Theory in Fear


Not a name that necessarily comes to mind at all when it comes to conversations concerning the paranormal and hauntings; however, there is an interesting link where life may imitate art.  Dr Jonathan Crane, otherwise known Scarecrow, is a villain in the Batman universe (and who also appears in the 2005 film “Batman Begins,” played by Cillian Murphy), and is somewhat of an interesting character who specialises in the study of fear. He invented a gas which induces terrifying hallucinations that often result in his victims living out their worst fears.

Now we all know that this is a work of fiction, and as far as we know no such gas exists. But how much does fear actually play a part in what we perceive as reality, and can fear be enough to convince us all of paranormal activity? Fear is a basic emotion, commonly induced by threat, which can cause changes in brain and organ function. It ultimately always has an effect on one’s behaviour, such as freezing in fear, running and hiding, screaming, or when there’s no other option – confrontation. Fear will often occur in response to specific stimuli in the present, or as apprehension about a future event which is perceived as a risk to life, health, power or status. In both humans and animals fear is developed through the process of cognition and learning, and is judged either as a rational or irrational fear.

Irrational fears are more commonly known as phobias. It is accepted that human communication runs exclusively via language or visual communication so it may safely be assumed that fear can be a contagious emotion, passed on from one person to another as much as a smile or a laugh, be it through verbal, physical or visual means.

But what about our other senses? Does fear actually have a smell? Can a pheromone or a scent be left behind at certain locations, waiting to be picked up unwittingly by the next person to enter that particular spot? You only have to take old Fido out for a walk to discover that most animals communicate via smell, so why not us? It has long been thought that humans lack the same odour sensing organs as other animals (which is true in a sense – we do have the vomeronasal organ that is found in other mammals, however in humans this organ is not connected directly to the brain). There are, however, findings published in the Journal of Psychological Science (November 2012) suggesting that humans do in fact communicate via smell just as much as other animals. Gün Semin and colleagues of Utrecht University in the Netherlands collected armpit sweat of 10 men, while they either watched frightening scenes from “The Shining” or repulsive clips from MTV’s “Jackass”.

Next, the researchers asked 36 women to take a visual test whilst they unknowingly inhaled the scent of men’s sweat.

When the women sniffed the “fear sweat” they opened their eyes wide in a scared expression, while those smelling “disgusted sweat” scrunched their face into a repulsed grimace (not an entirely uncommon reaction to armpit smell, however do remember that it’s the bacteria in sweat that causes bad odour and not the sweat itself). The team chose men as the sweat donors and women as the receivers because women are more sensitive to a man’s scent than vice versa (yep – because science said so). The findings suggest that humans can communicate at least some emotions by smell. The researchers say, “Our research suggests that emotional chemo-signals can be potential contributors to emotional contagion in situations involving dense crowds.” Similar research was conducted by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), raising speculation that it was the first step to isolating the fear pheromone for use in warfare – perhaps to induce fear in enemy troops.

Simon Wessely, a psychiatrist at the King Centre for Military Health Research at King’s College in London, believes that the idea of a fear pheromone being developed as a chemical weapon is scientifically implausible. He says that a purely psychological cue is not enough to induce fear if people are not in a frightening situation. “You can generate the physical symptoms of fear but people don’t necessarily get scared,” he says. So can fear really generate hallucinations? When you think about how closely related fear and anxiety are, then yes, I would say that it is very plausible. Anxiety and fear are known to play tricks on the mind to varying degrees, and we can often think the worst when it comes to certain issues or situations that are otherwise reasonably normal. Now take all of the above and treat it as though it’s a recipe.

Take what we know about our own reactions to fear and add to it what science may suggest. Think about how we respond to others and their emotions. With that in mind, let’s put ourselves in a situation where we end up (for whatever reason) being in a building that is allegedly haunted by a ghost. For most people, at the very least there is an instant level of expectation to experience something paranormal. Furthermore, for some, there is a certain level of apprehension and anxiety when it comes to considering these expectations.  And this is where things can get interesting. Imagine being alone in this haunted building; there is a level of vulnerability when it comes to being alone, especially if you consider going solo as a bit of a risk.

