The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


“It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”

This was Stephen King’s answer when he was asked to characterize terror. More violent than feeling spooked, more immediate than dread, less connected to gore and disgust than horror, terror is felt in the presence of an elusive, unseen menace and leaves us rigid, rooted to the spot. The nineteenth-century Italian physician Angelo Mosso, who dedicated much of his life to studying the physiological responses of various types of fear, observed among soldiers that “in terror, even the most intrepid men do not think of flight; it seems as though the nerves of defence were severed and they were left to their fate.”

The Romantic poets and philosophers of the late eighteenth century were intrigued by terror. The Swiss painter Henry Fuseli thought it the aim of any serious artist. “The axe, the wheel, sawdust and the bloodstained sheet” merely made the gorge rise, he wrote. Terror, by contrast, like the medieval concept of a “wondrous fear,” was an ennobling, even purifying emotion (see: FEAR). His painting The Nightmare (1781), in which a goblin squats on the chest of a lifeless woman, its round eyes staring out from the canvas, was thought to leave those who gazed upon it fighting for air. But it wasn’t only imps and demons who terrorized. According to the philosopher Edmund Burke, vast mountainous landscapes could assail walkers, provoking the violence of “terror and wonder” in their hearts. As Wordsworth put it in The Prelude, these “huge and mighty forms, that do not live / like living men” brought “trouble to my dreams.”

At first glance, much of this rich poetic inheritance has been bleached out of our contemporary political rhetoric, in which terror plays such a central role. “It is natural to wonder if America’s future is one of fear,” said George W. Bush addressing a joint session of Congress following 9/11. “Some speak of an age of terror.” It is a stark contrast to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933, when he warned that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Talk of a “war on terror” inflames the menace. Perhaps this was the intention of the speechwriters who came up with the phrase. Learn that a terror, rather than a fear, threatens you, and you might feel cowed and overwhelmed. In the face of shadowy, elusive forces—a virus in an envelope, or on a website—self-defense seems futile, and terror petrifies us.

It’s then that, like Mosso’s terrified soldiers, we become voiceless and rooted to the spot. And might find ourselves incapable of arguing when someone else seeks retribution on our behalf.

See also: DREAD; FEAR.