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Fear (fir) n.—a distressing emotion aroused by an impending pain, danger, evil, etc., or by the illusion of such.

The dark.


Ghosts.


Things that go bump in the night.


Lightning and thunder.


Alligators in the water around your bed?


Halloween is almost here. What once was a fun holiday filled with goofy costumes, trick-or-treating, bobbing for apples, and other frivolous activities, now brings to mind images of fright, evil, horror, and fear.


Should we be afraid, be very afraid? Do we really have nothing to fear but fear itself?


Psychologists have debated the essence of fear for decades, in many cases arguing that it is a conditioned response. Truly, our culture teaches us to have fears, and, in some cases, even capitalizes on them.


The fear of sharks is a perfect example. People have always feared sharks, but not as much as they do since Jaws (Peter Benchley’s novel and Steven Spielberg’s film) found its way into popular culture during the ’70s. Now, all it takes is one report about a shark attack, and no one will go swimming in the ocean for months. But think about it for a moment.


It’s a big ocean, and exactly how many sharks are there near the places you would go swimming? Statistically speaking, you have a greater chance of getting run over by a car while crossing the street than you do of being eaten by a shark when you go swimming in the ocean. But have we been taught to fear automobiles? Do we suddenly stop crossing the street because we see or hear a news report about someone being hit by a car? I don’t know. Maybe we would be more afraid of cars if the movie version of Stephen King’s novel, Christine, directed by John Carpenter, had done better at the box office.


Are you afraid of the dark? You can run this simple test to find out.


Tonight, after the sun goes down, lock all the doors in your house, townhouse or condo, and turn off all the lights. Then, look for these facial expressions of fear—–your eyes widening, pupils dilating, brows drawing together, and lips stretching horizontally. If you experience any of these, remember the old saying:


There’s nothing there in the dark that isn’t there in the light.


And if that doesn’t comfort you, keep a flashlight in your pocket.


According to a recent poll, about one-third of all Americans believe in the existence of ghosts, which are, by definition, apparitions of deceased persons encountered in a place they frequented. Now, think about that for a moment. If you are one of those people who believe in ghosts, it’s highly unlikely that an apparition appearing in your dining room or Whirlpool bath wouldn’t be the soul of some dearly departed person you knew. And if it were someone you knew, wouldn’t it be a friendly ghost?


Of course, you can disregard that theory if you routinely invite people you don’t like over for dinner or allow total strangers to use your bathtub, or have had one or more bad experiences with people doing work at your home. I can hear the conversations now:


“Remember Leo, that guy who did a really lousy job of painting our dining room?”


“Yes?”


“He got hit by a car while crossing the street and left paint all over the roadway.”


“Oh, that’s a shame.”


“Yes, and to make matters worse, I think he’s haunting our dining room now.”


“Well, maybe he’ll get the color right this time.”


Anyone who fears things that go bump in the night probably has never heard the space shuttle land at 4 a.m. The first time I heard it I thought we were having a minor earthquake. The sonic boom startled me awake while also rattling the pictures hanging on my walls and glasses in my kitchen cabinets. However, if you suffer from acousticophobia (fear of noise) or ligyrophobia (fear of loud noises), bumpy, noisy, nighttime things probably make your muscles tighten, heart rate and heartbeat increase, and cause beads of perspiration to form on your brow. Have no fear. I read some place that things that go bump in the night really are just sitting around doing nothing in the daytime.


There are some things we ought to be careful of but not fear like lightning and thunder. Lightning is dangerous and potentially lethal, and should be avoided whenever possible, but never feared. When I was a small boy, I used to fear lightning and thunder, until someone told me another old saying: If you saw the lightning, the lightning didn’t hit you. If you heard the thunder, the lightning did hit you.


Of course, the part missing from that old saying is that if you’re hit by lightning, you don’t have to worry about the thunder any more.


As for a fear of alligators in water surrounding your bed, there is no clinical name for that fear. Indeed, one probably must blame close relatives for creating the conditioned response. Folklore has it that this fear has been, and may still be, used in some places to keep small children from getting out of their beds after they have been trundled off for nightly sleep, probably so their parents can watch television or engage in other nocturnal activities without being interrupted. The well-intentioned litany with the ulterior motive goes something like this:


“Once your head hits the pillow, your room will fill up with water, and a secret door in your closet will open, letting in dozens of magical alligators who swim around your bed, protecting you from ghosts, lightning, thunder and things that go bump in the night. But beware! Those alligators are very hungry, and if you so much as hang one foot over the side of your bed … ”


Sorry, I can’t finish that story. Just thinking about it causes my heart to race and perspiration to form on my brow.

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