The Archetype of Fear

The images of fear can be darkness; an unknown something approaching you; losing control in some way; a dark and monstrous figure or animal; an obscure but powerful ‘thing’ that is threatening to engulf or destroy you; or death in its various forms such as disease, ageing, or meeting an opponent, etc.

As a human being you are not simply a creature that responds automatically to your environment. Even intelligent animals such as chimpanzees and foxes do not simply responded to their environment instinctively. They learn certain types of behaviour from their parents, from experience, and from their fellow animals. They, like us, are capable of learning. Our own relationship with parents, other human beings and animals during infancy, passes on to us an enormous amount of information through our ability to copy behaviour, through word of mouth, through our own experience, and through reading or viewing. So many of us have awful images or sense of fear haunting us from being passed on.

The instincts that inform us, and the cultural or personal information we acquire, are both the result of enormous amounts of past experience. Instinctive behaviour has developed over millions of years of dealing with survival. In a similar way cultural responses that we absorb are the result of experiences faced by millions of people. Both of these sources can be described by the word archetypal. By this is meant that no one particular person, experience or piece of information lies behind an instinct or a cultural response. Such responses are usually the synthesis arrived at over thousands of years, perhaps millions.

In this sense archetypal behaviour is the synthesis of thousands of people’s response to situations. These archetypes are often more easily seen, not so much in our own personal experience, but certainly in how some things are portrayed in art, in literature, and in popular or group responses to things that we might confront.

However, it is difficult to categorise such responses as clearly instinctive, cultural or personal. If we take the example of pain for instance, some individuals in tribal cultures seem to have a very high tolerance for pain, whereas many people in European based cultures have a much lower tolerance. So we cannot say that a response to pain is instinctive. Even if it is instinctive to remove your hand from something that burns, there still seems to be a cultural element to the response.

In looking at general responses to human situations, there are however particular things that often stimulate fear. Of course, physical or emotional pain is one. There are many other things that are much more subtle though. Fear of death for instance, can be seen as a sort of archetypal response to something that is essentially unreal until we actually meet the experience of death. Watching someone else diving into water is not the same as doing it oneself. In the watching you are only having a subjective response. In doing it oneself all ones body senses and feeling responses are involved. Observing the death we see around us is similar. It is not an experience of death. Only those who have a near death experience can say they have met death.

Another such fear is the loss of what we usually call identity or personality. The illustration of such fear is often portrayed in films as an alien creature, a disease, or an encroaching influence gradually taking over ones body and mind. But this fear is not always expressed in an obvious way. Sometimes it is connected with the losing of what one identifies with. For instance you may be blessed with an attractive and healthy body, and as this ages and loses its attractiveness, you may feel great stress, and struggle with enormous vigour to maintain the features that are slipping away. Such struggles arise out of the fear of losing oneself, or at least losing the sense of oneself connected with appearance, work, success, or financial standing – the loss of identity.

Something that is not as obvious but nevertheless can be seen to cause enormous depression and even illness in human beings is our connection with meaning. As human beings we struggle to give meaning to the world and to our own lives. People often despair if they are not involved in a meaningful task, work or relationship. The meanings we give to our life and the world may be expressed in religious, scientific, or aesthetic beliefs. If these beliefs are threatened or questioned we may experience anger or stress. Enormous effort and expense are often involved in creating an expression of these beliefs in our outer life, and an attempt to support them or their reality. Any threat to them may cause great fear or anger.  This can be seen in religious sects and their fight against anything that threatens their beliefs.

Examples of fear in dreams are as follows.

I go upstairs to a bedroom to get a weapon. When I enter the darkened room, I sense that someone is there. I fall onto my stomach on the bed and there I am paralyzed, unable to move, extremely fearful that I will be attacked while I am in this vulnerable position, feebly kicking my feet, sure that the ‘enemy’ is somewhere in this darkened room with me. I keep expecting to kick someone, but I can’t really tell if I ever do. I am in a state of complete panic. PG.

I dreamt I was sitting on a pier when I suddenly I had a feeling of danger. I safely pulled my feet out of the water when a shark rose out of the water really angry with me for pulling my feet out. I woke up frightened and couldn’t fall asleep again for the rest of the night. ARE dream.

Dreams also show how we can deal with our fears, sometimes paradoxically.

I dreamt that I was being approached by a tiger. I was in fear believing that the tiger would attack me. I decided not to fight or run but instead do nothing. When the tiger reached me, it was friendly. I could hear it communicating to me that if I did not fear it, it would not attack. ARE dream.

The paradox is of not being frightened of what is, in the dream, frightening. Yet that is the way through fear, to face, in the dream or in ones exploration of your dreams, what is frightening. This can be done using the methods given under peer dream work.

Fear is fundamental to life, but for humans, because of our ability to think and hold images of things we are not actually meeting at the moment, fear can become a constant threat. Therefore the facing of fear, the meeting and dealing with the many images of fear we meet, is extraordinarily transformative. See: fear – dealing with. Also see the Dreams are Like Computer Games.

Death through fear is fairly common, and is reported by some doctors in connection with surgical operations, especially in the past. In 1887 Dr. Crile had watched helpless as his friend, William Lyndman died of shock after amputation of both legs. My uncle also died of the shock of losing his arm. My uncle, like William had lost little blood, and no vital organs were injured. Crile went on to develop anaesthesia and blood transfusion to counteract death through shock. But some forms of shock appeared to be outside any physical cause. In 1898 Crile was on an army transporter off Cuba and examined a young officer who was delirious with fear due to facing his first battle. He was as deep in shock as if his legs had been crushed by a wagon as William Lyndman’s had. This led Crile to become interested in exopthalmic goitre, an illness which produces a similar type of anxiety condition. Despite the use of anaesthetics, no one had successfully operated on such a goitre condition. Every patient died. Crile discovered why when he attempted such an operation in 1905.

While under anaesthesia the patient’s heart rate rose to 218 and the body temperature rose to a dangerous level. Despite no physical injury or infection, the patient died that night with a temperature of 109.6 F. Crile realised from his previous observations that it was fear that had killed the patient. Therefore he told his next patient, a young woman who needed the goitre operation, that he was going to give her a simple inhalation treatment. When she breathed in the anaesthetic, she therefore thought she was having a ‘treatment’ not an operation. She was the first person to survive the operation for exopthalmic goitre. Crile called it “stealing the goitre”, and was so impressed by the influence of emotion on the body he constantly stressed the importance of self control, and taught that calmness is strength.


Useful Questions and Hints:

Have any of my dreams been examples of facing and dealing with fear? If so what can I learn from them?

What does my dream and its drama suggest I am frightened of?

Am I paralysed by my fear, or can I confront it?

Copyright © 1999-2010 Tony Crisp | All rights reserved