Many of us have our favourite characters from TV shows and films, as well as favourite TV shows and films. We laugh at our favourite comedies, or cry at our favourite dramas, or jump at our favourite horrors. We become so engrossed by the content that the stalker on the screen holds us in a kind of state of fear, as we wait for the future victim on screen to either escape or meet their fate at the hands of the weapon carrying psychopath. Why do we feel these things though? Why do we weep at the death of our favourite character? Or bite our nails wondering whether the unlucky teen who broke one of the rules of horror is about to suffer the consequences of their rule breaking? Is any of this rational, or how a rational person should behave?
The place to begin, of course, is with a brief look at emotions. One long standing theory about emotions is that they are simply feelings. From Plato to Hume, we see emotions described as ‘simply a class of feelings’ understood as ‘primitives without component parts’ (Scarantino and de Sousa, 2018). In other words, emotions are simply ‘feeling angry’, or ‘feeling happy’. However, the James-Lange theory (1884) offers us something slightly different. For the James-Lange theory, emotions are feelings that are made up of the perceptions of the changes to our physiological conditions (James, 1884 in Scarantino and de Sousa, 2018). In other words, for the James-Lange theory, when we perceive that we should be scared of something, this perception begins a collection of bodily responses, and our awareness of those bodily responses is what constitutes ‘fear’ (Scarantino and de Sousa, 2018).
Much work has been done on emotions since then of course. Goldie (2007) gives us some indication of what is needed from a successful account of emotions, with one of those things being ‘Intentionality’. In terms of emotion, intentionality is ‘the property that the mind has of being directed on to things’ (Goldie, 2007, p930). So, our emotions are, generally, directed at something or someone. This could be some physical object, or it could be some concept or idea. We get angry at someone for behaving some way, or we get angry at the thought of some injustice, etc. Though we can, of course, simply be afraid for reasons we are unaware. However, most accounts argue that emotions are ‘Intentional’ (Goldie, 2007; Scarantino and de Sousa, 2018).
Fear and imaginary things
Kendall Walton adopts a similar account of emotional content while arguing about our psychological attitudes towards fictions (Walton, 1990). However, before discussing Walton’s account of our attitudes towards fictions, let us first explore the idea of rationality concerning fictional emotions. We will begin by exploring a scenario involving fear. Imagine two people walking down a street turn a corner. Once they turn the corner, they see a bush in front of them. Both of these people notice that there is a rustling in the bush. Person A notices it is windy, and attributes the wind to the rustling of the bush. However, Person B believes that there is a mugger hiding in the bush waiting to jump out and get them.
Now, we could argue here about things like whether or not it is a high crime area, whether Person B has had a similar experience, and much else regarding the rationality of Person B’s fear. For the sake of argument though let us grant that Person B’s fear is absolutely rational at that time. Let us grant that it is absolutely rational, right up until Person A goes and checks the bush. Person A examines the bush, and shows that the rustling was caused by the wind and not robber in waiting. Once that bush had been examined by Person A, and Person A has shown Person B that there is nobody in the bush, Person B would be irrational to fear the mugger hiding in the bush. Person B would, in that case, be afraid of something that was imaginary.
There are many such scenarios that could be presented here. One that many atheists may be able to relate to is Hell. Imagine the atheist that fears Hell. They do not believe in any kind of God, and may even believe that no such entity exists, yet fear going to Hell in an afterlife. Not only would we consider this hypothetical atheist to be holding a contradictory belief, but we would consider their fear to be irrational. We would consider any emotion, whose intentionality is directed towards something that the agent knows is imaginary and not real, to be an irrationally held emotion. Would we not?
Consider it in the following way. When we have a feeling of fear towards something, we find it irrational to fear something that is not even real and could never harm us. If our friend or partner said they were afraid of the undetectable and invisible unicorn sat at the end of bed sneering at them and threatening them, we would find them to be somewhat irrational. Now imagine if not only did our friend or partner say they were afraid of this undetectable and invisible unicorn, but our friend or partner also said they did not believe it was there – they were just afraid of it. The fact that they do not even believe this thing they fear exists would gives us cause to believe they were behaving in a completely irrational way.
Is fear from fiction the same as fear from imagination?
Which brings us back to our discussion about our favourite film and television characters. Consider for a moment our joy at Rocky beating his opponent against all odds, or our fear for the innocent teen about to lose their life to Freddy Krueger, or our sadness at the death of a character to cancer. Some people jump at the scare on the screen, or release real tears in response to the tragedy on the screen. There are many examples of people having emotional responses to the events unfolding in the pages of a book or on the screen. Is this not irrational though? Is it any different to fearing the robber in the bush that we know is not in the bush?
After all, we know that the events unfolding in the page of the book or on the screen in front of us are not real. We know that the people being stalked by Freddy Krueger, or Jason Vorhees, or Michael Myers, are in no real harm. We know that Anna Karenina is not really undergoing the suffering we read. Yet we still feel the fear, or feel the sadness, and we feel them for situations and people we know to be imaginary. Could we consider those who feel these emotions towards these people and situations we know to be completely imaginary to be irrational? Should we consider them to be irrational?
