This being Halloween, I find myself pondering the tension between the value and ethical challenge of fear in stories.
Fear comes first, before fight-or-flight. It prompts reaction. It can be entertainment that people crave, evidenced through the billion-dollar industry that produces films in horror genres like suspense, gore, slasher, thriller, psychological and possession. We line up outside of haunted houses to satisfy the rush.
Fear is a strong emotion that can drive people’s decisions. This storytelling approach is valuable when it comes to inspiring people to consider the implications of their current behaviour. Public health campaigns are a great example of this. People often avoid, consciously or unconsciously, thinking about what health effects they could experience as a result of choices like drug use. The Visual Communication Guy showcased a few successful campaigns that successfully deploy graphic images designed to illicit the Fear Appeal. The gore and in-your-face approach forces people to face that fear, and consider changing to alternatives. (Side note: the teeth = ew.)
But there are ethical challenges around this. The Poynter Institute identified that in a crowded media market, traditional and new media outlets are deploying fear tactics to build and keep audiences.
The more stimuli there are competing for your consideration, the more that attention seekers must fight to incentivize you to look their way. More often than not, this results in psychological warfare as attention-seekers leverage any and all emotions to draw people in.
That psychological warfare is an apt term for what can be seen in beauty campaigns, playing off women’s worst fears around their appearance. Or stories about men who do not exhibit the stereotypical physical strength, and this being an inherent character flaw to be avoided. And pretty much anything under the sun involving politics.
It is powerful tool, and one to be used mindfully — making sure you are not afraid to face yourself the morning after.