Stoicism and Scary Movies

It’s Halloween today. And I thought I’d write a brief article on this secular celebration of imagination and fear. What would the Stoics say of how we practice this modern Western holiday? How should you approach it if you ascribe to Stoic philosophy as a way of life?

To narrow my discussion further—and because the number of options to celebrate this year have been severely limited due to social distancing ordinances—I’ll just be discussing scary movies. The other reason I want to talk about this is because I’m often compelled to watch scary movies and I want to get the most out of them, even if I have to use them for a kind of intellectual and moral exercise. Besides, I think we can extrapolate from the discussion on these to other activities that are intended to frighten us for fun’s sake.

WHAT IS FEAR

Stoics insist that fear is never good. It’s never good because it’s always irrational. Here’s a standard definition of fear (phóbos) as provided by Joannes Stobaeus (5th Cent. AD) [who was, in fact, drawing from Arius Didymus, a 1st Cent. BC Roman Stoic]:

Fear is an avoidance which is disobedient to reason, its cause being forming an opinion that something bad is approaching, when the belief has the fresh stimulation that it is really something worth avoiding

Anthology 2.10b, trans. Pomeroy

Fear is an “avoidance” or withdrawal (ekklisis, lit. ‘leaning away’)— a kind of “movement of the psyche” away from something (Stobaeus 9). This movement is something that the fearful person senses or feels and which may or may not manifest in overt avoidant behavior. Furthermore, this psychic movement is “disobedient to reason” because once it begins, it cannot be stopped by any rational choice. Stobaeus says “those in the grips of passion, even if they know or have been taught that they need not . . . be afraid or be involved at all in the passions of the soul, nevertheless do not abandon them, but are led by their passions to being governed by their tyranny” (10a).

But, even though these emotions cannot be stopped with reason, they are the product of our rational faculties. Every emotion or passion (pathos) is produced when my rational faculty forms a faulty opinion of what’s going on—an incorrect judgment about what’s happening or about to happen. In the case of fear, its cause is “forming an opinion that something bad is approaching.” Such an opinion is often faulty because the only thing that is truly bad is bad character.

Furthermore, though the last line of the Stobaeus/Didymus passage is often ignored in modern discussions of Stoic emotion, I think it will be important to our discussion: the opinion must be “fresh” (prósphatos). This is an indication of salience: what I think is bad must be happening soon and it must matter to me. The more the object of fear ‘hits closer to home’ in whatever sense that means, the more “fresh” the corresponding opinion is and the more fear I experience.

So, in general, an emotion like fear involves two things: A) a sensation or feeling—a movement of the psyche (here, related to the sensation of “avoidance”) and B) a value judgment (here, that “something bad is happening soon”). And then, the more ‘fresh’ the object of that value judgment seems, the stronger the emotion.

Separating the analysis of emotion like this into two parts allows us to see a scenario where there’s (A) without (B)—that is, a scenario where there’s a sensation without the corresponding value judgment. In our case, this would mean that we could have some sensation related to fear without experiencing fear itself. And, in fact, Stoics do allow for such a scenario which later Stoics called “proto-emotion,” “pre-emotions,” or “proto-passion” (propatheia). Seneca seemed interested in this phenomenon and provided extensive descriptions on how a bare sensation is different from a full-blown emotion. Here’s an long excerpt that I think will help us a lot (I underlined the proto-emotions or, more accurately, the physical manifestations of proto-emotions):

