I’ve experienced the usual doses of fear: we sailed through the tail end of hurricane on the Schooner Appledore, and I was afraid for most of it; fear of the first day of high school; I got lost once as a child, and that was real fear; fear of finding out something terrible about a boyfriend; all day on Sept. 11.
But I only experienced terror once.
What is terror?
In philosophical terms, it ends up in the same discussion as the sublime. Not what I would have thought.
From Edmund Burke’s essay “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful” of 1757, [where “terrible” means “of terror"]:
“whatever is in any sort terrible,…is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
In terms of power, I agree with him. The sheer magnitude of terror is part of what sets it apart from fear.
Ann Radcliffe, the queen of the Gothic novel, wrote an essay called “On the Supernatural in Poetry” written in 1826, where she said that terror “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life”. Sure, if you call not being able to breathe a “high degree of life.”
My moment of terror came, of all places, in a nightmare, and it came in the form of sound. Deafening, terrifying, sickening sound.
In the dream I am in the house I grew up in, in my brother’s old room, which is the room I often stay in as an adult when I visit.
I am asleep, in bed. I wake up and I hear a deafening clanging sound, which for some reason I know is 1,000 ton doors that are slamming down into the street outside. The smashing sound was ear splitting, the weight of the doors terrifying itself. I could feel the weight of tons of steel in the sound—and they just kept smashing down into the street.
(It doesn’t make sense that there would be large, garage-door like doors falling in the street, but it was a nightmare, it doesn’t have to make sense.)
I was terrified by the sound—I “knew” that it meant something extremely dangerous. More dangerous than words can articulate. The sound displaced all the air in the room. It was so suffocating that I woke up gasping for air: I was in full terror. It took hours for my reason to regain control of my terrified emotions—to understand that I was still in my home, safe—and a full day for the effect of the terror to wear off.
As Ann and Edmund explain, terror has the factor of ambiguity, of not knowing.
Burke again: “To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
In the dream, I never got out of bed. I didn’t go to the street to see what was going on, it was all in the sound that was paralyzing me.
The terror was so deep that I went to a psychiatrist to try to learn what it was, what did the sound signify? Unfortunately, the Irish-in-therapy-issue kicked in, and I didn’t learn much.
It’s never been repeated. I hope it never will. Life is scary enough on a general basis without the need for the overdrive of the sublime in the fear department.
Happy Halloween everyone! Pleasant dreams.