Tag Archives: Fear

No Such Thing as Islamophobia?

Jerusalem, Dome of the Rock

A phobia is, obviously enough, a fear. What distinguishes a phobia from other fears is that a phobia is persistent, intense (though the intensity can vary) and irrational. Having a rational fear is not a phobia. For example, a person who is momentarily afraid because he discovers a black widow on his arm does not have arachnophobia. Someone who lives in ongoing fear of spiders even when they are not present might well have arachnophobia.

Interestingly, the term “phobia” is often used to indicate dislike, prejudice or discrimination rather than fear in the strict sense. For example, people who dislike homosexuals are often labeled as being homophobic. Perhaps this is based on an underlying assumption that there dislike or prejudice is based on fear. In any case, using the term “phobia” seems to be intended to convey that someone who has the phobia (such as homophobia) is irrational in this regard. So, in the case of homophobia the idea is that the person has an irrational dislike of homosexuals.

Not surprisingly, this usage of “phobia” is generally intended to be judgmental and critical. To be labeled as having such a phobia is, in effect, to be accused of being both irrational and prejudiced.

Just as there are rational fears, there are also rational dislikes. For example, pedophiles are reviled and disliked. But to claim that people who dislike them have  pedophilephobia would be an error. This is because the label would imply that disliking pedophiles is a prejudice. However, this does not seem to be a prejudice but a correct moral view. As such, if a “phobia” of this sort can be shown to be rational and correct, then it would not be a phobia at all.

One recent example of such an argument  is from Sam Harris, the famous atheist. He writes:

There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.

In the light of the above, Harris’ claim can be backed up by two arguments. The first is that there is no Islamophobia in the sense that a phobia is an irrational fear. This is because Islam is a special threat and hence being afraid of it is not irrational. The second is that there is no Islamophobia in the sense that a phobia is a prejudice or bias. This is because  people should dislike Islam for its tenets.

One obvious reply is that some people do seem to have an irrational fear and bias against Muslims. Of course, Harris would have an easy reply to this. After all, he notes that being prejudiced against people who are Muslims “by accident of their birth” would be despicable. He is, apparently, distinguishing between the sin and the sinner (so to speak).

One reply worth considering is that people can have irrational fears even in regards to things that are rational to be afraid of.  For example, consider terrorism. While it is rational to be afraid of terrorism, there is a point at which such a fear becomes irrational. Likewise for Islam. It seem clear that a person could have a fear of Islam far out of proportion to the threat it poses (assuming it poses a threat) and that this fear could be irrational, persistent and intense. That is, it could be a phobia.  As such, there would seem to be such a thing as Islamophobia (at least in theory).

But this seems like it might be a mere technical victory. After all, Harris is probably not claiming that an irrational fear of Islam is not possible. Rather, he seems to be making (a bit dramatically) the point that it is rational to be afraid of Islam and that the term “Islamophobia” is being misused. To settle this point requires determining whether Islam is, in fact, a threat of the sort alleged by Harris.

Another reply worth considering is that people can be biased or prejudiced even when there are rational reasons to dislike something. This is because a person could dislike (or even hate) something or someone on the basis of insufficient reasons. Thus, while the object of the dislike might be such that it is worthy of dislike, a specific person’s dislike might not be adequately grounded. As such, it would seem to be a bias or prejudice rather than a sound judgment.

In the case of Islam, there seem to be many people who hate or dislike it without knowing much about it. For example, someone might know that some terrorists are followers of Islam and that the 9/11 attackers were followers of the faith. However to dislike Islam on this basis would be like hating the United States military simply because  one knew that Oswald was  a Marine and  Timothy McVeigh was in the Army.  As such, this sort of Islamophobia also seems to be a real possibility.

Again, this might seem to be a mere technical victory. After all, Harris seems to be making the point that there are rational grounds to dislike Islam and that the term “Islamophobia” is being misused. As before, the heart of the matter is whether Islam is something that should be disliked or not.

Harris, obviously enough, contends that Islam should be feared and disliked. If he is right, then it seems that there would be no such thing as Islamophobia. Or, to take a more moderate approach, that the term is being misused. This then is the crux of the matter: is it rational to fear and dislike Islam?

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Tragically Defining Horror

Cthulhu Mythos anthology
Image via Wikipedia

Put roughly, Aristotle’s account of tragedy sets forth three main requirements for tragedy. The first is that the work is supposed to produce the emotions of pity and fear in the audience. Second, the main character must be not exceptionally good but is also not morally bad. The third involves the means by which these emotions are to be produced. Put simply, a person must pass from happiness to misery through an error in judgment. A work that meets these conditions can be considered a tragedy and one that excels at meeting them would be a good tragedy[i].  While this is an oversimplified account of tragedy, it does provide the model to be used in the discussion of horror.

