Greek geographer Strabo wrote around 20 BC that, to deal with “a crowd of women” or “any promiscuous mob,” one cannot use reason but rather must exert control using myths and marvels. “For thunderbolt, aegis, trident, torches, snakes, thyrsus lances—arms of the gods—are myths,” he wrote. “The founders of states gave their sanction to these things as bugbears wherewith to scare the simpleminded.”
A Hindu myth holds that the universe began as soul in the form of man, who looked around, saw nothing, and felt afraid. “Therefore,” goes the story, “one who is all alone is afraid.” The man reflected, “Since there is nothing other than me, of what am I afraid?” His fear vanished, since a being only “becomes afraid of a second.” But he felt no joy, so he created a female companion: a second being, whom he could fear.
A hen near Leeds, England, caused a panic in 1806 when she began laying eggs inscribed with the words Christ is Coming. Terror of Judgment Day swept the population until it was observed that the hen’s owner, Mary Bateman, who had been charging a penny per visitor, was writing the message on eggs and forcibly reinserting them into the hen to be laid again.
Residents of North Yorkshire from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries were so afraid of the dead rising to attack the living that they would dismember, decapitate, burn, and otherwise mutilate corpses before burying them. The process was generally undertaken shortly after death, when the bones were still soft.
Plato’s uncle Charmides boasted to wealthy aristocrat Callias that poverty granted freedom. “I lose nothing because I have nothing,” he said. Callias was unconvinced. “So, do you also pray never to be rich,” he asked, “and if you have a good dream, do you sacrifice to the averters of disaster?” “Not at all,” Charmides replied, “I accept the outcome like a daredevil.”
As a youth, the writer V.S. Naipaul struggled with hysteria. He described watching the film The African Queen while at Oxford: “Just when Bogart said something to Katharine Hepburn about sleeping one off or something, I could take it no longer and left the cinema. What form did it take? One was terrified of human beings. One didn’t wish to show oneself to them.” Naipaul claimed he cured himself over a two-year period. “Intellect and will,” he said, “intellect and will.”
Describing phalanx warfare, Thucydides wrote that “fear makes every man want to do his best to find protection for his unarmed side in the shield of the man next to him on the right.” The soldier farthest right must try to “keep his own unarmed side away from the enemy, and his fear spreads to the others who follow his example.” The effect of this fear, wrote the historian: “the right wing tends to get unduly extended.”
At a Johns Hopkins campus hospital in 1920, behavioral psychologists conducted an experiment with a nine-month-old boy known as Little Albert, who was given a white rat to play with. The scientists then made loud noises behind Albert’s head while he played, conditioning in him a fear of other furry animals and objects, previously sources of joy. Albert’s mother, a wet nurse at a nearby hospital, was paid one dollar for her son’s participation.
Engineers at the University of Illinois published a paper in 1960 predicting doomsday would occur November 13, 2026, based on calculations of human-population growth; they hoped “some time, somehow, something will happen that will stop this ever-faster race to self-destruction.” One idea was space travel. “It is only unfortunate,” they wrote, “that no reentry permit to earth can be given to these space trotters.”
Eighth-century Persian scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa recorded a parable describing human existence. A man, fearing an elephant, dangles himself into a pit to hide but soon realizes a dragon waits at the bottom and rats are gnawing at the branches he’s holding on to. He then notices a beehive, tastes its honey, and becomes “diverted, unaware, preoccupied with that sweetness.” While he’s distracted, the rats finish gnawing the branches, and the man falls into the dragon’s mouth.
A surgeon in the British navy published an 1816 treatise on “The Incubus, or Nightmare, Disturbed Sleep, Terrific Dreams, and Nocturnal Visions,” arguing against folk beliefs that nightmares resulted from overindulgence and sleeping on one’s back. Sufferers “can bear testimony to the distress and alarm,” he wrote, “in many cases rendering the approach of night a cause of terror, and life itself miserable.”
During the Middle Ages, wild animals were often believed to be devil-possessed. Wolves, moles, and caterpillars were tried in courts and executed. A story is told of Saint Dominic catching a sparrow, plucking it alive, and rejoicing in his triumph over the powers of darkness. By 1531 a legist argued that “rural pests would simply laugh” at civil-court censure but “have greater fear” of the Church’s power of anathema and should be excommunicated.
On Halloween 1981, a Los Angeles punk band called Fear was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Comedian John Belushi, who had invited Fear to play, brought in punks to watch the performance. Chaos ensued; SNL’s stage manager was hit in the chest with a pumpkin. “The real audience at Saturday Night Live was scared to death,” Fear’s lead singer later said. The band was banned from appearing again.