Since the dawn of time, humankind has long had a fascination, a romantic attraction almost, with being scared. Rome’s Coliseum and Dark Ages stories of jousting with monsters tell of an ongoing addiction to fear. Preachers in the marketplace predicting gloom and doom, medieval Church folk cowering before the idea of retribution for wrongs, even Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God provide a great reminder that people pay attention to that which terrifies them.
As if those examples aren’t enough, others include telling ghost stories in the dark just before bedtime, a thrilling roller coaster ride, bungee jumping, or even the thought of a visit to Norman Bates’s motel. The popularity of these activities and things like them shows the need to be frightened. Another clear example of the societal fear addiction is the phenomenon of rubbernecking—passing a grizzly accident scene and having to look.

Why do people seem to need fear? What benefits do they glean from anxiety? Health experts agree that the manifestations of fear cause almost as much difficulty for individuals as being overweight. What propels people to engage in the very activities that upset them?

New York psychologists, Dr. Carol Friedland suggests that people consume fearful sights and sounds in an effort to comfort themselves about their own existences. By looking at the tragic examples, they feel better about themselves. This theory better explains the roadways’ rubbernecking phenomenon.

Big events were the precursor to any kind of mass media. Large groups assembled to experience the same thing at once. If it was the recreation of a naval battle, or humans fighting animals, the group got to see all, and talk about it afterwards. As the centuries progressed, ways of reaching more people at once were developed and used to deliver various messages to large audiences. The printing press, a landmark invention in the advent of the mass media, provided an invaluable tool for replicating the exact words of another and conveying them to groups of readers (providing that there was a reader among the group). Prior to this, hand written text was the only way written information could be captured and disseminated.

From that time onward, books and newspapers entered the domain of the common person. The popularity of these media increased exponentially from the time the printing press was invented by Gutenberg in the 1430s. Subsequently, makers of products and services realized the power they had (in print) to reach the audience and sell more. Profit-driven desires fueled the advent of the advertising industry.

People needed to be swayed to purchase product A over product B. Using logic, the sense of belonging, or even emotion, advertisers developed ways to get the masses to notice the products and recognize a need for them.

Then, among inventors such as Marconi and Tesla, the twentieth century ushered in the invention of radio. Its purpose was to bring delightful and informative programming to the masses. At the same time, the use of fear was apparent as advertisers competed for the audience’s attention and product choice. A few years later, when Farnsworth (or was it RCA?) introduced television, it made the spread of information—and fear—easier for those in the “control room.” Thanks to Al Gore, modern society now has the Internet. That just about brings us up to today.