As fear gets the better of you every shadow that may pass, every noise that isn’t your own and every foreign smell ends up playing tricks with your mind. This makes it very easy for some to come to the paranormal conclusion. After all, there is no one else there at the time to convince you otherwise. Now consider the same scenario but in a group situation. There is safety in numbers which is always reassuring, however it’s always safe to assume that each person in the group has a different tolerance to their surroundings. Each person has a different threshold as to what scares them and how much fear can have an effect on their behaviour, but perhaps this can be challenged by both the behaviour and (if science is correct) even the pheromones produced by others. Have you ever been in a group situation where the (over)reaction of a group member is far worse than the actual stimuli?

I’m reminded of watching  horror movies with my mother as a kid – when it came to jump scares her screams would be far worse, and make me jump more than what was actually in the movie. I’m not about to go forth and say that fear pheromones and personal behaviour is directly responsible for every case of paranormal activity – especially when considering that most paranormal investigators would become excited about any hint of activity before fear takes hold and sends us running. Just because recent studies strongly suggest that humans can, in fact, smell fear, there is still no direct link between smelling fear and experiencing hallucinations. I will, however, agree that the presence of fear in any situation can alter perceptions, which can often make situations seem worse and bring people to conclusions beyond the rational.

Fear is not just about behaviour and pheromones though. There are some other factors that are believed to contribute to the onset of fear:

  • Dopamine.  The hormone that we all know is normally responsible for making us feel all lovey-dovey and romantic. If dopamine happens to reach the wrong part of the brain it can begin to react negatively and arouse feelings of terror and dread. This was discovered when scientists delivered dopamine to the rear regions of the nucleus accumbens (a region associated with both rewards and dread); being a small brain region, it was concluded that the difference between pleasure and terror is only a matter of a few millimetres.
  • Yohimbine. Often used as an ingredient in prescription medicine for erectile dysfunction, Yohimbine can also have a good or bad effect depending on dosage and the person taking it. Almost mirroring dopamine, it can also induce stress, anxiety and panic attacks, and in rare cases hallucinations, proving furthermore that from the brains perspective there is a thin line between good and bad.
  • Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).  A protein in humans that is said to be responsible for how well we cope with trauma and fear. However, it can help to solidify traumatic memories, and is more than likely responsible for intense traumatic flashbacks that make you re-live many of the moments you’d love to forget.
  • Caffeine and exercise are thought to increase the secretion of BDNF.
  • Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH).  A peptide that acts on specific receptors in the brain responsible for (but not exclusively) triggering feelings of reward and euphoria when we consume too much alcohol. As I’m sure some of us are aware, an overload of CRH can lead to feelings of panic, paranoia and regret. Research has shown that abnormally high levels of CRH can be found in the cerebrospinal fluid of suicide victims.
  • Infrasound.  Sounds below 20Hz are virtually impossible for humans to hear but can still cause physiological effects and make windows, doors and loose objects vibrate seemingly without reason. While there is still no definitive evidence to support the claim, many researchers believe that infrasound can have a negative influence on your mood. Infrasound has also allegedly been used by composers, filmmakers and even the military to evoke feelings of dread.
  • Noxious Smells.  If smelling fear pheromones doesn’t do it then catching a whiff of anything overwhelmingly unpleasant will.  While you may not necessarily associate bad smells with fear, if a smell is bad enough it can often make you feel physically ill, and your brain’s natural reaction is to make you want to flee the area – a fight or flight response. Some of these examples may appear to be a little more extreme than others.  It would definitely be rare to find yourself in a situation where they would all be contributing factors in a typical haunting scenario, however, each example is worth considering in its own right.

So what is the link between fear and hauntings?

Some believe that ghosts or spirits can feed on, or sense, strong emotions which they can use as a vessel or “power source” to help manifest themselves. I’m not against this theory entirely, but I personally believe that it comes down to fear being a basic emotion and that there is and always will be a natural instinct to fear what we don’t understand. I’m sure we can all agree that not every haunting is from malevolent or negative spirits, and yet, some would run screaming at the manifestation of one of their own loved ones.

Why?  Because not everyone can comprehend seeing something that many years of social conditioning has taught them is nothing more than made up fairy-tales.  I’m more inclined to believe that fear on its own creates the spirit no more than the spirit creates fear, but rather it is part of a much larger cocktail of contributing elements when it comes to a genuine haunting.

By Sam Collier


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