The Fear Of The Unknown
“A feeling of fear or anxiety about something that may happen.”
“An unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.”
“Not known or familiar; without the knowledge of.”
The fear of the unknown is something most people have felt at some point in their lives. Peering out into the darkness of night and wondering what could be out there, thinking about death and what might come after, or even just hesitating jumping into a deep swimming pool for fear of what might happen. These all fall into the category of fearing the unknown; what could be, what might occur – these kind of things. This research document is going to dive deeply into each of the factors that make up this theme, and hopefully by the end we’ll have a much deeper understanding of the phrase.
The main factor of “Fear Of The Unknown” is (fairly obviously) the idea of the unknown, and so I’m going to spend a rather large portion of this research looking into what exactly it is that makes up the unknown, and then which of those aspects it is that makes us so utterly afraid of it.
When I began my research, I first took the examples and ideas I had found during my brief dive into the topic of Trepidation in my “Supernatural” and presentation research, and then used these as a bit of a springboard to launch myself into the more interesting aspects of the unknown. As I then looked into the topic, one thing that seemed to crop up fairly often was the idea of setting, or location. Specifically, the areas or even biomes in fiction and fact that seemed to trigger the “Fear Of The Unknown” the most. The most prominent of these was the ocean, with others like snowy plains and dark alleyways cropping up too. With these then in mind, I decided to attempt to pick apart the specific aspects of each of these locations in order to find out why exactly we might fear them. For that though I need to put the fear aspect aside for a moment and focus instead on what is “unknown” about these areas, and so what might trigger this idea.
These are the most prominent of the “unknown” locations that appeared frequently in my initial research, and so I will tackle them first.
Even just looking at these images alone gives you a pretty good idea of what it is that people find so terrifying. It makes me uncomfortable just looking at them. As I dove (haha) into oceans as an unknown concept, something that popped up fairly frequently was the “thickness” of the water. Looking at the images above and even just remembering swimming about in it in the local leisure centre, you can recall how dense the liquid is. That density then causes light to refract (bend/deflect away from it’s original position), and the deeper the water then goes the more light refracts. This is why the deeper you go into the ocean, the darker it gets and so your visibility has less range. Water is rather remarkable in this respect, as the refraction makes for some pretty pictures (see the top right image in the collection above) but it is also a major cause of the “unknown” factor of the oceans.
Simply put; because you can’t see very far in front of you when you are in water, your mind is forced to use other media to detect what might or could be around you. Imagination is one of these factors, and it usually runs wild in it’s tales of what monstrosity could be swimming right under you. However, it was at this point in my research that a number of questions came to mind; “What is it about the oceans that causes us to become so afraid? So you can’t see very far; so what? Why do we think there could be monsters?”
I then looked deeper into this, and discovered that it is primarily because the majority of the oceans are still unknown to us. According to LiveScience, it is estimated that over 95% of the oceans remain unexplored.
In addition, the oceans can go further than 6000m (six miles!), which if you think about it is an incredibly long distance down. The Mariana Trench is the deepest point the waters of our world reach, and in 2009 using sonar it was estimated that the trench goes 10,971 metres down, which is over ten miles. The extraordinary amount of space occupied by our oceans both across and more importantly down on Earth is frankly ridiculous, and coupling that with the knowledge that 95% of it remains unexplored you can pretty easily see why it fits so well into it’s “unknown” category. It fits, because frankly we know very little about it.
Adding to this point, I also found a very interesting ocean mystery entitled “The Bloop”. In 1997, microphones placed deep in the waters picked up a very ominous sound, which you can hear in the video above. It may not sound like much, but what’s interesting about it is that it was heard by microphones that were more than 3,219 kilometres away from each other. The sound was so loud that it travelled thousands of miles through water, and that is simply astounding. Scientists then took years in an effort to find out what had caused it, and in 2005 turned out to just be the noise of a large iceberg breaking away from a glacier. This is a little disappointing, but it just adds to the incredible unknown that the oceans are. Odd noises also occur fairly often in the oceans, and scientists are not able to explain all of them.
So if you imagine being deep in the middle of the ocean, having next to no visibility because of light refraction and being able to hear pretty odd sounds coming from all around you, it is perhaps understandable that you might be just a little bit afraid.
