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Facing our fears -- chocolate in hand


November 06, 2017

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I have been discussing with my class a logical fallacy known as appeal to fear, in which someone attempts to persuade you into belief or action (actually, most often to persuade you not to do something) in order to avoid supposedly disastrous circumstances. I ask students what scares them most, so that we can begin to understand how someone might manipulate that fear into a message.

 

Some students are afraid of failing, the inability to get a job after graduation, looking stupid in front of their peers, and disappointing their parents. Others mention snakes, or insects, or air travel, or supernatural beings. A few mention death and devastating loss, and I never quite know what to say to them. Sometimes appeals to fear are not fallacies at all, but warnings against true danger. It is important to know the difference.

 

Lately, I’ve been reading Harry Potter aloud to Nikki, and we just encountered the boggarts for the first time. Boggarts are magical creatures that assume the literal shape of an individual’s worst fear. Boggarts have no physical characteristics of their own, but morph into terrible things by accessing each human’s nightmare. For Ron, it’s spiders; for Neville, Professor Snape; and for Harry, the dementors, evil wraith creatures who suck your soul. The joys of children’s literature!

 

In the magical world of Harry Potter, though, there is a way to get past these evils. In the case of the wily boggarts, one must only imagine the thing that frightens them in an absurd light. Because boggarts feed off of one’s thoughts, this imagining translates into physical manifestation, making the vision funny rather than frightening. Ron gives his spider roller skates, for instance, and Neville imagines Professor Snape in his grandmother’s clothing. Although Harry is never given the chance to re-envision the dementor, he learned early on that the way to counteract their ill effects is – lucky him – to eat a lot of chocolate.

 

I also recently saw It, which felt like a full circle: I watched the original at a Halloween party in middle school, and never quite got over the disturbance it caused. I am not afraid of clowns, but I am afraid of anything that is able to access my brain and use it against me. The clown acts very much like a boggart, though in this case, there is no uplifting response, as the children in the film are tasked with destroying the bringer of fear. For such a supernatural fantasy, It ends in a most realistic way: those fears have been tamped down, and won’t return for a long period of time, but they will return. 

 

It is that strange time of year in which we encourage fright, invite the creepy, the terrifying, and bring it into form through costumes and pumpkin carvings, through parties and horror movie marathons. And when we’re done with all that, we eat chocolate, and focus on the distance between ourselves and those fears, in order to survive. We are evolved enough to know that evoking fear of our own volition can weaken it, and so annually, we let it in.

 

For me, it is memory that serves as the taunting incarnation: suffering my biggest fear, a nebulous thing becomes a nebulous thing, and there is nothing to do but look back at it. I allow myself to remember the suffering I’ve seen, so that for some blessed stretches of time, I might not have to. It’s not exactly putting roller skates on it, but – particularly coupled with chocolate – it’ll do. 


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