As has been noted, the end of tragedy is the production of particular emotions. This is true of horror as well. As Lovecraft says,  “…we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point.”[ii]

While tragedies are calculated to produce pity and fear, works of horror are aimed to produce horror in the audience. While the feeling of horror might be regarded merely as a stronger form of fear, strong fear is more correctly known as terror.

The feeling of horror involves more than merely being terrified. It also involves more than being terrified by startling or gruesome things, such as those in Psycho or Seven. While such works are superficially similar to horror, they are, in Lovecraft’s view, works “of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.”

What then is the true definition of horror? Lovecraft asserts that horror is  “a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” [iii] This definition seems reasonable for it captures an intuitive view of horror-that it is an emotion beyond merely mundane fear.  This feeling, then, is the true feeling of horror and is the feeling that the creator of true horror must aim for if she hopes to succeed.

Of course, it cannot be expected that a work must always produce a feeling of horror in everyone at all times in order for the work to fall within the genre of horror. This condition would be all but impossible to meet[iv]. Rather, one must say that a work would need to tend to produce such an effect in the audience.

But, it must be noted that the production of horror is not in itself a sufficient condition for the classification of a work as a work of horror. That this is the case can be shown in an analogy. Works of terror, such as Psycho, aim at creating strong fear in the audience. It is easy to imagine, for example, some people who are so absolutely terrified of deer that even seeing cartoon deer causes them to experience terror. Despite this, one would not classify Bambias a work of terror. Similarly, simply because a work produces horror in an audience does not entail that it must be a work of horror. For it to be a work of horror, the horror must be produced in the right way. Before proceeding to the topic of the proper cause of horror, the nature of the characters in horror will be considered.

Aristotle notes that the main character in a tragedy cannot be exceptionally good. Seeing such a person meet a tragic fate would be odious and offensive-the audience would more likely feel anger and outrage rather than pity and fear. However, the main character must not be a bad person. Seeing a bad person meet a bad fate is more likely to satisfy the audiences’ craving for justice than to create pity and fear.  Ideally, the main character falls into a moral middle ground. Since most people fall into that category as well, their identification with the character is strengthened and hence so is the potential emotional impact of the work.

Thus, the nature of the main character can have a significant impact on the emotions produced by a work of tragedy. It is contended that the same holds true for works of horror. What remains to be determined is the ideal sort of character for horror.

It might be thought that the ideal character for horror is one who is exceptionally good. After all, seeing an exceptionally good character plunged into horror should make the audience’s feeling of horror that much greater. However, as in tragedy, choosing such a character is likely to backfire-the audience is likely to become offended when such a character experiences such horrible things. Further, since most people are not exceptionally good, the typical audience member would not identify closely with the character and this would tend to reduce the emotional impact of the work. Thus, the main character in a work of horror should not be exceptional good.

The matter of morally bad or defective characters is more controversial. In fact, it is something of a tradition for works of horror to focus on horrible things happening to bad people (often in retribution for their evil actions). For example, Tales from the CryptOuter Limits, and The Twilight Zone often featured episodes that fit this pattern. While the audience might feel some sympathy towards the bad character and feel some horror at her fate, the badness of the main character would reduce the horror of the work. First, any feelings of horror would be tempered by the knowledge that the bad character at least partially deserved his fate. This would, as with a tragedy, reduce the emotional impact of the work-at least the emotion of horror. Such a work would be more of a morality play (or a tale of vengeance) as opposed to a work of horror. Second, since most people are not bad, the audience would most likely fail to identify closely with the character. This would likely result in some emotional distancing and hence the effect of the work would be lessened.

The ideal character for horror would seem to be the same as the ideal character for tragedy-someone who is neither exceptionally good nor bad.  First, It is more likely that the audience will be able to identify with such a character. This increases the likelihood of sympathetic involvement and such involvement can enhance the emotional impact of a work. Second, while the character’s involvement in the horrible events would be seen as at least partially undeserved, he would also be regarded as having some relevant flaws that contributed to his fate. This combination would enhance the emotion of horror. An excellent example of such a character is Charles Dexter Ward in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward[v]. Like many of Lovecraft’s characters, Ward is driven by his curiosity to dabble in forces best left alone and this choice leads to his destruction at the hands of a resurrected ancestor. The audience can rightly regard Charles as bringing on his horrible fate, yet also correctly see the fate as far more than he deserved.