While perhaps not quite as exciting as the deep and mysterious oceans, snow and the Arctic areas in particular have always been sources of unknown intrigue. But why?
Snow has always been a bit of an unknown factor. Certainly on Earth some of the least explored areas of the planet are the likes of the Arctic and particularly Greenland, which are primarily snow covered areas. We have flown over and used satellites to photograph a great amount of the areas around the North and South poles, but very few people have actually physically been to some of the more remote parts of these locations. Snow in general is also a rather magical and indeed mysterious phenomenon, which further adds to the “unknown” aspects of it.
Snowstorms are the easiest way of explaining this idea. Viewing the images above in addition to the sounds of the storm in the video right there, you can see that the rapidly moving snow severely limits lines of sight as well as pretty much deafening you. This limiting of certain senses stops the human body detecting certain things, and as a result the mind will set off alarm bells as to what could be around you. The snow swirling limits the field of vision to only a few metres, and the loud sounds it then generates makes it near impossible to hear something nearby unless it taps you on the shoulder.
The cold is also a particularly large factor of this “unknown” concept. In severe snowstorms or blizzards the temperatures supposedly can reach under -10 degrees, and at these low temperatures the human body begins to cease functioning. This can cause your mind to start playing tricks on you, and perhaps start seeing or hearing things that are not really there. The Ganzfeld Effect would also come into play here, where if a snowstorm is thick enough the brain amplifies neural noise in order to find missing visual signals, as the snow severely limits your field of view. This can then cause hallucinations and other sensory oddities. This effect can also occur just when everything around a person is covered in snow, as the constant white colour would confuse the brain and likely induce hallucinations after a while as it tries to find meaning in the white emptiness.
Overall, snow is quite significantly different to the oceans in terms of unknown factors, as these elements of it are often hallucinatory and not real as opposed to the oceans’ very possible and likely real ones. Snow-based unknowns are caused by the lack of visuals and the incredibly low temperatures, as the brain then tries to make something out of nothing. The fear of the unknown that one might experience in this type of location may not necessarily be based off of anything real, but it can still cause the same levels of fear.
Man Made Structures
This is the third of the prominent “locations of the unknown”, and is rather interesting as it’s not quite as cut and dry as the others. This one represents man made structures as a whole rather than a specific biome on the planet. This could range from anything from a dark cityscape to an abandoned railway tunnel, and as you might expect, unknown elements are frequent.
Take the images above for instance. They’re mainly representing cities, a collection of hundreds of man made structures that are likely brimming with a considerable number of unknown factors. Looking into sightlines again for instance, one aspect that can be immediately taken from the images is their darkness. Night is a pretty good trigger for the fear of the unknown, and the reason for this is pretty simple; looking out into the dark, we don’t know what’s out there. In these cities for instance, there could be a great many things. Narrowing it down even further into something small like an alleyway, there could be anything, to name a few – thieves, murderers, rats, unstable structures, weapons – and these are just a few of the possible ones. In the darkness of an alleyway, there could be a lot of danger, or more importantly – there might not be. It’s unknown.
Of course, similar aspects of the unknown to previous locations we have come across reappear here in man made structures – namely visual and auditory elements that are odd or otherwise unexplained. One new aspect here however is the idea of a story – i.e. what might have happened in a particular location. Take the image above for instance. If one was to wander into a place like this, one would more than likely wonder what exactly had occurred here for the area to be in the run down state it’s in. It’s a particularly striking image, and the more striking a location is the more the imagination will run wild with theories as to what might have happened there. This is why man made structures in particular are interesting in terms of unknown narrative elements, as there are a great many more visual cues in places like cities than there are out in the wilderness. A lot more happens in cities than out of them.
The 1982 movie Blade Runner is a good example of this.
Looking at the images above, hundreds of questions form in the mind immediately:
- What is this place?
- Who built it?
- Why are the buildings so tall?
- Who lives in them?
- What are they for?
- Why are they the shape that they are?
- What are all the lights for?
- Why is the bottom area darker and more run down than the top?
- What’s creating the orange hue?
- What’s a replicant?
- What are the holographic images in the background?
