Americans have a complicated relationship with fear.
On the one hand, we enjoy fear enough to dedicate a holiday to it. This year, we will spend an estimated $9.1 billion celebrating Halloween. Horror films gross nearly half a billion dollars per year, and are known in Hollywood to have the best return on investment in the movie business. Quasi-dangerous activities like roller coasters are a big industry as well, following Hunter S. Thompson’s famous exhortation, “Faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.”
These pursuits are occasions of “fake” fear. They simulate frightening circumstances that lie outside the realm of ordinary life, providing a fun shot of adrenaline without putting anyone in actual danger.
Real threats, however, are far less enjoyable. Not even roller-coaster fans look forward to losing their car’s brakes on a steep hill. To enjoy genuine mortal danger is considered abnormal: Indeed, in psychology, the “fear-enjoyment hypothesis” holds that pleasure from authentic fear increases along with sociopathic traits.
Given that real fear can be scarring and unpleasant, there’s a temptation to believe that the best way to deal with it is to avoid it at all costs. But science and philosophy often suggest otherwise. Fear can be one of the great sources of personal improvement. In particular, fear can help people cultivate several classic virtues that religious figures, sages, and secular moral traditions have all seen as essential for living a well-ordered life.