realism training” being seen as “crucial. . . because it taught men to think under terrifying conditions and it developed their self-confidence” and because not every contingency could be imagined and rehearsed in advance: “only a limited number of routine actions could be taught.” Officers were expected to be models of confidence themselves, keeping any reservations or concerns about their missions to themselves and always exhibiting a calm sense of purpose, on basis of “the belief that people were innately imitative, so fear could be reduced through witnessing the fearlessness of superiors or comrades.”
Of course, the reality of war itself helped, gradually, to harden soldiers to combat and its lethal consequences. Eventually, the sights of massive casualties seemed commonplace, which helped to reduce soldiers’ fears of their own demise.
Anyone who has seen Alien has seen many of these principles dramatized on the silver screen, and anyone who has seen The Descent has seen their opposites on display. The information that Bourke supplies in her “Combat” chapter enables aspiring horror writers to characterize survivors in the former manner and to fashion victims in the latter’s mode. In addition, Bourke’s review of the literature pertaining to the effects of long-term combat on combatants offers a storehouse of other tips for maintaining and heightening suspense, characterizing various dramatic personae, and representing various themes associated with violence, death, and destruction. There are quite a few suggestions, too, concerning the psychology of terror and horror and the motivations of behaviors which, in normal situations, would be classified as psychotic but, in extreme situations, such as combat (or a monster’s attack) might well be simply normal. Perhaps this is the true horror of horror fiction--that we create such situations in the first place. Mark Twain once opined, “If the human race isn’t damned, it ought to be”; war in being not only hell, shows us, as such, that we are the damned.
On that note, we will pause, taking up the last of our review and summary of Bourke’s survey of the subject of fear again in the next post.