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Fear Over the Centuries

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan

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Did you know that around the 1800s public hysteria rose around fear of premature burial when six exhumed corpses were found buried alive? According to historian Joanna Bourke (2005), “of 1200 corpses exhumed from their resting- places in New York during the 1860s and 1870s, six were believed to have shown signs of live burial” (34). This fear of being buried alive was spread through the media. There have been fears of different things since then.

During the 1830s, technological advancements like the railway inspired phobias for many people around fear of trains and railways, including your favorite psychotherapist, Freud. The literature says it's because railroad accidents resulted in roughly 10,000 deaths back then (see Kirby, 1998). For much of the 19th and early 20th century, fear of poverty tied to extreme destitution lingered in Europe. Joanna Bourke (2005), writes that poverty was, "the hell that Englishmen fear most," as the essayist Thomas Carlyle put it. According to Bourke, fear of being poor "seared the emotional lives of Britons and Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (27). Bourke adds, “This fear of destitution was a visceral emotion, expressing itself in the roaring protest of the stomach or goosebumps on the skin” (27). So dramatic.

The 19th and 20th centuries were also a time when people were afraid not only of poverty but fear of starvation specifically. Times have changed, as people now fear eating too much and getting fat. Bourke (2005) states: “In the twenty-first century the fear of starvation has been muted (although not eradicated) by public and private welfare provisions: indeed, rather than worrying about becoming skinny, Americans and Britons are much more likely to be scared by fatty bodies signaling excessive consumption” (23).

People were also afraid of dying too across Europe and North America, going through "dramatic shifts" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

By the 20th century, fear had become more gendered. For women, fear was associated with hysteria and maternal impression: the idea was that mothers passed fear down to their fetuses through the womb. The idea is that “even before birth, the fetus was threatened by the mother’s emotions by fear that would seep into the sanctum of the womb and poison the fetus" (Bourke, 2005, 84-86). While this theory has been discredited, it lasted throughout much of the twentieth century according to Bourke (2005). Bourke (2005) adds, “There would be many modifications to the theory of maternal impressions, including the view that the fright experienced by the pregnant woman did not directly cause fear in infants, but merely predisposed them to such fears” (86).

For men, fear was tied to combat and war (Bourke, 2005), which was closely linked with the emergence of trauma as well.


As we approached the 21st century new fears emerged such as fear of crowds, fear of natural disasters, and fear of illnesses such as cancer and HIV. Bourke writes, “Until the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s cancer was the most stigmatized disease of the twentieth century. It posed a threat not only to life but the individuals' sexuality and identity […] Well before its scientific classification, contracting AIDS had become one of the major fears of the late twentieth century. The fear about sexually transmitted diseases, which had declined after 1910, suddenly exploded again in the 1980s with AIDS” (Bourke, 2005, 299- 306).


What these variations tell us is that fear is interpreted in numerous ways.

To use Henri Bergson (1960), emotions have qualitative and quantitative qualities that alter their make-up. Resulting in different felt impressions of them, suggesting that there are different kinds of fear and differences in kind.

As Joanna Bourke (2005:73) cites, different fears feel differently. Bourke (2005) suggests that what makes different fears resemble each other is the likeliness of a perceived situation or event that causes fear to surface. For example, when faced with danger an individual can read their emotional state as fear. However, someone observing them may interpret their emotional state as completely different, say as anger rather than fear (Bourke, 2005). For Bourke (2005), both these readings are correct. Bourke (2005) writes, “anger, disgust, hatred, and horror all contain elements of fear.

Jealousy may be understood as a fear of losing a partner; shame may be fear of humiliation” (8). Vulnerability and shame researcher Brené Brown (2011) connects fear with shame and suggests that shame is essentially fear of disconnection, not belonging, not being enough, and being unlovable. In this way, we can think of anger, hatred, jealousy, and shame for instance, as having differences in kind with fear that ironically make it similar to fear.

Along these lines, some in the New-Age spiritual community reduce all negative emotional feeling states to and with fear. Making fear a, "Master Emotion." This differs from Bourke (2005) who is careful not to equate all negative emotional states as synonymous with fear, making the argument that emotions are not "‘clear-cut’, but rather, subjective and constituted".


More recently fear has become increasingly popular and a part of mainstream public discourse widely spoken about in the media (Ramadan and Shantz, 2016). Much of this dialogue connects politicized social fear with phobias against those marked as ‘Others’, such as migrants, asylum seekers, and supposed terrorists (Ramadan and Shantz, 2016; Ahmed, 2004; 2015; 2017).

According to scholars Hisham Ramadan and Jeff Shantz (2016: 4) such phobias are not rooted in any actual lived experiences per se, but rather, are fixed in and “nurtured through” social institutions such as political parties, government agencies, corporations, and the mass media. In, Phobic Constructions: An Introduction Ramadan and Shantz (2016: 3) share how due to the rise in misguided phobias, the 21st century has become somewhat of a "fear culture," or culture. of fear.

But, more on that in the next blog.

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Until next time, in solidarity.

Image Description: A Black iron fence.

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