Are We Desensitized To Fear?

I’m unashamed. I’m not embarrassed. I’m even proud. I love Halloween.

For many, October is a month-long celebration of all things oogey and boogey. Culturally, Halloween allows us to enjoy the subversive, spooky side of life without the expectations of normalcy we experience the other 364 days. What other time is Frankenstein slapped on Kit-Kat bars? Or tombstones and decorative ghosts on sale next to housewares at Target? Today, Halloween contends with major holidays like Christmas commercially. Extending beyond market value, some would say Halloween possesses an enchanting quality similar to the Christmas spirit. Churning together the best of season, curiosity, and the paranormal, Halloween satisfies our need to briefly indulge in the dark.

More than any other group, youth culture seems to revel in Halloween with a particular exuberance. When you think about it, Halloween and youth culture share the same irreverence. Witchcraft, devil worship, skimpy costumes—it’s all the things your parents worry the kids are doing these days. The livelihood of the holiday draws in youth culture with the promise of a night where anything can happen. Unlike New Year’s Eve or Christmas however, Halloween throws in the seduction of terror.

The delight in fear is widely accepted during the Halloween season. Haunted hayrides, jump-scare walk-throughs, even Ouija boards excite our unspoken hunger to be thrilled by the abnormal. It may not be apparent throughout the other seasons, but autumn’s chill in the air reveals our hinting urge for something bewitching.

Being spooked for fun is certainly not a construction specific to millennials. Horror entertainment has found deep roots in youth culture overtime. Horror films, namely, reflect a youth-centric audience. The teen-slasher genre burst onto the scene in the late 1970’s, exploded in the 80’s and trickled into the early 90’s. These films capitalized off the terrorization of the average, unassuming, all-American teen. Michael Meyers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees all attacked innocent groups of friends at play—on weekend getaways, when parents weren’t home; just when they thought they were safe. Watching their normalcy being taken advantage of was what made young audiences so terrified of this new horror genre. Horror films had a niche prior to this new subgenre, but like never before, a brand of film monetized off of the entire teen demographic and quickly became representative of a new culture.

Make no mistake, movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th remain classics in horror-lover circles. Their role in the evolution of horror films is pivotal, arguably bringing horror one step further into the mainstream. But their legacy is merely a precedent to where the bar is set presently. As we entered the new millennium, a certain self-awareness sprouted in youth culture along the way. Blame it on the new immediacy of technology or the nuances of egoism in our generation—young viewers wanted more. Consequently, the teen genre dissolved in mid-2000’s and the young demographic began to gravitate toward more mature conventions of horror.

The empowerment of adult-themed entertainment pushed teens of the new generation to demand horror more believable and devious. The boom of hand-held and “found” footage horror films in the 2000’s provided audiences with a sense of hyper-reality, elevating fear to a more tangible level. Simultaneously, the rise of gore in mainstream horror films became paramount with films like James Wan’s Saw (2004) and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005). The millennial audience has graduated from gross-out to the grotesque. We no longer want to be terrified, we wish to be petrified.

Because of its counter-cultural appeal, the horror genre has steadily developed a social commentary. Overtime, horror box-office hits have snuck in critiques of human nature, religion and overall cultural values. Obviously, those completely opposed to scary movies are not well-versed in the significance of the genre. But its development overtime has garnered a specific weight in the world of film. Movies are often learning tools, reflexive of how people think and feel. The horror genre has provided us with an avenue to a different excitement; to experiment with fear in a controlled environment.

The joy of both horror films and Halloween celebrations are that they come to an end when we allow it. After the credits roll and all the candy has been handed out, we can return to the safety of our normal world. That’s why Halloween is a holiday—because any day after that is perfectly un-scary. However, our new ability to turn on and off our sensor to fear extends beyond entertainment.

