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Existential GPS

Shadows in the Attic

by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

Fear is one of the most potent human emotions. Primitive yet effective, it alerted us (and still does) to the presence of danger and was essential in keeping our species on the planet. Our emotional evolution with all its intellectual trappings of modern sophistication has done little to smother the reach and intensity of fear. Reduce it all we want, try to explain it away, yet we still feel compelled to whistle while passing by the dark, cerebral cemetery of unknowns. From the shadowy cavities of our minds fear creeps in two ways – emotional and biochemical. The emotional response is highly individualized, while the biochemical response is universal.

The emotional response to fear is very personalized. Fear does involve some of the same chemical responses in our brains that positive emotions like happiness do, so feeling fear under certain circumstances can be seen as enjoyable, like watching scary movies or going to a “haunted” attraction. Those who get physical pleasure from the release of adrenaline into the body by thriving on extreme sports and other fear-inducing situations would be another example of the complexity to understanding how fear works. While there are others who have a negative reaction to fear, and they avoid fear-inducing situations at all costs. Depending on the individual and the situation, fear may be perceived as either a positive or negative experience.

Fear is a natural survival mechanism. It’s been with us since , well, for as long as we have had the ability to survive as a species. When faced with a perceived threat, our bodies respond in highly specific ways. Reactions to fear may include increased heart rate and higher that usual adrenaline levels that make us extremely alert and “on guard.” This physical response is also known as a “fight or flight” response, in which your body prepares itself to either enter combat or run away.  Adrenaline as well as the stress hormone cortisol begins pumping through your body at a very high rate. This occurs so that you can react quickly to danger or a perceived threat. If you are someone who is an excessive worrier or you experience sustained fear because of your health, death of a loved one, divorce, etc., then the “fight or flight” reaction releases an overwhelming amount of cortisol into your brain, resulting in sustained worry and potentially clinical anxiety. Fear can, in fact, alter your brain’s wiring, as well as your impulse control.  There are, however, ways to counter this physical reaction. Drinking lots of cold water helps flush the adrenaline and cortisol from your system. Deep breathing exercises are another way to help slow down this process, and of course physical activity and exercise are crucial to decreasing these chemicals in your body to a much more manageable and comfortable level.

Fear is incredibly complex. Some fears could be the result of frightening experiences or even trauma, while others may actually represent a fear of something else a little less obvious, such as loss of control or meaning in life or anxiety over death and dying. Fear in and of itself is not rational. It operates at the opposite end of that spectrum and can often run up against logic or “common sense,” which in turn may cause feelings of guilt or elevated levels of anxiety.

Repeated exposure to similar situations leads to familiarity. For example: find the light switch in the dark room and all is seemingly well. Exposure reduces both the emotional fear response and the resulting biochemical reaction. Conversely, this leads adrenaline junkies to seek out the extreme – ever new and bigger thrills. Exposure forms the basis of many phobia treatments, which depend on slowly minimizing the fear response by making it feel familiar and eventually extinguishing it altogether.

However, if you are faced with a serious threat or a dangerous situation, then fear is appropriate.  It’s knowing how to manage your fear, so that it doesn’t paralyze you from living your life and from participating or engaging with others in a meaningful fashion.

The solution is to understand your situation and your fears. Therapy or counseling from a licensed professional can help if your fears become too large for you to manage on your own.

To be continued… Part 4 of a 5-week series on eTalkTherapy’s psychology of fear.

Existential GPS

Holding Darkness Within

A brief tour inside Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

The psychological difference between horror and terror as a literary or cinematic device is that both serve their own unique function as a vehicle to elicit powerful feelings ranging from dread to revulsion. Terror is typically described as a feeling of fear, suspense and anticipation that precedes a frightening experience. It is the build toward some awful reveal. By contrast, horror is the feeling of revulsion that one experiences following a visually frightening or shocking experience. It is the result of a dreadful realization or the experience of something deeply unpleasant.

the-haunting-julie-harris-1963
Publicity still for The Haunting, MGM 1963

Yet, unpleasantness occurs in many forms. It manifests both individually and culturally and is mostly universal by its very definition. In short, we can recognize it and feel it both intellectually and intuitively. Have you ever felt lonely, out of place, a misfit? Ever wanted something new, but were fearful of what others might think about you? Are there times when you feel the world doesn’t quite get you? So, unless you are void of human emotion or connection, the answer should have been yes to all three questions.

Welcome to the haunted world of author Shirley Jackson and, in particular, her fifth novel, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Whether you are a student of literature or psychology, or you just have a morbid curiosity for all the shadowy things that linger at the top of your psyche’s staircase, then The Haunting of Hill House is a book you should read. Author Stephen King has praised it as one of the most important horror novels of the twentieth century. I would add that it is also a novel that reveals the intricate and subtle ways in which mental illness manifests, ebbing and flowing like the shadows and sounds within Hill House.

On the surface, the story of Hill House seems fairly pedestrian. A group of individuals participate in a paranormal study at an alleged haunted mansion (back in the day when those sorts of studies could still be sponsored by a university). Dr. John Montague, a professor and investigator of all things supernatural; Eleanor Vance, a withdrawn and timid young woman who resents having lived as a recluse caring for her invalid mother; Theodora, a bohemian, performer and artist (It is implied that Theo is a lesbian, but indirectly so because this is still 1959); and Luke Sanderson, the young heir to Hill House and resident playboy.