(2.1) . . . any movements that occur independent of our will cannot be overcome or avoided, like shivering when we’re sprinkled with cold water, or revulsion at touching certain things, or the way our hair stands on end at bad news, or the blush that spreads when we hear obscene words, or the dizziness that comes over us when we look down from a cliff. Because none of these responses is in our power, no form of reason can argue against their occurring. (2.2) Anger, by contrast, is put to flight by instruction because it’s a fault of the mind subject to our will. It’s not among the things that happen to us just because of our lot as humans, and happen, accordingly, even to the very wise; and among these things must be included the initial mental jolt that stirs us when we believe we’ve been wronged. (2.3) This sensation comes upon us even when we’re watching shows at theatrical games and reading ancient history: we often seem to become angry with Clodius as he drives Cicero into exile, or with Antony as he orders his death. Who’s not stirred when faced with Marius’ arms or Sulla’s proscriptions? Who doesn’t hate Theodotus and Achillas and the actual child who dared a grown-up crime? (2.4) Sometimes a song sets us on edge, a double-time tune, the martial sound of war trumpets; a horrific picture stirs our minds, or the grim sight of punishments, however justly meted out. (2.5) For the same reason we answer others’ smiles with our own and grow sad in a crowd of mourners and feel the blood tingle while watching other men in competition. Such responses aren’t forms of anger, any more than what causes us to frown as we watch a staged shipwreck is true sadness, or fear that flashes through people’s minds as they read of Hannibal’s laying siege to Rome after Cannae. These are all movements of minds stirred despite themselves; they’re not passions but the first preludes to passion. . . (3.1) The term “passion” should be applied to none of these responses that merely chance to move the mind: the mind doesn’t so much cause them as suffer them, if I can put it that way. Passion, then, consists not in being stirred in response to impressions presented to us, but in surrendering ourselves to those impressions and following up the mind’s first chance movement. (3.2) Turning pale, shedding tears, the first stirrings of sexual arousal, a deep sigh, a suddenly sharpened glance, anything along these lines: whoever reckons them a clear token of passion and a sign of the mind’s engagement is just mistaken and fails to understand that they’re involuntary bodily movements. (3.3) Thus even the bravest man has often grown pale while donning his arms, even the fiercest soldier’s knees have trembled a bit when the signal was given for battle; the great general has sensed his heart leap before the opposing armies clash, the most eloquent speaker has felt his extremities go cold as he gathers himself to speak.

On Anger 2.2.1-2.3.3, trans. Kaster

The proto-emotions vary drastically in how noticeable they might be to others. This speaks to the fact that these are movements of the psyche and not necessarily movements of the body. 

I could probably stop my article here and you would get a lot out of the passage I cited from Seneca: just substitute “watching shows at theatrical games” with “watching movies with our friends.” But I’d like to tease out some things so that we can prepare ourselves for any spooky events this evening.

UP TO YOU: FEAR OR PROTO-FEAR

After reflecting on what happens to me when I watch scary movies, I notice that there are two or three ways that I can engage in the spectacle. First, I can remain distant and disconnected from what’s going on in the movie—either because it’s a poorly made movie or because I don’t allow myself to get immersed (sometimes I do this by making jokes). Second, I can ‘buy into’ what’s going on to some extent and empathize with the fear of the characters. This is heightened if others around me act accordingly (as Seneca describes at 2.5 above).

The second way of watching scary movies can unfold in two ways and I can describe this distinction by using our Stoic terminology. Once I get into lock-step with the characters of the movie, I can either ‘buy into’ the movie and let myself become engrossed in it (give my full attention and thought to it) or I can not only ‘buy into’ the movie and let myself become engrossed, I can also adopt some opinion about how the ordeals of the characters matter to me. 

This last part makes all the difference since what distinguishes between what I’ll call proto-fear and full-blown fear is a fresh value judgment: “something bad is approaching and it matters to me.” Without this value judgment, I can have all the sensations that are normally associated with a good scary movie (unless I have a heart condition): turning pale, trembling, chattering teeth, being mentally jolted, set on edge, going cold, having my heart leap and my blood tingle. Those are some examples from Seneca, but I could add as many other figurative descriptions of these sensations as we want. And what’s more, they aren’t harmful to my character: they happen to us “just because of our lot as humans, and happen, accordingly, even to the very wise.” They’re not harmful to my character because they fall outside the purview of my rational faculty and are entirely involuntary.

It’s when I ‘buy into’ a scary movie fully that something harmful happens to me. When I do this, my mind forms the faulty opinion that something truly bad is approaching and I experience the emotion of fear. The quality of ‘freshness’ plays a role here too. Let’s say I’m watching a movie about a malicious ghost. I may be upset by seeing the main characters get harassed so much, but it still may feel distant to me so long as I remember that I’m watching a movie. The more distant and irrelevant the movie seems to me, the less ‘fresh’ the bad things appear, and the less fear I might experience. It’s when the movie stops and my imagination starts that I experience the most fear. When my imagination places the bad thing near me in the real world rather than in the movie world, it’s then when my opinion becomes very ‘fresh’. Suddenly the ghost isn’t in that 19th Century haunted house somewhere in New England, suddenly it’s right behind my bedroom door! That’s what Stobaeus/Didymus meant by ‘fresh’—it becomes very important that my mind attends to this approaching thing.