In the movie, a good number of these questions go unanswered. Ridley Scott (the director) and Syd Mead (the artist behind the aesthetics of the movie) create a breathtakingly beautiful future for humanity that is meant to leave you with lots of burning questions. The many different aspects of this incredible city that you see throughout the film create intrigue and mystery, and one of the reasons why it’s so interesting both to look at and think about is that the majority of it is unknown. Throughout the movie you learn hardly anything about city, as Harrison Ford runs from one location to another shooting androids. You as the viewer get glimpses into what life there could be like, but details are scarce. I know I keep saying the word (sorry) but it is the unknown aspects of the city that make it interesting, and this illustrates quite well the point I’m trying to make.
(Syd Mead’s beautiful artwork for Blade Runner)
Not only are there obvious visual and auditory elements in man made structures that fit well into the “unknown” category, but also potential ideas and narratives under the surface of these elements that when put together make a cityscape one of the most interesting “unknown” locations.
It’s not what’s there, it’s what could be.
Reflection So Far
To conclude, what I have learnt while researching into each of these different locations is that the “unknown” comes in many shapes and sizes. However, there are also specific aspects of this topic that tend to crop up a lot. Limiting human senses for example is a pretty major one. What tends to trigger the unknown elements is the imagination attempting to “fill in the blanks” as some of the senses are blocked or otherwise useless. In the oceans for example sight is severely limited due to light refraction , and the density of the water can distort or even block certain sounds. This coupled with the knowledge that a great percentage of the oceans remains unexplored creates a great unknown; something might be there, lurking in the deep. It could be. Or, it could not. Because you cannot tell either way, your mind then desperately tries to make sense of it by interpreting anything as something.
Researching man made structures then introduced the idea of a narrative; the mind trying to explain what unknowns may or may not be – how a certain structure came to be for instance. There are a great many more visual and auditory cues in busy man made areas than the wilderness, and so from that comes a great many more questions and therefore a great many more unknowns.
From these location studies, the unknown can be narrowed down significantly. It’s the idea. It’s what could be. What might be. Whether it’s visual, auditory or narrative based, the unknown is the idea that something may or may not exist. Limiting the senses generates the most unknowns, as it takes away the comfort of what you take for granted and lets your mind wander free.
It’s the idea.
Now that I have dived pretty deep into the idea of the unknown, I’m going to look into a series of events and occurrences in history that depict humanity’s fear of the unknown. This will hopefully deepen my understanding of the subject as well as help me explore some different sides to it.
Religion is quite simply a solution to the question of the unknown, which is one of the major reasons why so many people around the world believe in some form of it (a staggering 7.1 billion out of 7.7 billion people on the planet are religious).
According to an academic paper written by Harold G. Koenig, “a large volume of research shows that people who are more religious/spiritual have better mental health and adapt more quickly to health problems compared to those who are less religious/spiritual.” He then goes on to say that stressful life changes or decisions tend to have less of an impact on the health of religious people than on those who are not.
The idea behind religion is fairly simple; to give people something to believe in, to aspire towards or otherwise set their minds to. It’s a concept to give people hope if nothing else (this is assuming of course that religions are wrong, and that everything can be explained by science – which may or may not actually be the case). One of the biggest draws of religions is the idea that they can provide answers to some of the biggest questions ever asked – fundamental questions of humanity like “What is our purpose in life?” or “What happens when we die?”
I found a very interesting article by HuffingtonPost that describes this quite intricately. They pose a series of humanity’s most important questions to science:
- How did the Big Bang happen? A: Unknown
- What if anything existed before the Big Bang? A: Unknown
- How did life arise? A: Unknown
- What is the nature of consciousness? A: Unknown
- Why are the forces & constants the way they are? A: Unknown
- Is life experienced after one’s body dies? A: Unknown
And as you can see, science can answer none of them. This is then where religion comes in, as many of them can (or at least can claim to) answer them. For example, Christianity’s response to the final question is Heaven or Hell. After a person dies, they are judged based on their actions throughout their lives and then depending on whether they were a good or bad person they get sent to Heaven or Hell. For religions such as Judaism or Islam the answer to the third question is simply God; He created all things.
