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LOOK ON THE FRIGHT SIDE

Here, in no particular order, is a list of my fears:

Random violence. Rodent infestation. Flying. Getting a fingernail ripped off. Rejection. Hard drive crash. Al Qaeda. Running into a particular ex-boyfriend on my way home from the gym. Identity theft. Death in the family. Mayonnaise.

That list is absurdly incomplete. I’ve left off, for example, all the big existential anxieties underlying my very worst fears, i.e., loss, loneliness, failure, violation, vulnerability, geopolitical frailty, sickness, God is dead, God doesn’t care, God is out to get me. All that stuff is too vast and abstract to contemplate, really, except through the prism of art. Instead, like most people, I dose the dread out into manageable thimblefuls of worry. I’m not a frightened person. But I don’t invite fear, either. I avoid mayonnaise, I don’t go to the gym by my ex’s place, and I never watch horror movies.

I made an exception to that last rule a few weeks ago, and went to see The Host. I can’t speak to the typically horrific things in the movie, e.g., the monster, or the gore, because I don’t know what par is for the genre. I can say that the moments in the film that made me grip my armrest the tightest were the ones that didn’t require any special effects. The disorganized sensation of your world rearing up against you, the moment of arrest when you realize someone you love is missing, the resolve knotting itself up in your gut as you swallow your trembling and face the demon, because you must. It’s a good movie, The Host, and it’s stayed with me. It made me think about all the ways fear lives potential inside us, as human as blood and as ready to rise up and spill out given the right nick.

The Host

made me remember something, too, a study I read in college. Researchers at the University of Michigan, I believe, recruited the members of a fraternity into a study of fear. The frat brothers didn’t know they were being tested on fear; if I recall correctly, they believed they were taking part in a memory experiment. (I’m going to get some details wrong, but the gist I know I’m right on.) Alpha Psi Jock House Whatever was divided up into two groups, and each group went hiking. The first group was taken out on a fine clear day, and when the time came to cross the river bisecting the trail, they traversed a sturdy bridge over a narrow, spring-like pool. At the end of the bridge, a “researcher” was waiting – a woman devoted enough to science that she’d admit to being “average-looking,” because that was the job description. She stopped the frat brothers, asked them a few questions. The questions aren’t important. What is important is that the same “average-looking” woman was there on the stormy night that the second group of frat brothers went hiking. They crossed the river on a rickety bridge over a high outcropping, water noisily slapping the rocks below. Upon reaching the other side, the woman asked them her unimportant questions.

A month or so later, all the frat brothers were called in to take a written, multiple-choice exam about their memories of the hikes. Buried among the questions: “On a scale of one to ten, ten being the most attractive, and one being the least attractive, how would you rank the attractiveness of the researcher who interviewed you after crossing the bridge?”

I’m paraphrasing, but that was the question. The guys in the first group ranked the researcher a five, six if they were feeling generous. And the guys who’d gone out in the dark and wet, and who had warily set one foot in front of the other on that dangling bridge? She was an eight – minimum. Then there were follow-up studies, neuro-scans, things like that, and they confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis: Our physiological response to fear is identical to our response to love. Same hormones, same small patch of brain, same racing heart.

Given the interconnectedness of love and fear, I thought I’d spend this week trying to love some stuff that gives me the creeps, as well as spotlight a few places in the culture where horror and beauty absolutely coincide. All around me, I sense a drift to the dark side in matters of taste, and I wonder if, for example, the popularity of all those gruesome films I won’t see, like Saw, reflect a sublimation of the dread we’re’ all feeling about our troubled era. 9/11, the misbegotten adventure in Iraq, China rising in the East, genocide and child soldiers in Africa, tsunamis and hurricanes and earthquakes bearing down all over and alarm bells going off about climate change; everything feels so in flux, and yet it all feels distant, somehow, until some lunatic executes 30 kids at Virginia Tech, at which prompt evil and terror and chaos feel very close indeed. Children process an unaccountable world by escaping into the malevolent but finite universe of a fairy tale. Does the same impulse explain Saw II?

But this week’s trip to the dark side isn’t about politics, and it isn’t about goth, or gore. It’s about love, and seeking the chemical thread that binds yin and yang, horror and love, together. If you like your life to be all snuggly puppies and rainbows, sure, stop reading now. I totally get it, and what’s more, I’ll even leave you on a high note, with the single most practical piece of advice you’ll ever get from this column. When planning a romantic date, plan to see a slasher flick. Works every time for a reason.

This week BurdaStyle goes to the dark side.

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