The Paradox of Fear in Cinema

Categories: Film

Humans are innately attracted to fear, and go to great lengths, stretching our imaginations and our wallets to experience it. We strangely seek what will stir strong feelings of impending doom within us. This enjoyment is called the paradox of fear. Fear is one of the strongest human emotions. We are born into this world where we have an immediate fate of death. Wrapping the mind around no longer existing is incomprehensible since comprehending opposes that very idea. Fear drives our survival for we are afraid the unknown that we will inevitably meet in death.

Yet the ecstasy and relief of surviving anything, even the emotional trajectory of a film, keeps us seeking it. When watching the characters experiencing in a film fear, we are very close to their experience because we empathetically allow ourselves in their shoes. We see pain on a screen and almost physically feel the pain ourselves because we are wired to be that way.

Humans have mirror neurons in their brains that activate when both seeing an action and performing that action.

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This empathy doesn’t stop at the screen, this occurs in reality as well. When we hear about a tragedy occurring to a third-party, despite how removed we are from that person, we react while imagining ourselves in their situation. We want to feel their pain with them as if it were our own because of our empathetic nature, and this attraction to fear. Cinematic Emotion in Horror Films and Thrillers analyses the paradox of fear, delving into past ponderings by Alfred Hitchcock, who published an article asking the very question ”Can fear be pleasurable?”

He used an example of the thrill of riding a speedboat; the thrill and fear built from speeding across large bodies of water is exciting, and it wouldn’t create that excitement without fear.

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We watch horror films with the hopes of truly being scared and if we aren’t then the film was unsuccessful. When we are, we leave the film with that fear still lurking, often haunting us past that day. “Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such?” (Poe, Edgar The Black Cat). We understand the concept of fear and the re-percussions of intentionally creating fear in ourselves. Images “The Ring” still haunts me to this day since I saw it over 10 years ago. My mind still wanders to it often at the worst moments of course, such as when I’m trying to fall asleep. These fears stay with us and though they were created from the illusion of impending danger, they have a very real consequence; our ability to manifest any of thoughts into the dream worlds we experience every night.

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The Paradox of Fear in Cinema. (2022, Oct 09). Retrieved from

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