Religions and Spiritualism can answer the fundamental unknowns of humanity. As we know, a great deal of the population fear what they do not understand (the definition of fear of the unknown – you can see where I’m going with this) and so they turn to religions as they claim to be able to provide answers to these fundamental puzzles. And this claim worked, as over 7.1 billion people then essentially signed up. Now, while I don’t personally believe in God or any religion really I can completely understand why people do. It’s hope. It’s to get rid of that idea of the “unknown” – something that I explored earlier in the Locations research. It’s comfort, at the very least.
And you never know, they may turn out to be true.
Robots have always been something of an ethical controversy, mainly because of their potential ability to become more advanced than humanity, and the wariness we have as a population that this might occur.
Stephen Hawking famously spoke out about AI, stating “If people design computer viruses, someone will design AI that improves and replicates itself. This will be a new form of life that outperforms humans.” This is a worry that a great deal of people seem to share, the idea that we shouldn’t created advanced artificial intelligences (despite the usefulness they may have) as their potential is very much unknown. They could be humanity’s greatest asset, or their greatest foe.
The idea of humankind creating advanced robotics that eventually turn against them is something that has been explored substantially in popular media (and perhaps also contributed to the general wariness people have towards the concept). A good example of this is the novel I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. It is a collection of short stories involving robots that humanity have created in the future. In this setting, the AI obey three distinct Laws Of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Throughout most of the stories the robots then have programming issues and conflicts with these laws, for example in one a robot is ordered to mine a dangerous substance called selenium by a human. It is obliged to obey the order to comply with the Second Law, but if it does so it will be violating the Third. This creates a bit of a dilemma for it resulting in it’s brain crashing. The stories then culminate in final story The Evitable Conflict, in which the robots as a collective decide that in order to best protect humanity they must take it over and control it carefully as they believe the biggest danger to humans is human nature. This doesn’t violate any of the Three Laws but is obviously a massive problem for humanity, as it takes away free will.
This and similar events are the main issues people have with advanced robotics right now. If we actually created them, we don’t know exactly how advanced they would become (especially so if we made them sentient i.e. able to think for themselves/aware of their own existence) and how much they could achieve. What if they suddenly decided one day that humankind was inferior and needed to be wiped out. The film The Terminator explored this idea in depth, where an advanced AI entitled Skynet decided to destroy everything with humanity’s own nuclear missiles as it deemed us a threat to its continued existence.
Artificial intelligence is one of the fundamental unknowns of today. It is the subject of continuous controversy, primarily because we simply do not know what will happen should we create it. We have simple robots putting lids on toothpaste or running servers for us, but as a collective are reluctant to take that next step; sentient AI. While they could be incredibly useful and could end up being the best thing we ever created (think of the possibilities) they could also just as easily turn against us, and even go so far as to become humanity’s destruction.
No matter what we do coding-wise, once the AI become sentient it’s up to them what they do, and it’s that fundamental unknown that scares us.
Now that I’ve gone into depth about what physically makes up the Unknown as a concept and also dived into a few case studies regarding that idea, I’m going to look into the more human side to it. Specifically – how and why do we react to unknowns?
“What we don’t understand, we fear. What we fear, we judge as evil. What we judge as evil, we attempt to control. And what we cannot control…we attack.”
– Dan Brown
Simply put, people in general fear what they do not understand. It’s a fundamental aspect of who we are as a species – we are afraid of the unknown. The question is why.
According to the quote above, we fear the unknown simply because it could be a threat. We then attack it because it is perhaps just too great a risk to leave unattended. While researching this fundamental question, I came across surprisingly few scientific or even factual answers. There were a few psychological studies that touched on the idea, for example one from PsychologyToday posed the theory that humankind are fundamentally xenophobic – giving the hate attacks on Muslim people after 9/11 as evidence. It goes on to state that this could have been because people simply feared what they might do, even though the vast majority of Muslims are not extremists and wouldn’t dream of enacting terrorist attacks. People suddenly saw Muslims as a collective evil at the time (a viewpoint which simply wasn’t true) because they were afraid of what might happen.
I found a discussion on Quora that simply posed the “why do we fear the unknown?” question to the general public. People then mostly responded with the fundamental fight or flight” aspect of human nature, which ties back to the Dan Brown quote above.
