What Are We Afraid Of? Societal Fears Reflected in Film

What Are We Afraid Of? Societal Fears Reflected in Film

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“Fear of terrorism is widespread in America.” “Many Americans have actually changed how they live their daily lives.” “A significant number of Americans say they avoid sporting events, concerts,” “and other public events because of their fear of terrorism.” Let me ask you a question: what are people most afraid of? You may think it’s insects, or natural disasters, or even public speaking, but an extensive survey conducted by Chapman University in 2015 said the biggest fears in Americans are cited as the, quote: “man-made disasters”, These fears include bio-warfare, terrorism, and nuclear attacks. 44% of Americans are afraid or very afraid of terrorist attacks. Compare that to 28% for public speaking and 25% for insects. Fear of terrorism actually peaked following 9/11 as the majority of Americans were worried that they, or someone they knew, would be a victim of a terrorist attack. I wanna suggest that what the public fears is mirrored in Hollywood cinema, especially the zombie movies directly following 9/11. But to start, we have to go back in time to the horror movies of the 1950’s. So let me rephrase the first question: what were people most afraid of in, say, 1951? *50’s PSA narrator*: “We all know the atomic bomb is very dangerous.” *cont.*: “Since it may be used against us, we must get ready for it.” With the Korean War, Soviet nuclear testing, and McCarthy-ism in full force, a 1950 poll showed an astounding 68% of Americans thought the Soviet Union would use an atomic weapon against the United States. This fear was even used later as a scare-tactic in an infamous campaign ad by Lyndon Johnson, showing just how powerful the fear was on the public. *campaign ad narrator*: “These are the stakes.” *cont.*: “To make a world in which ALL of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark.” *cont.*: “We must either love each other, or we must die.” So how did horror movies reflect this fear? The 1950’s brought on a wave of disaster movies where aliens or monsters attack, like ‘War of the Worlds’ , ‘The Blob’, and ‘The Thing From Another World’. When you watch battle scenes from the original ‘War of the Worlds’ or ‘Attack of the 50 ft. Woman’ or ‘Godzilla’, You notice the parallels between these horror movies and the destructive nature of the atomic bomb. In fact, the director of ‘Godzilla’ was very blunt about his intentions with the now iconic monster. He said, quote: For Americans, however, the fear was channeled towards the Soviet Union, our biggest global threat at the time. In the same way that Godzilla stomps on buildings, and is immune to bullets, so too would an atomic bomb wipe out cities and be entirely unstoppable by us. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the Japanese film ‘Godzilla’ was such a huge success in America. The Japanese fear of the bomb was just as relevant to Americans at the time. Now, let’s jump to the 21st century, We’re no longer threatened by a huge, visible, global superpower. Actually, the fear of terrorism is quite the opposite. It’s nothing like Godzilla, a giant monster who drops in on a city. A terrorist hides in the shadows, disguises themselves as an everyday citizen, and causes society to collapse from the inside-out. So here’s my point: doesn’t the method of destruction for a terrorist sound a lot like the method of destruction for a zombie? First, it’s important to note the explosion of the zombie genre. io9 posted a nice graph showing a boom in zombie movies in the early 2000’s, paralleling with mainstream video games like ‘Resident Evil’ and ‘Call of Duty’ , and spilling into other media like the TV show ‘The Walking Dead’, there’s no doubt that zombies have infected the public conscious. ’28 Days Later’ is one of the first successful zombie movies to come out following 9/11, and it highlights contemporary fears of terroism and decay of social order. The scene that most strongly ties the movie to terrorist fears is actually the very first scene. The deadly virus is created in a lab by making chimpanzees watch footage of Arabic mobs fighting police, burning cars, and beating each other up. This virus is literally created from Arabic violence. I particularly like this shot, which makes the human look like it’s regressing back into a terrifying animal. An important element of the zombie genre is that the enemy comes inside a community and spreads from person to person. This sounds eerily similar to the method of attack for a terrorist. A sleeper cell hides within our borders ready to strike, and once we can finally spot it, it’s too late to stop. I think another key difference between 50’s monster movies and zombie movies is the role of the government. In monster movies, the government often fights against the enemy, but in ’28 Days Later’, the government has abandoned them. “What about the government? What are they doing?” “There’s no government.” “Of course there’s a government!” “There’s always a government, they’re in a, a bunker, or, or a plane!” “No, there’s no government. No police.” Not only that, but in the movie the soldiers actually fight against the protagonist. In the 21st century, with the controversial invasion of Iraq and government surveillance, terrorism has brought on a distrust of our own government. Where the 1950’s government was always joining in the fight against a common enemy, it appears that during a zombie apocalypse, we shouldn’t count on any government to protect us. What’s so special about cinema, is that it’s such a democratic art form. When it comes to art forms like painting, music, or creative writing, the message is only channeled through one person, but with cinema, the final work is the product of dozens of people. Not only that, but a production process as expensive as making a movie requires that mainstream movies appeal to as many people as possible. As a result, movies tend to be a window into the general mindset of the society it was made in. This means that the subject matter of a successful horror movie has, in it’s subtext, a reflection of the general fears of the environment it was made in. There are things that, regardless of time period and society, humans are scared of: the dark is a universal fear because we can’t identify the threat. So, a movie like ‘Don’t Breathe’ seems to do well because, like ‘Jaws’, and the ending of ‘Silence of the Lambs’, it’s scary when the threat can see you, but you can’t see them. It’s a timeless fear. But what about fears that do change over time? I talked about monster movies versus zombie movies, but I also think mainstream horror movies about religion are another perfect example. Religion is at an all-time low in the United States. More importantly, the fear of damnation is low, meaning that religious groups tend to spend less time on the pain and torment of hell in their teachings, and more time on the love and forgiveness that comes from salvation. This idea is especially true in the Catholic church, who revised their catechism in 1994 to remove the literary fire and brimstone description of hell, in favor of a metaphorical place symbolizing the loss of one’s faith. So, how is this idea shown in modern movies? Around 40 or so years ago, most movies about the supernatural centered around religion. The devil is often the center villain in successful movies like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘The Omen’, and ‘The Exorcist’. Nowadays, though, supernatural beings are still present, but religion is largely ignored. The ghost is a former mental patient or some unexplained being. ‘The Exorcist’ is about a child being possessed by the devil. ‘Orphan’ has a very similar premise, a child who is acting strangely, but religion is hardly even mentioned. The fact is, that people don’t find the devil as scary as they used to, partly due to less religion, and partly due to a conscious choice to focus less on damnation in religious doctrine. There’s no doubt that there are detectable trends in what horror movies choose to find scary. If you wanna know what people are afraid of, you could run an expensive and time consuming statistical study, or you could just look at what horror movies they find scary. So the next time someone says: “don’t be scared, it’s just a movie!”, don’t believe them. Thanks for watching. *Summertime by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince plays*