The novel, intentionally guarded in its prose, explores the supernatural while finding common ground with psychology. It takes on each of these subjects with equal amounts of care and skepticism while never fully arriving at any conclusion or endorsement of either. Unseen forces hammer on doors and ceilings, mysterious and pleading messages for the main character, Eleanor Vance, are written on walls, and the ghostly laughter and cries of children are heard in the night. If you want a good scare, Hill House won’t disappoint.

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Top that for an opening paragraph to any novel. Indeed, this sets the tone for what Hill House is and how it will expose the reader to the haunted and fragile psyche of Eleanor. Hill House is indeed the fifth character in this novel; an eighty-year-old mansion, “born bad,” in a location that is never specified built by a long-deceased and cruel millionaire named Hugh Crain (painted on the ceiling of his only child’s dreary nursery are the words “Suffer the Little Children.”)

Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” This description is not only how Jackson presents Hill House to the reader, but how the character of Eleanor moves through her life, guarded and lonely. Things are not as they seem within the walls of Hill House and they are certainly not well beneath the outwardly modest walls of Eleanor, either. Still waters do indeed run deep, and dark.

Terror, not horror, is on the menu at Jackson’s café macabre, and she masterfully knows which ingredients will pack the most punch. Told in the tradition of a Gothic horror novel, Hill House, has been made into two feature films (the original 1963 version directed by Robert Wise is a faithful and absolutely splendid adaptation of Jackson’s ghost story – see it – now), and is the basis of an upcoming television series on Netflix. Jackson’s tale relies solely on terror rather than horror to elicit emotion in the characters and the reader; manipulating the relationships between the characters’ psyches and the mysterious events in the house, while leaving the reader to determine what may have really happened inside the “wood and stone of Hill House” as well as what occurred in the mind of Eleanor.

With Eleanor, Jackson offers the reader a female character who embodies depth, dimension and mystery. Psychologically wounded by her fear of loneliness, fear of others, fear of self, and a fear of the unknown, Eleanor is at once recognizable and common, yet Jackson keeps her slightly detached, slightly off, so that we understand the metaphor being presented to us as we simultaneously walk the lonely corridors and rooms of her psyche and of Hill House.

As Jackson wrote, “Hill House, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within…And whatever walked there, walked alone.”

To be continued… Part 2 of a 5-week series on eTalkTherapy’s psychology of fear.

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Existential GPS

Send In the Clowns

Our Collective Fascination and Fear of Big Top Tricksters
by Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC

Pennywise.

The name conjures a certain image of how we see clowns in our modern age. In his tale, “It,” Stephen King introduced us to a very dark world in the shape of Pennywise and the public’s perception of clowns has never quite been the same.

Coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns (of course psychology/psychiatry birthed a label for it), appears to be more common than we once thought.

A BBC News article in 2008 article cited a study conducted by the University of Sheffield. Researchers there polled children in several British hospitals about redesigns to the décor within the pediatric units. According to the story, all 250 children expressed a fear or strong dislike of clowns.

The full results of the study were apparently never published…Cue the screeching violin music…

More recently, fear gripped certain regions of the country when sinister looking clowns began making random appearances near playgrounds, secluded wooded areas, and old dark roads, just where you would expect to find them or vice-versa, right? Creepy and, in most cases, not very funny.

In a 2004 article for Trinity University, researcher Joseph Durwin explained two theories regarding our fear of this otherwise innocuous subject. He stated that the fear we experience when exposed to tricksters with names like Bozo, Slappy or Chuckles could possibly be based on a negative personal experience with a clown at a young age. The second theory is that television and film has produced a certain fear of clowns and clown existence. That is, even children who are not personally exposed to clowns are taught to fear them.

Court Jesters were the original clowns, often rude, often pushing the limits of good taste in a world that had little to laugh about. Jesters eventually morphed into the Trickster, and the modern circus clown is the result of the “tramp” or “hobo” clowns of Depression era America. Clowns during this time shed light onto the seedy underside of clown life. They were not “evil” per say, but were seen as “lower class,” “poor souls” and reflected a slightly unpleasant slice of American life in the 1930s. Later, and in the real world, we see the clown emerging with its most disturbed, perverted and horrific persona in the evil shape of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

To take on the kind of popular mythos that evil clowns have enjoyed over the past several decades then perhaps there  is something more afoot than a passing, albeit morbid fascination. Could it be argued that the fear of clowns is much more deep rooted in our psyches than once thought? Are they the manifestation of a shadow side within each of us? A morbid reflection of all the thoughts and things we keep in the dark, and for good reason?  Is there something relatable for all of us beyond the creepiness, the gore, and the malevolent intent?  A clown, after all, is a just clown. By definition it is “someone who performs in a circus, who wears funny clothes and makeup, and who tries to make people laugh. Someone who often does funny things to make people laugh.”

So, what happened?  Perhaps the answer to that lies deep in our unexplored fears.

To be continued… Part 1 of a 5-week series on eTalkTherapy’s psychology of fear.

Sources:
Durwin, J. Coulrophobia and the Trickster, Trinity University. 2004.
Merriam Webster Dictionary, 2016.