Now that the nature of the horrific character has been discussed, the final matter to be addressed is the proper cause of the emotion of horror.

According to Aristotle, the tragic effect is brought about when the main character is brought from happiness to misery by an error in judgment. Because the character is not brought to her fate by depravity or moral badness, the audience can feel pity for the character and fear that they might meet a similar fate. Thus, the production of pity and fear by the appropriate means is the hallmark of tragedy.

In the case of a work of horror the goal is to produce the emotion of horror. As argued above, this must be done by the proper means. Not surprisingly, the main character must experience horrible events calculated to produce the effect of horror. As with a tragedy, the victim of horror typically undergoes a transition. In horror, this transition would take the form of a change from a state of normalcy to a state of horror. As argued above, this fate should not result from evil or depravity but from a flaw or flaws in a generally laudable character.

Such a transition also takes place in works of fear and terror: the main character is taken from the realm of the normal and brought into the realm of fear or terror. For example, the aptly titled Cape Fear and many Hitchcock films fit this mold.  The events and things that produce fear are generally well known. For example, “secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule”[vi] are all things that can create fear and perhaps even terror. However, it is contended that such things are not the stuff of horror. What then, is the proper genesis of horror?

According to Lovecraft, there are two key aspects to horror. First, “ A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present.”[vii]

Because people seem to naturally fear the unknown, unknown forces are quite effective in the generation of fear and terror. For example, an unknown party committing gruesome murders is a stock element in much film and literature. However, such works do not go beyond fear and terror. To get beyond mere fear and terror, something extra is needed. If the forces involved are both unknown and outer in nature, then this something extra can be present and the impact can go beyond fear and into horror.

Further, it is common for works of fear and terror to reach a resolution in which the nature of the forces is exposed. For example, the identity of the secret killer is revealed. If a work includes an explanation of events and the unknown is made known, then what might be called a “Scooby Do effect” occurs-the masks are removed and it is seen that nothing is as terrible or horrible as one might imagine. Put more precisely, almost no matter how terrible something is, once it is known it is somehow lessened and limited-at the very least one no longer worries that it might be something worse. The horrific effect is thus best served by leaving the unknown intact at the end of the work.

An excellent example of a work that meets this condition is The Haunting. The nature of the force (if there is in fact a force) is unknown-the mind is left in ignorance to speculate on the horror. Because one does not know what the force is, it could be anything…anything at all.  As such, the film is a very effective work of horror. Psycho is scary and is extremely effective at creating fear. But it is not a work of horror. Too much is revealed and the killer, despite his madness, is still just a man. And men, even madmen, are known to us.

Second, “there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain –a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”[viii] Just as people feel fear at which they do not understand, they also feel fear when they are vulnerable to a threat. The greater the threat and the greater the vulnerability, the greater the fear. If the vulnerability extends to the very foundations of the universe and the threat is extreme, the effect can go well beyond fear and into horror.

A person with a gun might cause fear, so too might a shark. We fear them because they are sources of danger to us. They are, of course, natural things. We are vulnerable to such things, but they too are vulnerable in mundane ways. Hence, we fear them but are not horrified by them. Creatures like wraiths, vampires, Shoggoths, demons, the thing and the alien are beyond the natural laws we accept. So are people with unnatural powers, like the girl named Carrie. They are not like us and seem to be exempt from the rules that govern us. As such, they can go beyond inspiring mere fear and terror. They can inspire horror.

As the examples show, the suspension of natural laws need not be supernatural in nature. While horror is traditionally regarded as involving the supernatural, works like At the Mountain of Madness, “Who Goes there?” and Alien show that horror need not be confined to the supernatural realm. This is hardly surprising-as technology and science grow into areas once dominated by religion, our demons will increasingly come from the icy void of space rather than the fires of hell.


[i] Naturally there are many other factors that go into the assessment of a tragedy but these considerations go beyond the scope of this work.

[ii] Lovecraft, H.P. . “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”H.P. Lovecraft’s Book of Horror Ed. Stephen Jones and Dave Carson. New York:Barnes & Noble Books,1993. 1-65.t, p.4.

[iii] Lovecraft p.3.

[iv] Under this requirement the only works of horror would be perfect works of horror-those that produce the emotion without fail. Only IRS forms are likely to meet such a requirement.

[v] Played by Vincent Price in the improperly titled The Haunted Palace.

[vi] Lovecraft, p.4.

[vii] Lovecraft, p.4.

[viii] Lovecraft, P.4.

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