  1. This is a great video I just wanted to point out that in the exorcist she wasn’t possessed by the devil but an evil tribal god

  2. Nice video. One small mistake I noticed, was that you said the girl in The Exorcist was possessed by the devil. When she was actually possessed by a demon, not the devil. But the argument still stands, this is only nitpicking

  3. It pisses me off so much when people say they're afraid of terrorism. Like seriously you have less of chance of dying from a terrorist attack than you do from a lightning. And don't even get me started on car crashes and stuff. If you're afraid of terrorism enough to deliberately not go to concerts or outdoor events, then the terrorists have already won.

  4. This is stupid. People at large aren't afraid of zombies – zombies are popular because they're good targets. There's a ton of them, they're easy to kill, and it's always moral to kill a zombie. You don't have to explain why zombies are bad, and your audience doesn't have to think about why the good guys are killing them. They even let us live out mundane violent fantasies because they look like normal people, but there's no legal or moral quandary in slaughtering hundreds of them.
    And that's all the zombie craze is. Zombies are convenient fodder.

    Hell, have you noticed that the vast majority of zombie movies aren't horror?

  5. Being afraid of dying in a terrorist attack is absolutely pathetic in my opinion. You are:
    129,000 times more likely to die in a gun assault
    407,000 times more likely to die in a motor vehicle incident
    6.9 million times more likely to die from cancer or heart disease
    (If you live in the US).
    Not to mention that being afraid and changing your actions to negate this fear is playing into a terrorists hands and doing exactly what they want you to do in the first place.

  6. the difference in zombies and terrorism is however that you cant escape zombies and they dont care how you feel towards them, meanwhile being frightened of terrorists makes them strong

  7. If anyone is interested seeing some work that this analysis touches on, I recommend watching the 1960s anthology TV series, "The Twilight Zone". Not too long ago, I re-watched the series, and I noticed a general theme that plays out through many of the episodes. The concerns American society had during the 1960s (most notably the Cold War during the era) can be pretty evident in several storylines. Anyone else have any other suggestions, from other decades?