My findings essentially all came down to this:
We simply do not want to take the risk that something could be a threat. Better to elimate the possibility entirely than let it come back around to bite us later.
So now that we’ve established (to a reasonable degree anyway) why people react the way they do towards the unknown, I’m going to take a look into how they react. Specifically, what do we do when faced with something we don’t understand? We’re afraid, sure, but what then?
Ninety percent of the time, it seems to be panic.
Take this scene from the movie Aliens for example. In the film, a team of highly trained colonial marines is dispatched to a remote colony that they have lost contact with in order to see what happened to the colonists. They don’t know this until it’s too late, but the colonists were in fact all killed by a highly predatorial alien species that are essentially killing machines. As the marines enter the colonial complex, they demonstrate quite accurately I think how humans would react to a unknown such as this.
WARNING: Scene contains a fair amount of gore. (Click on the image).
As you can see, the marines go from calm and collected to panicked and horrified pretty quickly. Due to their stealthy nature the marines don’t really see the aliens until they are killed by one, so the fear of the unknown and fight or flight kicks in pretty quickly as they cannot identify what they are being attacked by.
Another good example of potential human reactions to something unknown that I found rather interesting was the potential discovery of human life. This idea has been floating around for nearly a century, and the loudest rumours and speculation have pointed to the American government – the idea of “Area 51” and that they might be hiding crashed alien spacecraft or even live aliens themselves there. It’s an interesting story, but if you look behind it, it links quite nicely to the unknown factor I’ve been exploring. Simply put; why would the government hide the existence of alien life? The answer to this is that presumably they think that the general public would not react well to the news, and would panic and start rioting.
This is an idea that has been demonstrated in real life, for example in the 1938 playing of H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds on the radio, where it was played out as a series of fake news broadcasts to make it seem more realistic, which of course didn’t go down well. According to a BBC article on the subject, newspapers at the time were quick to print that there was “mass panic” across America. These reports were exaggerated as statistics showed only 1.2 of the 6 million listeners were actually disturbed or frightened by the broadcast (I mean, this is still quite a large number) and panic was something of a minority, but the fact that people reacted that badly to a fictional “aliens are real” radio broadcast is telling as to how they might react if a spaceship was to suddenly appear over New York. This is something that has been extensively covered in popular culture (movies such as Independence Day or Arrival) and the result is always the same; people panic, either by rioting or fleeing for their lives regardless of how the aliens actually act. They see something they do not understand, and so they either fight back or flee, which links back to the “fight or flight” idea that PsychologyToday had.
My research here into the Human Reactions aspect of the unknown has been rather interesting, and is quite an intriguing part of my overall “Trepidation” theme that I could potentially take forward.
Bonus Case Study
I was nearly done researching, and then I found an aspect of the Unknown that never even occurred to me. I would put this in Case Studies, but this happened after my Human Reactions research and it made far more sense to put it afterwards. You’ll read why.
Space Exploration (Movement)
Space is the biggest and certainly most prominent unknown there is, and while researching it I discovered one of it’s most interesting aspects; while we as humans do somewhat react to it with fear, we also react with something else entirely – curiosity.
Space is an incredible unknown. There are nine planets in our Solar System alone, and although we have managed to send remote controller robots to some, most we only have glimpses of. Beyond our System, there are quite literally billions and billions of stars in billions of galaxies, and that is just in the known Universe. We have images and a general idea of what a few of the stars around us look like, but the rest is the biggest unknown that humanity will likely ever face.
And yet, despite our innate fear of the unknown space and the exploration of it is something that we obsess about. In 1969, we sent astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on an incredibly dangerous mission aboard the Apollo 11 rocket to the Moon. There were so many things that could have gone wrong that we accounted for, and a lot more than we didn’t (probably – that’s the thing with the unknown, you never know!) and yet we succeeded. They landed and successfully planted a flag on the Moon, and the rest is history. Nowadays, we have sent Rovers all the way to Mars that have actually discovered evidence of water as well as probes to comets as far away as 446 billion miles from Earth.
