Anodyne Thrills, Abject Thraldom: Broadcasting “fear itself”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted in his 1933 inaugural speech. These days, as bombs are going off again in London (and, for that matter, in many other places east and west) and as people are being victimized both by terrorism and the measures taken to control it, this famous aphorism seems particularly poignant. What is to be feared, certainly, is the abject thraldom of fear, the suspicion it breeds, and the potential it has to quell the spirit of humanity, to diminish our ability to act within reason and with understanding. As is the case with all epigrams, however, FDR’s becomes shorter on wisdom the longer it is pondered.

What might this be, “fear itself”? Is fear not always a reaction, whether reasonable or not? As a response to stimuli or surroundings, it is neither to be feared in “itself” nor as part of our being. The avoidance of conditions potentially harmful to us is an instinct it would hardly behoove us to conquer in our efforts to become more civilized, less primal. I lived in New York City when the World Trade Center towers crumbled in a cloud of asbestos-filled dust. What impressed me most during the immediate aftermath was that those living in fear and trembling were reminded of their mortality, encouraged to examine their everyday lives in order to find ways of making themselves useful to others. Even heroes were publicly shedding tears.

While often admired, warriors who prefer fight over flight are often less civilized than the worriers who respond to threats by trying to avoid them or void them with circumspection. In any case, fear is hardly the “only thing” to be dreaded, no matter how dire the situation. Recklessness and heedless indifference of dangerous consequences beget more horrors than caution, awe, or diffidence. What is to be feared most, perhaps, is fearmongering—the deliberate provocation of fear, the manufacturing of fear for profit or political gain. The media are open, the masses vulnerable to such designs. Yet when the fears are real and not sensed keenly enough, imagined terror may assist in making true horrors apparent.

The 7 December 1941 broadcast of Inner Sanctum Mysteries‘s “Island of Death” suggests just slow the radio industry was to react to the terror that had finally hit home. The show, however inappropriate, had to go on, for the sake of the sponsors. The titular island is not, of course, Hawaii; but it is doubtful that either this “strange and terrible tale” of black magic or the sponsor’s product, “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” (the “best friend to your sunny disposition”) could do much to get people’s minds off the topic of the day or alleviate the anxieties the news—or lack thereof—must have produced.

The government could not afford radio drama to remain escapist. Within a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, fear became a weapon aimed at mobilizing the homefront. In Arch Oboler’s “Chicago, Germany,” for instance, listeners were confronted with the dystopia of an America annexed and governed by the Nazis. With nightmarish fantasies like these, the Treasury hoped to raise millions for defense.

It is too simplistic to argue that audiences then were more gullible or less sophisticated than today’s consumers of popular culture. Certainly, the 1940s, when millions of civilians perished or faced irreparable losses as the result of global warfare, were not “innocent” times, as those pining for nostalgia might opine. They were times of uncertainty like any “now” any time, times of suffering, hardship, and frustration—times during which those tired of threats or numbed by pain needed to be reminded that a present free from fear might bring about a future without freedom, that to stop fearing might well mean to stop living.

The weekly blood-and-thunder anthologies were deemed particularly suitable to the awakening of real terror through imaginary thrills. Underlying the tension of such melodramas, wrapped up neatly within less than 30 minutes, were the anxieties of war, which were often driven home with a final curtain call appeal. Even shortly before the end of the war in Europe, when those listening to the tales of The Mysterious Traveler were invited to rejoice as ”Death Comes for Adolf Hitler” (24 March 1945), a mere month prematurely, they were cautioned that the dangers of Nazism were still very much alive. So, rather than being purely escapist, the terror of the airwaves provided anodyne thrills to impede abject thraldom.

Today, the uses of fear are well understood by the terrorists, that new breed of indiscriminals holding the world hostage; but the weapon that once was the thriller is too rarely being honed to prepare us for them.

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