One could argue that they are rational here. After all, as stated previously, most of us have some kind of response to at least some films. In fact, it is more common than not to have some kind of emotional response to our preferred genres, and our most liked actors or characters. If we were to take it on an ad populum kind of basis, then we would have to argue that it is rational to respond emotionally to films and literature. As we know though, ad populum does not make something the case. Justifications other than ‘everyone else appears to do it’ are necessary, one must show that it is rational to behave in this way. Many people would argue here that we ‘suspend disbelief’ when we become involved in fictional tales.
Suspension of disbelief
Yet, as pointed out by Radford (1975), we do not behave as if we have suspended disbelief. Unless we are involved in the audience participation of something like a pantomime or Punch and Judy show, we do not yell out to the characters of a play that there is someone behind them. We do not alert the murder victim in the play to the killer plotting against them. We do not report the outbreak of zombies to our local authority, or warn the swimmer of the killer shark. We do not phone the police on the gloved psycho stalking the neighbourhood of Elm Street. No, we continue to enjoy the fictional tale unfolding in front us, knowing the whole time that the things unfolding in front of us are imaginary.
We are still aware and cognizant of the fact that what we see in front of us, in the form of play, film, or book, is fictional. If we knew that a person was going to soon become the victim of a callous killer and did nothing, would we not be callous ourselves? Would it not be unethical for us to not contact the appropriate authorities to save the neglected child in the film? If we had truly suspended our disbelief, and we thought those things unfolding in front us were things that were happening, or were going to happen, then the answer to both of those questions would be yes. Yet we do neither of those things, and do not consider ourselves callous or derelict of duty while watching the film or play, or reading the book. We would consider the person responding realistically to the film or play to themselves be irrational. We would say ‘it’s only a film mate, calm down’, and then turn back and become engrossed in the film again.
Which returns us somewhat to Kendall Walton’s (1990) argument. According to Walton, and some others that discuss emotions, emotions not only have physiological responses and intentionality, they are also motivating (Walton, 1990; Goldie, 2007). When we feel fear, that fear motivates us to respond to that fear in some way (Walton, 1990; Goldie, 2007; Scarantino, 2018). So, Walton (1990) argues, as this component is missing from the emotions caused by fiction, then they cannot truly be emotions. They are instead to be considered what Walton (1990) terms ‘quasi-emotions’.
Charles and the green slime
Walton (1990) introduces us to Charles, viewer of a horror film about a dangerous green slime akin to The Blob (1988). Charles’ muscles are tense during the scene, he sinks into his chair, his heart races, and adrenaline increases. Walton calls this ‘quasi-fear’, and argues that it is not genuine fear. That Charles describes himself as ‘terrified’ does not give us indication that he was genuinely terrified. Charles did not run from his seat screaming that the slime was going to get him. Nor was he motivated to try to save others. There may be no doubts that Charles had an intense experience while watching the film, but was he truly ‘terrified’?
Well if part of fearing something is the belief that this something can harm you, then it cannot be said that Charles fears this green slime he claims to. Not unless Charles believes that the green slime is indeed real. Which would be irrational of course. However, this means that his fear too would be irrational of course. Charles knows that the green slime is not real, and cannot harm him, so to fear it is to fear something irrationally. It is to fear something that is entirely imaginary. However, as Walton (1990) argues, Charles does not display the entire range of the emotion ‘fear’. There are certain components missing from the response, such as the motivations that may come with the emotional response. Therefore, it cannot be true that Charles is actually ‘in fear’ of the green slime, even if there is some kind of feeling going on created by Charles’ engagement with the material.
Are they genuine emotions?
However, one could ask here whether it is true that we do not have genuine emotional responses to things that are imaginary. Is it the case that when some individual imagines the death of their parents, and feels a sinking caused by the sadness of the imagined scenario, or cries at the thought of never seeing their loved ones again, that they are not genuinely saddened? If they are not motivated to call their parents and tell them how much they love them, does this mean they did not truly feel sad? What about the child who fears going to school in case the school bully picks on them again? When the child imagines the scenario, and feels fear from the imagined scenario, is that not fear unless the child is motivated to avoid going to school? It seems that there are cases where the imaginations of the individual could invoke genuine emotional responses, even if those emotional responses were not motivating emotional responses; or at least not immediately motivating responses. These imaginations and emotional responses could be motivating in other, more subtle and widespread, ways.
There is a difference between the above scenarios and that of the previously mentioned Charles of course. The difference being that in the above scenarios, those imaginations are about possible real events. It is rational to believe that one days our parents will day. For the child bullied on most days, it is rational for them to believe that today or tomorrow will be another one of those days of bullying. So, the emotional response to an imagined scenario could full well be a rational one. One that is preparing them for some future possible event, and one that helps them to cope with this imagined future event made real. We are, after all, human, and humans have the ability to perceive themselves in different situations and at different places in time. We can remember past events, and hope for future events. The imagining of future events can be motivating things, and could be considered rational. Depending on what is being imagined of course. Can the same be said for Charles’ response to the green slime though? After all, Charles not only knows that the green slime is not real, but must also know, rationally speaking, that it cannot be real?