But if I did this one night after watching a scary movie (which I am known to do), this is actually a sign of a general tendency of my mind—a tendency to add more to a situation than the facts warrant. Here’s Seneca again warning his friend Lucilius about the power of imagination in everyday life: 

Often when no sign indicates that anything bad is on the way, the mind makes up its own false imaginings. Either it takes some ambiguous utterance and bends it toward the worse, or it supposes that someone is more gravely offended than he really is, thinking not how angry he is but how much he might be able to do in anger. But if fear goes to its fullest extent, then life is not worth living, and there is no end to our misery. . . We let ourselves be blown about by the breeze, alarmed by ambiguities as though they were confirmed facts. We lose our sense of proportion: the least cause of uneasiness turns right away into fear.

Moral Letters 13.12-13

In order to address this tendency or habit, my suggestion (to myself and to others) is to not avoid scary movies, but use scary movies as an opportunity to train yourself for scary real-life situations that might be harder to dismiss.

HOW TO WATCH A SCARY MOVIE

So I propose that there are three ways to watch a scary movie. First, I can prevent it from provoking any proto-emotions in me. Second, I can let it provoke proto-emotions in me, but prevent myself from producing any full-blown emotions by not endorsing any faulty opinions about what’s going on. Third, I can give way to full-blown emotions and then suffer the consequences.

As a Stoic, I will approach a scary movie in the first or second sense. If the movie is poorly made and cheesy, it would be easy to approach it in the first sense. And I have been known to watch movies for the fun of making jokes and fostering community with my fellow audience members (assuming that they also think it’s poorly made and cheesy). Watching bad movies can be a bonding experience. 

If the movie is well-made by any metric, then I can enjoy the movie experience with all the sensations that that might entail (as long as I don’t have a heart condition). The important thing is that I do not ‘buy into’ the movie to the extent that I believe that what’s happening in it is real or that it matters to me. I’ll know whether I’ve in fact done this by observing my behavior when the movie is over. If I approach the movie in this second sense, then I will not experience anything that feels like fear after the credits roll. 

If I wind up approaching a scary movie in the third sense—where I actually endorse the irrational judgment that something bad is approaching that matters to me—then I will experience fear even after the movie is over. This will manifest in my having sensations like those I had while watching the scary movie: I will be unusually jumpy while I walk through the dark, my heart will race if I hear a rustling outside my window, or I will feel cold while I stare at my bedroom door and imagine there’s something sinister behind it. To be honest, this happened to me briefly just last night after watching a scary movie. I didn’t have trouble sleeping, but I woke up in the morning realizing that I still have some work to do to counteract this apparent tendency toward fear.

I don’t think avoiding scary movies or watching them unreflectively or uncritically will do the trick if I already have a tendency toward fear. According to Stoicism, a tendency toward fear is just a tendency toward endorsing incorrect judgments. With this in mind, I think I would have to debrief with myself after (or even during) the movie to ensure that I do not endorse anything irrational. I should remind myself that most if not all antagonists in scary movies are not realistic. Insofar as werewolves, vampires, ghosts, or reanimated corpses of any type are posited as supernatural, they cannot exist in the natural world—that’s just syllogistic (here’s a quaint example of Stoic Eric Wiedardt reflecting on vampires and werewolves: https://modernstoicism.com/vampires-werewolves-by-erik-wiegardt/). I should also remember that human serial killers are not portrayed very realistically or, at the very least, how often they’re portrayed in movies is not representative of how rare they are in real life (here’s a long FBI document that discusses the myths and facts of serial murder in the United States: https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder).
There are probably many techniques that Stoicism and psychotherapy might offer to counteract irrational fear. My concluding advice: choose the one that works best for you, watch as many scary movies as you’d like, and then examine your behavior afterwards. Stoicism is about slow and steady progress towards a more rationally coherent and prosocial life—that is, a happier life. Keep at it and don’t squander any opportunities to improve your good character. As far as I’m concerned, a scary movie is a prudent way to train yourself to combat fear without any physical or serious moral risk to your being (again, as long as you don’t have a heart condition).

Happy Halloween!

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