The Fear of the Known and Unknown

How a maniacal chainsaw killer made me think differently.

Perseus Confronting Phineas with with the Head of Medusa by Sebastiano Ricci, 1705 (public domain - Wikimedia Commons)

"There is no hope without fear, and no fear without hope."

— Baruch Spinoza, 1675

Halloween in our neighborhood is a spectacle. People decorate their houses and yards for Halloween the way others decorate for the Christmas season.

We give out candy to hundreds — hundreds — of kids. Literally. They drive in from all over because our neighborhood, and our street in particular, is known to be a great place to go trick-or-treating.

There are houses that give out full size candy bars. People stationed on their porches with Jello shots and beer for the adults. And a chainsaw-wielding maniac that chases kids around the street when they let their guard down.

Really, the last reason is why most people come here. He even started his own Facebook page (and last night wore a GoPro body cam to get more footage).

We watched gleefully from our porch (we've got the best vantage point for watching this go down: Chainsaw Guy lives across the street from us) as he revved his motor and head-faked in the direction of some kids, and they scattered amid a chorus of screams, leaving a trail of spilled candy across the sidewalk and lawn.

It's become a tradition for us, hosting families of our kids' friends and setting up on the porch for the show. We look forward to it every year. I'm convinced that we could sell tickets for it at some point.

But one thing struck me as I watched them: every year, kids of a certain age (as in tweens) will stalk the Chainsaw Guy, following him around and taunting him, daring him to chase them. And yet, they usually panic as he turns suddenly and lets the engine rip, and they scatter in 17 different directions.

It made me wonder why we seek out situations that are either potentially harmful or simply distasteful.

The former is fairly clear (to me, at least): thrill-seeking is a way of embracing life. The skydiver or bungee-jumper faces near death, tethered to some life-saving device that allows them to live life on the edge.

Similarly, our Chainsaw Guy (who removes the chain from his tool before Halloween, by the way) won't actually harm anyone. But the potential danger allows kids to live on the edge for a moment.

And that injection of life — the adrenaline, the rapidly pumping heart, the heightened awareness — on the edge of danger allows us to feel more deeply. This is why we enjoy horror stories and horror films: they're scary, without presenting any real danger.

But what about the latter — situations that are distasteful? Why do we repeat experiences that might be less than enjoyable?

Consider the partner who returns to the abusive lover, the citizens who continually vote for the authoritarian, or the customer who puts up with crappy coffee: why do these people keep subjecting themselves to a less-than-ideal situation when there are other choices out there?

I think the answer lies in familiarity.

We embrace what we know. Even if that knowledge means that we'll be disappointed in some cases.

It's why 37 percent of Americans have never lived outside their hometown and 57 percent never left their home state. (The New York Times)

Perhaps it's because doing so gives us hope for something better — hope that the situation may improve, if we just wait it out. If we venture into the unknown, we might experience something worse than what we already know.

So that partner holds out hope that their lover will treat them better next time, the fear-led citizen thinks it will be better if promises to return to "the good old days" are kept, and the coffee shop customer weighs the ambiance and kind staff against the bad coffee.

In any choice we make, there are trade-offs. We give something up in the hopes of gaining something else. Fear makes us unwilling to venture into the unknown and take risks.

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear."

— Mark Twain, 1894 

It's real work to overcome fear; doing things where there is an uncertain outcome means that we need to be open to the unexpected. This is why we embrace things we know, even though they may not be ideal.

Fearlessness can be learned, and in fact, can be practiced. In his Autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt wrote about his realization of overcoming his fear: "by acting as if I was not afraid, I gradually ceased to be afraid." He continued:

"[Men] will first learn to bear themselves well in trials which they anticipate and which they school themselves in advance to meet. After a while the habit will grow on them, and they will behave well in sudden and unexpected emergencies which come upon them unawares."

So they next time you're visiting Chainsaw Guy, steel yourself for what's coming. He may still make your heart pound and your adrenaline surge, but you'll be less likely to spill your candy everywhere.