  8. i don't think its related, I think the real reason people like watching zombie films is because they like the thought killing off a moronic majority.
    Just about anyone I talk to agrees to a certain extent that there is a moronic or lower population of people that takes up majority of society. Zombies obviously represent this idea effectively and so survivalists are resisting falling into apart of the clueless majority.

  9. I'm not gonna lie I genuinely think about a school shooting or just some guy with a weapon killing random people and trying to kill me often. I think with our level of communication people now realize that just one nutter who you don't know and doesn't know you can murder you. Just look at the story behind 3 men 1 hammer, George sodeni, the washing college shooter, or any of the hundreds of Islamic terror attacks. Just the pure randomness is what's so terrifying.

  10. I came to the same same conclusion in my Stanley Kubrick & Metaphysics video, about the zombies- only I didn't exactly connect it to that subject- just that it's so prevalent because it's suitable to play on the subconscious fears of people (ie, the newest "monster-movie archetype"). So that's cool. Glad to know I was somewhat on the right track with that– PS: These videos are great, I'm learning alot about some of my favorite movies. PPS: Didn't know that about the Catechism revision. See learning lots of new things here.

  11. I don't know if you know this but at 3:50, when the man is standing on a bridge in 28 days later looking towards parliament and you say "this is eerily similar to the method of a terrorist attack"… there actually has been a terrorist attack on that very spot since this video was posted

  12. god I love this video lol and it’s absolutely true too! go watch the trailer for The Cured and it literally spells it out for you

  13. Forgot to mention the link between the popularity of Slasher movies in the 80s and the boom in awareness about Serial Killers and psychopaths

  14. I watched a video that said the Rage virus came from a modified Ebola virus that didn't work as planned, but the original creator couldn't stop it in time 'cause he got fired

  15. Stephen King makes the same point in his fantastic book 'Danse Macabre'… Movies and maybe the horror genre more than most always reflect society. Art imitates life

  16. I could not disagree more with this analysis. Zombies and terrorists? Zombies started back in the 50s to 60's with Night of the Living Dead. I think that the zombie sub-genre has more to do with the unbelievable fear that certain countries have of being changed by immigrants. Let's take the US. There is no doubt that the US sees itself as a perfect nation. No improvements needed. But there is a large influx of immigrants that bring cultural change to the country. This is unacceptable to a country that feels that they don't need change. These monsters are eating the people and turning them into monsters. They portray them as monsters because they are afraid.

  17. Yes yes yes! I do presentations on film and society. I’ve been working on one centered on sexuality in horror cinema and was going to tackle this topic next; can’t wait to cite this video as a source! Great work!

  18. Stephen King talked about this (in On Writing, I think), but it's cool to see a more up-to-date analysis.
    My favorite point of his though was that the Amityville Horror is actually a financial horror film, reflecting the booming inflation in the 70s. It makes a fuckton of sense if you watch the film from the perspective of a house hemorrhaging money and bankrupting its owners.

  19. I rarely feel fear in movies but the things that rank the highest on my fear list are real people doing horrible things while the least terrifying things are supernatural entities and zombies. Unlike other monsters which have a biological realism such a zenomorph or Godzilla, zombies are just magically animated and can live forever with no water and well after the food source (humans) is gone. And supernatural crap like ghosts and demons do not exist to those of us who don't believe in Fairytales.

  20. Im others countrys the means are totally diferent. Its not cinema, its the whole culture. USA is so broke that they not even notice when was manipulate.

  21. Nice video, but the graph at 3:08 is potentially meaningless if the data isn't normalized by the amount of films made in that year. If it isn't, then the peak doesn't necessarily mean zombie films were more popular. It may just reflect more films being made in general.

  22. I'm always that person who's afraid of a terrorist attack in very crowded places and on airplanes. But funnily enough I can't enjoy zombie movies.

  23. 5:43 Going a bit off-topic, I never understood why people might be scared of "hell". The Bible says that there is no hell, that after death you're. conscious of nothing at all, only there's the hope of resurrection, but for good. So either you believe or not, be afraid of death, not hell! ?

  24. I don't trust movies to tell us what our fears are. The fears in movies are just trendy. What movies don't do is confront the fears that people deal with that movies never mention, because they aren't marketable plotlines – or so most movie makers think. It's about time a movie had so much in it that is deeply relatable for people that it breaks Hollywood.

  25. It's interesting to see how good moderm horror movies are shifting the fears. It Follows is the fear of STDs for example and Hereditary is the fear of mental illness. Two really big fears in our society. Get out is e renewed form of racism fear… and all of them were really good movies. These are the first examples that I could think of.

