The contagion of fear: coronavirus and otherness

Marco Antonio Cruz Martínez

The oldest and most intense emotion of humanity is fear, and the oldest and most intense of fears is fear of the unknown[1].

-Roas, David. Tras los límites de lo real

In 1985, the US film industry brought to the screens a film called The Stuff (known in Latin America as La Cosa) produced and directed by Larry Cohen; this film stars… a killer yogurt! The film begins with two miners discovering a thick milky substance (a tasty one) that sprouts from the ground. These workers think that people would pay to eat it and they start its commercialization, baptizing it as the stuff. The product then becomes sensational to a national level and manages to be the best-selling dessert. The most curious moment of the film is when it is discovered that the stuff is a living, parasitic and lactobacillus organism that, far from being a friendly bacteria, comes to life at night and kills through suffocation anyone standing near the refrigerator (yogurt is introduced through the nose, mouth and eyes[2]). Faced with the fear of death, consumers of the stuff set it on fire and managed to eradicate the substance. The film presented here was classified as a horror comedy.

In this movie, we can observe that the emergence of fear occurs in the most habitual and common things; it shows us that, from the most familiar everyday life, a threat can arise that endangers human beings and, in addition, it teaches us that not everything that springs from nature is good.

The Stuff can be considered to be an absolutely ridiculous film: the familiar and the domestic have made that the world is given to the subject with full certainty; nobody doubts what they eat, what they breathe, what they touch and what they contemplate, we do not doubt the comrade or family we interact with on a daily basis. What if the stability and the certainty that our reality provides us someday betray us? In other words, is there a possibility that the daily and the most common things ever turn out to cause danger and insecurity? During the development and spread of the various pandemics that have hit the world, the human reaction has always been the fear of contagion; this fear makes human beings doubt everything surrounding them, the daily and the common things thus become objects of insecurity and fear.

Photo by Kaitlyn Jade on Pexels.com

For Sigmund Freud, fear (or ominous feeling) arises when the familiar becomes object of fear, insecurity and dread[3]; the equation fear = unfamiliar, is only part of a tiny or instantaneous fear. The fear that comes from what is familiar is that feeling that most of us are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic: a fear that comes from and is found everywhere, even from the food we eat, from the air that we breathe and from what we touch. Contact, a fairly normal action in everyday life, now becomes the main carrier of coronavirus, endangering the life and health of the subject; and that is precisely how the feeling of fear is awakened.

For the literary critic David Roas “Scare, fright, dread and terror belong to fear” (2011, 82), and these sensations come from an object that can be faced; later, Roas will claim that fear can be classified into two types: intellectual fear and physical fear. As long as the first one is concerned, it refers to the own and exclusive impression of the fantastic and the aesthetic, and it is from this specific fear that horror emerges; physical (or emotional) fear has to do with physical threat, death, and material fright[4]. Once the fear distinction is made, we can affirm that the fear of contagion is a physical fear that arises from the subject’s daily life. Such a fear causes social distancing, and makes of otherness the main event from which fear springs. The coronavirus pandemic can be considered as the era of physical fear, however, as mentioned before, any type of fear can be faced, and in the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it cannot be faced in the style of The stuff (burning the substance that endangers people’s lives), but through a series of health measures (use of face masks, gloves, antibacterial gel, quarantines, distancing) that can reduce the spread of the virus and that can bring some sense of security.

Both in the aforementioned film and in the coronavirus pandemic, we observe that fear can manifest itself collectively and individually. In order not to err in these classifications, it is necessary to resort to a text called Fear of the West, which states:

(Individual) Fear, in the strict and restricted sense of the term, is an emotion, frequently preceded by surprise, caused by the awareness of a present and overwhelming danger that, we believe, threatens our conservation. Taken in a more rigorous and broader sense than in mere individual experiences but rather in a “collective” sense, it encompasses a range of emotions; from fear and apprehension to the most vivid terrors. Fear is, in this case, the habit that one has, in a human group, of fearing this or that threat (real or imagined). (Delumeau, 1978, 30)

Individual fear has transformed each individual into a potential untador, the other must not touch me or approach me, and we must maintain a distance that guarantees our protection. As for collective fear, it is the one that provokes various racist and violent actions against health staff and sick people, motivated by the idea that said people are putting the health of a group of individuals at risk.

As we can see, fear is responsible for creating violent actions, chaos and ideologies in countries suffering from a pandemic: fear even makes most individuals adopt health measures to avoid the massive spread of a virus. In times of a pandemic, the familiar and the common are the elements from which fear arises, from which a distrust of things and places surrounding us arises. It should be noted that in the idea of ​​contagion we can discover two connotations: on the one hand, it refers to contact and, at the same time, it refers to the awakening, in the subject’s mind, of the experience of fear, hence contagion in its practical form only seeks to elude the sick and any person who puts the individual’s health at risk: it is the fear of being infected by an extremely dangerous virus.

In a pandemic, not only does a highly deadly virus spread: at the same time, fear spreads, the fear of getting infected, and the best measure that can be adopted is to take care of ourselves, each one seeking to safeguard his life, individualism suppresses the collective, there is no idea of ​​solidarity or common welfare: what is sought is to safeguard personal health.

Bibliografy:

Agamben, Giorgio. “Contagio”. Sopa de Wuhan. Ed. Pablo Amadeo. La plata: Aspo, 2020. 

Delumeau, Jean, El miedo en occidente. Madrid: Taurus, 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. Obras completas: volumen 17. Trad. José Etcheverry. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu Editores, 1976.

Roas, David. Tras los límites de lo real: Una definición de lo fantástico. Madrid: Páginas de espuma, 2011.


[1] Roas, David. Tras los límites de lo real: una definición de lo fantástico. Madrid: Páginas de espuma, 2011, p. 83.

[2] Those are also the body parts from which the coronavirus can penetrate the human organism.

[3] Cf. Freud, Sigmund. Obras completas: volumen 17. Trad. José Etcheverry. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu Editores, 1976, p. 220. 

[4] Cf. Óp. Cit. Roas, p. 82,

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