That is to say, any rational person would know that the case presented in the film that Charles is watch could not come to fruition. The green slime that Charles is view could only exist in film, or book, and in the imagination of the viewer or reader. Not in reality, unlike the scenarios of the dying parents or the school bully. So, how could Charles response to the film be rational? Indeed, how can anyone’s response to any film or literature be a rational response? How can we be frightened by Pinhead, or Leatherface, or Jason, or zombies? How can we be excited for Rocky’s win? Or saddened by the death of his trainer Mickey?
‘Make-believe’ and fiction
Returning to Walton (1990) once again, we find something of an answer to this. As described by Neill, Walton argues that ‘in responding to a work of fiction I may, and typically do, enter into a game of make-believe in which I use the work as a “prop”’ (Neill, 1991, p48). In other words, when we engage with a work of fiction, such as a book or film, we do not suspend disbelief. Instead what we do is actively engage in belief in the scenarios in front of. We ‘make-believe’ that the situation we see or read is could be real, and what it would mean to be real. Just as the child imagining the death of their parents or the school bully is fictional, but potentially real. So too does Charles imagine that the green slime is real, and could be real. Charles knows that the situation is not real, but for the moment allows himself to actively believe what it would be like if it was real.
Just as the child imagining the school bully is creating and imagining a ‘fictional truth’, so too is Charles creating a ‘fictional truth’ surrounding the green slime (Neill, 1991). Charles knows that the green slime is of no threat to him, but he ‘makes-believe’ that the slime is of some threat to him. As described by Neill, ‘[a]s in a case of actual emotion, Charles’s beliefs play a determining role’ (Neill, 1991, p49). In other words, the intentionality of the emotion is towards an imagined possibility, even if not probability. It still remains the ‘quasi-emotion’ that Walton describes it as, because some of the components, like motivation, are still missing. However, it is still as real of an emotional response to the imagined scenario as the child worrying about the death of their parents or the school bully.
The fear is not pretend
There may be those that are inclined to argue here that Charles’ fear is not ‘make-believe’. Our responses to fiction are not ‘make-believe’. The viewer or reader is not pretending to feel fear, or sympathy, or sadness. The responses they have to the fiction are real. They are genuinely frightened by dream invading razor glove wearing boogeyman in the striped jumper. As Neill (1991) points out though, that is not Walton’s argument. Walton is arguing that the emotional responses, while being ‘quasi-emotional’ responses, are real. It is just that they are the result of the intentionality of the emotion being directed at something they are make-believing. So, does that mean that we can declare that there is no ‘nightmare on Reason St’ when it comes to emotional responses to fiction?
There are some irrational responses
Well, not necessarily. Consider the person that responds with sexual arousal to the young woman being torn apart on screen by the sadistic killer. Would we call that a ‘rational response’? One might be inclined to think, and argue, that it was not the rational response. It certainly would not be a normal response at the very least, and might be the kind of response that would give us cause for concern. We might also consider the person who responds to the Jungle Book with claims that ‘it is lying to children because animals cannot talk and sing’ to be giving an irrational response. While it is true that animals do not talk and sing, Disney is not attempting to portray the Jungle Book as factual. It is entertainment, it is fiction. So, to argue that Disney are lying would be something of an irrational response. If one was so inclined, then they could come up with many instances in which certain emotional responses to films and literature are irrational responses.
However, as a general rule of thumb, it seems that it could be argued that there is no ‘nightmare on Reason St.’ when it comes to being scared by horror films. At least not if the person who is frightened is engaging with the work of fiction as it is intended to be engaged with. If the person is engaging with it in the sense of ‘make-believe’. Allowing themselves to become engrossed in the atmosphere, the music, and the intent of the writer and director, and imagining being in that scenario, or how they would respond in that scenario. In those situations, it seems that there is some semblance of rationality there, and one described by a reasonable account of emotion.
Though those that claim to hold no beliefs, yet become engaged by film and book, may have some explaining to do. As do those who argue that they only want to believe things that are, or that they only believe things shown to be true. If they become emotionally engaged by film or book, then they may want to reconsider their claim, or reconsider how they consume media. For the rest of us though, it would appear that we are rational when we enjoy our favourite films and books. At least if people like Walton (1990) and Neill (1991) are correct about how we engage our favourite fictions. For those claim they hold no beliefs, or desire to only believe true things, and reject fiction because of these stances, I have but one thing to say. Perhaps sometimes it is good to play make-believe, sometimes it makes our life that much more fun, and maybe just a little bit more bearable.
Goldie, P. (2007) ‘Emotion’, Philosophy Compass, Vol 2, No 6, pp 928-938
Neill, A.N. (1991) ‘Fear, fiction, and make-believe’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 47–56
Radford, C.(1975) ‘How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary volumes, 49, pp. 68–78.
Scarantino, A. and de Sousa, R. (2018) ‘Emotion’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Online]. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/emotion/ (Accessed 20 September 2020.)
The Blob (1998): https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094761/
Walton, K.L. (1990) Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.