  26. I'm a Christian. Raised with the whole God-loves-you deal. The Exorcist still scares me, bc in Christianity, demons ARE real, and can do what they did to that little girl. So, it really depends on what cultural groups you are considering.

  27. Oh, gee, if only there were a man-made disaster infinitely more likely to affect you than terrorism… but ya know, those totally non-corrupt government officials say there isn't, and how could they possibly be wrong?

  28. I know this is 2 years old but I had a sudden urge to watch this video again and I started thinking about how Stephen King's "It" revealed the growing fear of child abduction at the time and the slasher movies of the 80's and 90's show the fear of the loss of morality among adolescents. I'm not quite sure how to categorize or define the type of horror movies that have been popular or scary within the past few years. Some of the big ones that come to mind are Us, Hereditary, A Quiet Place, The VVitch, It Follows, Get Out and of course all of the recent remakes/ updates of classics like It and Halloween. I think the thing that sticks out to me with almost all of them is the pace of horror has seemed to slow. The top horror movies I can think of in the past few years are all more atmospheric, bordering more towards jump scares are fewer and far between if any at all, and rather than giving a good jump or scare they leave me with a sinking feeling of panic and dread. Obviously, some directors have spoken on the societal fears and concerns that they targeted consciously in the making of their movies like race issues in Jordan Peele's work or mental illness and generational curses in Ari Aster's Hereditary. My best guess is that this new breed of atmospheric scarring rather than scaring horror is a representation of the lingering and growing fear, dread, and panic concerning the current political climate and growing divide among parties in the US. Unlike the rest of the societal fears that have been shown in horror movies which have been things that can pop up to terrify us at any moment, the way that I and people I've spoken to experience the fear of the political climate and where it is going is more like a growing knot in your stomach that builds until something happens that can be experienced as horrifying(an example of happening for me and my political stance: the recent abortion laws in Alabama). I'm sure no one will see this but on the off chance someone does, let me know what you think of my analysis! Do you agree or did you see these movies in a completely different way with a different societal fear?

  29. There should be more movies about financial cracks, bankruptcy and social disorder. In recent times, at least in Europe, the fear of econimic crises has risen, just like the constant worring about the unemployment rate, the high cost of life and not having a steady job. Sometimes, the people is more scared of financial collapse than terrorism. They are also afraid of currupted politics, financial conspiracies and loosing all their money: this is why TV series like House of cards and The house of paper (La casa de papel) are so popular.

  30. I disagree with the premise that movies are some sort of social indicator. That's like saying tv commercials are a good gauge for what the public wants to buy. If they want to buy it in the first place why advertise it? The 'hollywood ending' has been the fixture for movies since the beginning, so the audience walk out of the theatre with that warm, fuzzy feeling regardless of the what the movie was about. Movies are closer to propaganda then anything else. A manipulation of the viewer emotions, not there intellect. Knowledge isn't the goal, your not any smarter after watching a movie, if anything it's misinformation posing as a true story. Saying that movies have any other value then escapist entertainment is total and utter nonsense. cheers

  31. Gee…based on this information about how people have changed the way they live their lives shows the terrorists have won.

  32. I'm not sure if I buy this one. It should be prefaced that this is an American take on the word "terrorism". I don't want to get in to a big debate here but as a European , for me, terrorism is not just acts carried out by Arabs. Fair enough in 7 minutes you can't fully get into semantics but I think it throws the video off the mark to ignore it.

  33. It is an interesting parallel to draw, however, it seems to me that zombie apocalypse movies reflects the fear of climate change and possibly the spread of a global epidemic. While the destruction caused Godzilla is very much comparable an atomic bomb, the outcome of a zombie apocalypse is completely different from that of a terrorist attack. There are so many movies and series focusing on actual terrorist attacks ranging from Homeland as you show in the video, to Batman's joker to even Thanos in the avengers. These movies are about single villains or small private groups causing massive civilian casualties in urban environments usually accompanied with explosives. These villains are driven by pure evil or a deranged ideology much like how terrorists are perceived. Zombies however are completely mindless and essentially becomes animals or part of nature. I think the White Walkers of Game of Thrones captures this perfectly and is a clear analogy to climate change where the humanity needs seek peace and join forces in order to survive.

    Interestingly the zombie apocalypse is strangely romantic as it returns the survivors a mode of living without a state or laws where one needs to live of the land once more. But that is a different topic.

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