What We Fear by Merryl Wyn Davies

Old aphorisms never die, they simply fade with over-use, suffering a fate common enough with sacred text: oft repeated words of high sentence, seldom reasoned with, or mined for fresh meaning. To become a rhetorical flourish is not necessarily to remain a burst of illumination. Take, for exam­ple, Franklin D Roosevelt’s clarion call: ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ How often is the idea — the fear of fear — used to invite an exami­nation of the nature, structure and manipulation of fear in our time?

When I was young, BBC television used to preface certain programmes with a warning that what followed might not be suitable for people ‘of a nervous disposition’. It usually indicated the kind of drama one had to watch from behind the sofa with half-closed fingers over one’s eyes. The warning was ‘Auntie’ BBC fulfilling its mandate by protecting an unsuspect­ing public from fear. I was just such a person. However, I was never dis­posed to dutifully shield my nervousness from the frights on offer. The youngest in a family of people who considered themselves of decidedly non-nervous dispositions, it was a point of honour for me to resist all addi­tional warnings — such as, it was past my bedtime or that I would get terrified and be upset. My defiance was more than a desire to avoid the disdain of my older brother; it was a curiosity to know what was unsuitable, a need to keep testing the limits of my nervousness and the irresistible allure of temptation, daring to do precisely what I knew was thoroughly unwise.

So did I learn by bitter experience that I had nothing to fear except the fear inherent in my own disposition? I did not. I had nightmares, a horror of the dark, of things that might lurk in shadows and of nightly noises that made me hold my breath and cower under my bed sheets. I was frequently overcome by fear of approaching menace. Gradually, I began to perceive there was something worse than the dramatised frights — the embellish­ments provided by my own imagination. Then I began to notice that the worst fears, the programmes that most assaulted my nervous disposition, had nothing to do with drama and never seemed to carry a prudential warn­ing. Forget my nervous disposition, forget the power of imagination, whether mine or some dramatist’s — I found there was a great deal more to fear in fact than fiction.