Actual footage from the probe on Comet 67P
There are even plans by a company called SpaceX (created by Elon Musk) to create the first ever manned base on Mars – the trip by rocket is planned for 2024, which is only six years away. We know so little about outer space – there could be quite literally anything out there, and we’re still going. Humanity is still striving to fly out and explore the cosmos. This is the biggest and by far the most interesting thing I have discovered while researching Space as an unknown – we are afraid of the unknown yes, but far more so intrigued by the mystery and wonder of it.
Looking into fiction for example, you can see pretty much immediately the impact the idea of Space Exploration has had on it. It seems that every other book, TV show, movie or videogame incorporates space in some way, and that’s not because they’re all too narrow minded to explore anything else, it’s because Space is such a fascinating and potentially idea rich concept that you can do literally anything with it. Narratives range from realistic exploration (e.g. The Expanse) to building relationships with other civilisations (Star Trek) to getting stranded (The Martian) to humanity trying to find a new home (Interstellar), and these are just a few examples. Space and the idea of exploring it has had a massive cultural impact on our species, and this mainly stems from our endless curiosity surrounding it.
I’ll take The Expanse as an example for a moment, as it is one of the more realistic depictions of outer space exploration by humanity. Set hundreds of years in the future, it tells the story of a Cold War between Earth and the human colonies on Mars and The Belt (an asteroid belt). Space travel obeys the laws of physics, where you have to essentially hop orbits to get to where you want to go, and “burn” to change where you’re going. However, if you go fast enough then the pressures of high G manoeuvres will start to hurt, and going too fast will result in a fairly painful death. There are no force fields, no warp drives, and no laser guns.
It’s a refreshingly realistic take on how humanity would function as space explorers, and that’s what makes it interesting. Because of said realism space is an incredibly dangerous place in The Expanse, and yet people still live there. Millions occupy Mars and The Belt simply because they want to see the unknowns of space, despite their obvious fear of it (that is shown multiple times). In addition, while Earth and Mars bicker something else comes from the depths of Space, and it ain’t friendly. I won’t spoil any more (because it’s fantastic) but the idea that Space can be horrifying and incredible at the same time is very much present in this show, which is why I felt it was a great example of my overall point here.
What I’ve found here in researching Space Exploration is perhaps the most important aspect of my Trepidation Research overall; yes, there is a great deal of fear in the Unknown, but for Space particularly humanity are less afraid and more curious about it. Despite the known and unknown dangers it may hold, we’ll go and explore it anyway, because it’s a mystery to solve. Our curiosity could one day be the destruction of humanity, but that isn’t stopping anyone.
Having now looked deeply into the idea of the Unknown and the many different aspects of it, I find myself at a bit of a crossroads. There are so many different things that I have found that I could potentially take forward.
My initial locations research revealed the specific parts of areas that make them unknown, for example in deep oceans it’s the lack of sight and limited sound as well as the knowledge that much of it remains unexplored, so we truly do not know what could be down there. Snow and man made structure research backed this up, and simply put I found that it’s the limiting of certain senses that triggers the unknown factor in these places, and the subsequent idea generation from the mind as to what might be in this unknown is what triggers a reaction to it. The case studies further backed this up, as in Religion for example I found that a great many people are religious, and the reason for this is that it gives them something to believe in, and that it answers many of the fundamental unknown questions that science cannot. This then led to the Human Reactions side of the Unknown, where I discovered that humans generally react with “fight or flight” to something they do not understand, as the particular unknown could be a threat and generally they cannot take that chance. It’s essentially human nature to be afraid of the unknown. However, I then discovered that despite this innate fear humanity as a whole are also incredibly curious about what is unknown, specifically outer space as we have been obsessed with it as a species for years. Despite the obvious and unknown dangers it may hold, we want to see it anyway as it is by far the biggest mystery our species will ever attempt to solve. In essence, curiosity trumps fear.
With all this research behind me, I now have so many potential avenues I could go down. The idea of deliberating hiding things to generate fear (limiting senses), using a particular narrative or idea to demonstrate human reactions to it, picking out a specific element (such as panic, or robots), or even trying to showcase that mystery/wonder aspect of the Unknown as a concept. There’s a lot that I like here, and so for my presentation next week I will do my best to demonstrate the best aspects of the Unknown, and then get a general consensus from my fellow Games Designers as to which one they think has the most potential. This will then hopefully give me a pretty good idea of which I should then continue with.