Created | Updated Apr 17, 2018
Primeval fear is the children's fear of being alone, of monsters under the cupboard who hunt us in the night, etc. This fear is most obvious when we are children because it is then that we know little about the true world (we are at our most ignorant) and so we often use our imagination to embroider the truth and do not yet know how to suppress such fears. When we grow up, we can sleep with the light off and our limbs over the edge of the bed because we can tell ourselves that it is all in the mind and so it is a (simple) matter of logic over emotions to conquer that which terrifies us. Imagine, however, what it would have been like 2000, 1000 or even 500 years ago when there was little communication and the world was still largely unexplored. Imagine if you lived in a small community deep in the heart of a forest with only oil lamps and candles to light the darkness. What new terrors and unknown dangers could be imagined in the shadows?
Back then the world was filled with superstition and horror. Fears were often embroidered and made real by personal stories (ghosts, phantom hounds and vampires), by institutions such as the Church (Hell), or by literature and art around at the time. However, art and literature would not have had as great an influence until the printing presses came into wide use in the 15th Century - even then many people were still illiterate.
Look at any map produced around the Middle Ages and you can see the various monsters and demons that were said to roam the waters and lands. Stories like Gulliver's Travels and Homer's Odyssey picked up on these feelings. When you look at old paintings tense, horrific or just plain dangerous situations are often depicted in candlelight, creating a stark contrast between light and dark. This effect is known as chiaroscuro and famous examples of this can be seen in Caravaggio, Greuze and Rembrandt's work. This not only creates dramatic lighting effects but also cloaks the subjects adding to the mystery and the sense of the unknown. This fear is a part of us all, so why is it there?
Perhaps the simplest solution is that we fear what we do not know. This, undoubtedly, would have saved many human lives in the past. We can see this behaviour in other animals who, when confronted with a new animal, scamper away, freeze or approach with extreme caution. This is most commonly known as the fight or flight syndrome. Our fear protects us from what could potentially damage us. This has the handy use of preserving the species.
As the title suggests, fear was an important function to protect us from creatures that prowled the Earth, particularly at night, when to survive we needed to be back in our dwellings because our senses were less alert and therefore we were at greater risk of being killed by one of the larger predators. Until very recently man has lived in a primitive state, so we have carried with us many of the fears from that old age. But can we learn to conquer our fears and face up to them?
Many people strive to do just that, we may grow out of our fear of the dark but no matter how hard we try there is always something deep down that nags at us when we are confronted by our fears. We can say that we have conquered our fear of heights but it is only on the surface. Deep down we know that if a swarm of spiders were to race round the corner of the street we would go to pieces. If you were set down in a darkened abyss of passages, it would not be long before your imagination got the better of you. Does this mean we will always have our fears?
Fear seems to be an important preservation device, therefore, if we (could) lose our fears we would run the risk of getting too comfy in our routines and taking life for granted. These reasons alone would be cause for concern but as well as that they would lessen our chances of survival if anything new and threatening should ever come our way.