Fear in History – what scared us in the past?

In 2012, the academic Steven Pinker wrote a book called The Better Angels of our Nature arguing that in historical terms, violence and murder were in decline. Whereas widespread constant states of fear had been understandable in history – our future would be a lot safer and secure.

What a difference eight years makes! Fear may not yet be banished to the dustbin of history. Crisis after crisis looms – and social media spreads rumour and lies. It seems fear is stronger than ever. History may have the last laugh.

At the moment of writing this, we’re all in Coronavirus lockdown. We tune into the daily news bulletins to hear how many unfortunates have died overnight and how many more are infected.

The Governor of New York state appears in front of TV cameras to plead for emergency assistance. Hospitals and morgues are constructed hastily to accommodate the dying and the dead. Fear is everywhere.

But, as Steven Pinker rightly pointed out, mass fear is nothing new. History is littered with episodes of huge anxiety – where thousands if not millions of people were gripped with terrifying anxiety.

FEAR IN HISTORY: The French Revolution

Yesterday, browsing through some old history books, I came across a month-long episode in French history two hundred years ago when the landed peasantry were suddenly struck by something called The Great Fear. Or La Grand Peur if you prefer the original French.

Mansions and chateaus were attacked by pitchfork wielding landless poor. There were a handful of murders of the wealthy. And all around swirled rumours that the aristocracy were hoarding food supplies and plotting to withdraw what few rights the downtrodden had.

How much of this was true? In reality, the rich were probably no worse than they had been the year, decade or century before. But with an intensified political climate and the neighbouring cities rising up, the rural masses were consumed with a sense that unless they acted, their destruction loomed.

FIND OUT MORE: The London of the Frankenstein Chronicles

FEAR IN HISTORY: The Salem witch trials

A century before the town of Salem in Massachusetts had been the scene of hysterical witch trials. The backdrop was unrest between colonialists and American native tribes – as well as a war between England and France fought on American soil. Into this toxic brew add small town rivalries and Puritan terror of the devil and it wasn’t long before innocent women were being accused of witchcraft.

The Salem episode was depicted by the 1950s American playwright Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible – as a satire of McCarthyite anti-Communist investigations. These were show trials overseen by Senator Joseph McCarthy who accused hundreds of Americans of being secret Communists – ruining their careers and driving some to suicide.

Senator McCarthy in action

At the height of this Cold War paranoia, a movie was released under the initial title: I Married A Communist. It’s a clumsily plotted piece of drivel about a guilt-ridden ex-Communist being blackmailed by his former comrades. Watch it on YouTube – I can’t be bothered to write anymore about it. Except to say, no self-respecting Hollywood director would touch the script so it was directed by British director Robert Stephenson who finally lived that career low down by directing Mary Poppins.

DISCOVER: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

FEAR IN HISTORY: 1970s angst

As a teenager in the late 1970s, I experienced waves of popular, tabloid-fuelled fear. This was a time of economic crisis and rising unemployment. And there was plenty – allegedly – to fear.

Skinheads were taking over the streets. Old people were being routinely mugged. Racist propaganda claimed jobs were being taken by new arrivals to Britain from Africa and the Indian sub-continent. And on top of all this – young people wondered whether the United States and Soviet Union would reduce the planet to a post-nuclear dustball.

And yet – here I am. The great fear of the 1970s proved to be largely illusory…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.