Archive for July, 2013

The Mind of Fear


The last time I taught a class of Middle School students how to write scary stories, I gave them the following instructions: “Make a list of things that have actually scared you––things you’ve seen, places you’ve visited, incidents you’ve witnessed.”

My own list, for example, would include the creepy sewing room where I had to sleep in my aunt’s house, the abandoned one-room shack covered with kudzu that my family drove past every summer on our way through rural Kentucky, a certain remote and desolate campsite in the Badlands of Nebraska…

The kids’ lists surprised and disappointed me. There were a few original and unsettling images, like the young boy who saw the face of an old lady he didn’t know grinning down at him from his apartment window one night. Or the girl who was convinced she was being stalked by a killer cow.

But for the most part, the kids‘ lists of fears were pretty evenly divided between two basic categories: (1) faceless boogiemen hiding under their beds or in their closets, or (2) homeless people.

It was this second type of fear that troubled me. I’ve worked with homeless people for years and have seen how destructive this kind of public prejudice and fear can be.

However, when asked later to write essays about social problems, many of these same kids chose hunger and homelessness as their topics and wrote passionately and persuasively about the need to help the homeless.

I wanted to ask these kids if they saw the contradiction between these two modes of thinking––how were they able to switch so easily from one to the other? But like many teachers, I was reluctant to ask a question I didn’t know the answer to.

Once the kids had selected a topic from their list of fears, I told them, “Now write about it, and ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen?” What if the homeless person they were afraid might follow them home really did follow them home? What if the monster in the closet really was in the closet. What would it do? More importantly, what would you do?

Imagining the worst is something these kids were all very good at. In fact, it’s something we’re all very good at. To a large degree, it’s why most of us are still alive––not crossing the street without looking both ways feels a lot more important if you can imagine being hit by a car.

There are some cases, however, in which our ability to imagine danger overshoots the mark and ends up harming instead of helping us. The person who can’t sustain a relationship because they imagine a future filled with pain and betrayal. The person who can’t leave their house because of all the dangers they imagine lurking in the outside world. Or, a recent tragic example, the man who shoots and kills an unarmed teenager because he imagines himself a hero protecting himself from a deadly enemy.

The power of fear is that it can take the worst things we can imagine and make us believe not only that they might happen, but that they actually are happening. Until we recognize the power that our minds have to twist reality to fit our imaginings, we are doomed to react accordingly––and that is when the worst usually does happen.

People have argued for years about the harmful effects of violence in movies, television, and video games. But, as I tell my students, what makes a scary story good isn’t monsters or violence––not flesh eating zombies or serial killers with chainsaws––it’s fear, a deep and realistic understanding of what it feels like to be afraid and the ability to communicate that feeling on the page.

The question is, why would anyone want to do that? Everyone knows (or will know) someone whose life has been troubled, damaged, or destroyed by their fears. So the idea of deliberately generating a mind of fear and then spending time there may seem foolish at best, destructive at worst.

What about my young students who wrote stories about being stalked and threatened by homeless people––did they become more fearful and prejudiced towards homeless people as a result? How could these same kids then turn around and write so passionately about the need to provide the homeless with food and shelter and support? Which of these two feelings was real, the fear or the compassion?

I believe they both were. Those kids were not really writing about homeless people––they were writing about their own fears that they’d felt at one time when their imaginations had run away with them. Fear doesn’t come from the object that inspires it––it comes from inside the mind, and it was their own minds that these kids were writing about.


Horror stories provide us with a unique way of examining just how good our minds are at making up terrible scenarios and believing in them. We are, quite simply, making things up. Generally speaking, there’s no harm in imagining things––as long as you realize that’s what you’re doing.

In Kadampa Buddhist meditation, there is a practice in which you generate the negative mind you wish to rid yourself of. Instead of denying or repressing your negative and destructive ideas and impulses, you look at them directly and deeply. You familiarize yourself with them so you will recognize them when they appear again, so they can no longer manipulate you or take you by surprise.

Let’s become familiar with our fears. Let’s paint them on the walls where we can look at them until we know every feature on their faces, until we know them so well that we can see them coming from a distance and recognize them––even in the dark.


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