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February 1994
January 1995

1994-03-01 »

Fear: Why Anyone With an Imagination Will Never Make It

"Do you make sure there's someone in screaming distance before you use your toaster?" (Pennarun 1) If you do, you're probably a victim of the worst kind of fear: imaginary. Sure, there are plenty of "present" fears that are actually grounded in something and really seem to make sense. But those fears are trivial. What's really scary is something that couldn't possibly happen... but might.

You might be thinking to yourself, "What a stupid, paradoxical statement!" And indeed, it is. But this is how the human mind really works. No matter how impossible something awful really is, the mind will dwell on it, hour after hour, day after day, until the victim is driven completely insane by his unfounded dread. Take, for example, the talking pig's head in The Lord of the Flies: "What are you doing out here all alone? Aren't you afraid of me?" (Golding 143) Simon's intense fear of pig-on-a-stick led him to imagine that it actually had a voice and was deliberately chasing and trying to scare him. This is typical of imagination: it can't be escaped. While a present fear can generally be avoided - by making it "not present" - or even confronted and overcome, an imagined fear will eternally follow the beholder around and can never be overcome because it can't be confronted!

It might be argued that present fears are much more "dangerous" because they are founded in reality. After all, imaginary horrors are really nothing to be afraid of. This could easily be countered with an example: A circus lion-tamer places his head bravely in the mouth of an unfamiliar lion in the middle of the jungle. "Yikes!" he's thinking. "There's an awfully good chance that this lion will bite my head off!" This, of course, is a realistic fear, and as a lion-tamer he has learned to cope with it. On the other hand, if the lion delays the fatal chomp for a few more seconds, he might continue: "But you know what's worse... Betsy (the lion back at the circus) would be awfully upset to find out that I let another lion bite off my head! Why, she might even step on my foot!" This fear, entirely a figment of the lion-tamer's imagination, has spawned from his original, real fear. Now he has two fears: while the first indicated danger, the second compounds his feelings of panic and impending doom. The lion-tamer hastily removes his head from the lion's mouth, although the lion has done nothing dangerous as yet; an imaginary fear has ruined their prospective friendship. What could be worse?

Well, there is one thing that could be worse: a life based entirely on unfounded fear. The more vivid an imagination someone has, the more imaginary fears the person will have: "Even today, I'm afraid to do the dishes because of the time I saw that bug floating in the water." (Pollard speech) Even her fear of the original bug was unfounded, but for a fear of dishwater to develop from this is surely a work of the imagination. A person such as this who is surrounded by imagined horrors will live out a miserable and limited existence.

A fear that it could really rain cats and dogs might keep someone indoors on a cloudy day; a fear of being sucked down the drain could keep that person out of the bath; a fear of the seeds growing into trees in his stomach would keep that person from eating fruit. These are imaginary fears, but all that's left afterwards is a dirty, hungry wretch that won't go outside on cloudy days - and it could happen to any one of us. The only thing that could make those fears seem reasonable is a confessed axe-murderer who lives on your doorstep, poisons watermelons, and orders air-mail pets - and most psychopaths of that kind are already behind bars.


Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Putnam Publishing Group, 1954.

Pennarun, Avery. The Joys of Technology. Thunder Bay: Chicken Card Co., 1994.

Pollard, Tracy. Speech on Fear of Stupid Things. March 1994.

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