Fear Itself

Unlike Hemingway’s Paris or Faulkner’s fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County, my hometown remains mostly unexplored as a literary venue. So it was with keen interest that I first encountered humorist James Thurber’s whimsical tale, “The Day the Dam Broke,” set in Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up in the 1950s. The street names were all recognizable, as was the Scioto River, which figured prominently in the pandemonium that ensued when the locals thought a dam had been breeched. The story was based on an actual incident that occurred during spring floods in 1913. However, the dam had not, in fact, been breeched, which is why the story was whimsical, not tragic. According to Thurber’s account, a stampede got going when one or two citizens began running for reasons of their own, and a cry went up, “The dam is broke!”

In short order, several thousand people were running for their lives toward the east, away from nonexistent rampaging floodwaters of the Scioto. This was in the days when automobiles had to be started with hand-cranks, so most people fled on foot. They kept running until they eventually realized they hadn’t been overtaken by floodwaters. The good townspeople sheepishly straggled back to their homes or businesses, pretending nothing had happened. The incident made for a good story, and Thurber even threw in an amusing anecdote about his dotty grandpa, a Civil War veteran, who got it into his head that the city had been invaded by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Rod Serling broadcast a distinctly more sinister story of mass hysteria on a Twilight Zone episode at the height of the Cold War in 1960. In “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” neighbors gather on a quiet suburban street to discuss a series of strange occurrences, starting with a roar and a flash of light overhead, followed by a power outage. A car refuses to start, then starts by itself. A neighborhood boy who has been reading a science fiction story suggests the mysterious occurrences might be the work of aliens who have disguised themselves as humans. Neighbors begin eyeing each other suspiciously. Soon lights are flickering on and off, and a lawn mower starts up by itself. Accusations begin to fly, followed by bricks. Shots are fired, and a stampede is on. In a signature Twilight Zone ending, it turns out the boy was right: the strange occurrences are the work of aliens. From a bluff overlooking the town, two extraterrestials discuss their plan to conquer the earth one neighborhood at a time by playing on the fears of the locals. “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find,” one of them observes, “and it’s themselves. All we need do is sit back and watch.”

Twilight Zone is fiction, of course, but those of us who grew up during the Cold War remember that the kind of paranoia unleashed on Twilight Zone’s Maple Street was all too real. My wife’s father was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee for helping organize a teachers’ union in Newark, New Jersey years earlier. He spent six years fighting in the courts to get his job back. Meanwhile, back in Columbus, we practiced ducking under our desks in elementary school to give us something to do in case of a nuclear attack. Unlike with the active-shooter drills conducted in schools now, there were really no safe places we could hide to avoid annihilation. Tensions ran high enough that a woman who saw National Guard tanks rumbling down the street toward a local armory became so rattled she smashed her car into one of them. She later explained that she thought the Russians had invaded.

Fear arises from the depths of our “reptilian” brain in response to perceived danger. This triggers a physiological “fight or flight” response, including rapid changes in heart rate, breathing and muscle tension. It is a bit redundant to talk about “irrational fear,” since our higher brain functions, including our powers of reason, usually get involved only after the fact. It is also misleading to equate fear as such with cowardice, since the physiological response is identical whether we chose to stand and fight or to run for our lives. In evolutionary terms, those who run for their lives are probably more likely to survive and reproduce. After all, humans did not always sit comfortably atop the food chain, nor were they the strongest and fleetest of their fellow carnivores.

One problem is that fear does not remain confined to our physiological responses to immediate threats. It can also attach itself to some of those higher brain functions, notably counterfactual thinking, which enables us to conjure up things that are not immediately present in our sensory experience, such as the past or the future. Foresight obviously is a good thing to the extent that it keeps us from allowing three-year-olds to play with matches. But it can be crippling if we allow our fears to play upon it. Even as immediate threats of harm have receded from modern life, millions of people are gripped by free-floating anxieties. In extreme cases, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, sufferers get locked into repetitive thoughts and actions meant to ward off feelings that boil down to fear of fear itself.

Fear is a communicable — and sometimes fatal — disease. As the real-life story behind Thurber’s “The Day the Dam Broke” makes clear, it takes only a few words to trigger a stampede. Whether it ends in tragedy or a whimsical tale depends entirely on circumstance. Consider the pilgrims on a Hajj to Mecca in 2015, more than 2,400 of whom were crushed or trampled to death in a stampede that resulted when too many people were funneled into too narrow a space. Like a three-year-old playing with matches, only a tiny spark of fear is required to set your whole world ablaze.

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