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Contagious Fear



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I was watching Netflix’s Mo a couple of nights ago, and it got me thinking a lot about emotions, mental health, and autism. In this post, I mostly want to relate it to the emotion of contagious fear.


I’m thinking specifically of the scene at the boxing ring where Mo's tattoo artist is brought in with his head covered. I wasn’t particularly fond of how they did the fat character with diabetes. Mainstream media always somehow depicts the person with a chronic disease or disability as the villain, it was nothing new. (We’re tired of that script.) Super annoying that he was also fat. But I digress.


His fear, his lack, his scarcity, (though likely wealthy), I don’t mean any of these things materially, I’m thinking energetic power, spiritual power, internal power, self-awareness, abundance, his mentality, these things that have him hustling to survive, we see very quickly how he needs to rope others in. His fear turns into Mo’s fear. He strikes fear in Mo, which gives him power over Mo. This is how fear works.


It needs allies. It loves to multiply in numbers. It’s like misery, it loves company. We feel fear, and we can’t sit in it alone, so we invite others to join us in that fear. This isn’t always intentional or even conscious, which makes the emotion of fear even more dangerous.


But in my work, specifically my chapter on Octavia Butler’s Fledging and Fear, I’m interested in fear we intentionally inject into others to control and dominate them, like homeboy with diabetes did with Mo and the tattoo artist.

 

I don't think he’s actually not the strongest link in the room if he has to do all of that gymnastics to get others to comply.


We tend to think that is power. That is scary. And it is, but also, when we have to start roping others in, we’re starting to talk about parasitic dynamics. It's very vampiric. We talk about psychic vampires, that’s how they work. They tap into your energy field and start draining you of your emotions, in order to build themselves up.


In Fledging, Octavia Butler writes about vampires and hosts and sucking blood for lifeforce.


Her hosts start getting addicted to being drained because what’s left behind is so intoxicating. Fear is like that. We actually thrive in the chaos of fear, some of us. We get a hit out of it. It feels good to have others fear us. We get addicted to making others fearful. It's exhilarating to watch people suffer and squirm as a result of the fear they have over us.


Like shame, the emotion of fear is wound tightly with power. We use fear to control others. We use fear to dominate them. Shame is political in this way. Sara Ahmed’s work talks extensively about this. Shame moves us, as in, it affects us. Not just relationally, like in Brené Brown’s work with shame that moves us away, against, and toward. Fear distances us, yes. Ahmed’s work suggests this. It moves us away from one another. But fear also moves us physiologically, neurologically, chemically, and at a cellular level.


This is why fear is tied to health, not just mental health, but chronic disease and other life-threatening fatal conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Fear is connected with stress, which we know, wears, and tears at the body. Lauren Berlant talks about a slow death, you can find fear in that conversation as I will try to argue in my work. Mbembe talks about necropolitics, the obsession with death and dying bodies. Again, you will find shame in that conversation, as fear accelerates and amplifies maladaptive mechanisms that push us to our graves.


 

Going back to Mo, as you see him get caught up in his father’s story, you see a host of emotions and trauma surface, which literally makes him more anxious. These emotions do something to his mental health. Which almost always, leads to addiction-related issues.


He gets addicted to lean. He starts to make poor high-risk decisions. Drugs end up in his car. All of a sudden he finds himself in Mexico. This is why I’m so committed to studying emotions. They really have us all f*cked up and we don’t even know it. Most men act like they don’t even feel emotions at all. They say women are the emotional ones. Meanwhile, they are addicted to something, of some sort (no judgment, in solidarity). Or, their interpersonal relationships are as messy as mine are.

 

There are other ways to understand fear. Fear as a parasitic object is just one theme I’m considering.


Next time you find yourself in fear, pause, and pay attention. Watch how it moves you to want to get others caught up in fear too. See how it makes you make bad decisions. Observe how it messes with your stress levels, maybe even, your blood pressure. See if it has you more paranoid. I bet you won’t be able to sleep as well that night. You might even get into a fight with someone. Make a really bad mistake. Does it have you out of your body and lacking any form of control. Observe how fear moves you. See what it does to your interpersonal relationships. The more we observe fear, the less power we give it. The more we name fear, the more we distance ourselves from it.


That’s what the future of fear has to be.


Being able to identify and detect emotions like fear. Name it for what it is. Be knowledgeable about where it comes from, not just in this lifetime, but in other times and places. Feel it without it taking control over our bodily faculties. Learn something from it. Or even just opt out of it completely. Say, “I don’t want to play today, but thanks for stopping by, I’m good.”


Because right now, we now fear by its name, but not what it is or what it really does to us. Educate yourself on emotions more. See how it starts to transform your life.


Until next time, in solidarity.

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