It seems as though our delight in horror films bleeds into a more blurred, desensitized view of the much darker horrors in the real world. Daily news reports of mass shootings and racial-driven murders appear on newsreels with a staggering frequency. These stories are jarring upon receiving them, but immediately we make them disappear by scrolling up or changing the channel. Our fleeting regard for what should deeply affect us is an attribute of the false invincibility we create for ourselves. Consider the majority’s attitude toward the 2016 presidential election. The series of twisted events in both campaigns, albeit confusing, pushes most people to a humorous or even apathetic response. For the most part, the public doesn’t want to swallow the actuality of the election. Though fear-mongering is a popular tactic between both presidential candidates, our personal fears often direct us to our passions. Particularly with young adults, false bravery lies to us more than fear does. Accepting the truly scary elements of life give us a well-rounded perception of reality. This is somethings our generation struggles with.

The most pertinent example I can relate to our desensitization of fear is the recent Kim Kardashian West robbery scandal. In the middle of the night, a group of thieves broke into Kim’s hotel room in Paris. Left bound by zip-ties in a cold marble bathtub, Kim thought only of her children as she watched the robbers turn over the room and steal, among several other priceless pieces of jewelry, her prized Lorraine Schwartz engagement ring. The image of this event gives me chills. West recounts not understanding the robbers as they were shouting violently in French. She said she feared they were going to rape her.

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To think, the most beautiful woman in the world at the mercy of greedy jewel thieves. Kim’s reluctance to return to the social media spotlight—the very position that allows her family to live so comfortably– shows the unshakeable trauma of this occurrence. It was for this reason I was shocked to happen across this Halloween costume.

The image above, to me, is almost pornographic in its mockery. The visual references perfectly trivialize what might be the most disturbing and painful moment in a person’s life. Perhaps the far removal of Kim’s fame from the average life of the creator is what justified he or she to come up with the concept. Civilian’s disrespect for the celebrity is for another time— the main focus here is referring to a truly terrifying event in jest. This Halloween costume is symbolic of intrusion and extreme evasion of one’s privacy. Instead of receiving this message appropriately, we interpret it as clever and fun. The fear has been stripped out of the event and replaced with crude shock value. Desensitized to our own fear, we become insensitive to others’.

The obstacle now is to establish a comfortable relationship with fear. In watching films like Insidious or The Conjuring, we let terror wash over us briefly. The excitement of fear, as we have learned, proves to be universal and marketable. While this bump-in-the-night kind of fear is conditional and often harmless, desensitizing ourselves to all kinds of fear is ultimately dangerous. In many ways we blindly accept that which is violent or perverse by not standing up to the issue. As images in video games, social media and film whizz past our eyes for hours at a time, the shocking slowly becomes the mundane. I suspect that as the lines of reality and fantasy bleed together, making a mental disconnect becomes much more difficult.

All of this is not to say millennials are morally or emotionally damaged. In fact, the fearlessness of this generation has pushed us to use our voice for political and social change in many positive ways. Young people have always been reputably cocky, no matter the generation. The false sense of immortality youth culture has held onto pushes young people to, well, be young. Overcoming fears about the real world is essentially what growing up entails. Perhaps, with years of experience peeking through our fingers to watch horror films, we build up this desensitization as a coping mechanism for adulthood.

The recent and mysterious clown sightings across America have shaken nightly news viewers for about a month. The creepy and unexplainable clown figures pose as a threat to the average pedestrian. As many viral videos illustrate, people feel very strongly that these pranksters must be stopped. The video of the Penn State “clown riot” captures hundreds of young people stampeding to hunt down the suspect. Nothing applies more to my previous assertions than this unexpected, wacky cultural event. After word of a clown sighting on my small college campus got out, chaos ensued. Out my window, I watched groups of fraternity brothers race up the street with golf clubs in toe. We are conditioned all our life to compartmentalize the monsters in film to their fictional being. Young people, in their armor of promise and vitality, see a monster come into fruition and feel that they can conquer it the way their fears have been conquered. The fear we do not feel may not be desensitization, rather the fear we do feel is repurposed into drive. Maybe the hundreds running after clowns have no intention of unmasking them. Living out fear could possibly be more rewarding than being a hero.