The Power of Panic

There was something down the end of that hallway, calling our names.

I had a nightmare last night. Not a real, sit-up-in-bed-and-can’t-sleep-anymore type nightmare–I rarely have those anymore, and if I do they aren’t anything like this. It was, instead, one of those dreams that simulates a horror movie. I was staying in a hospital with two other people–an ex-student and a friend (but I can’t remember whom). It was night; we were alone. There was somebody stalking us.

At first we thought it a prank, but then we were wrong. The person we thought it was, well, they never really existed. This was something different…something wrong. It was coming for us, and it was going to get us, one by one. I found myself walking through a darkened surgical ward, hearing it whisper my name, and then it burst from a cabinet, black and smoky, glowing eyes.

I led with my knuckles. The dream ended with me digging my thumbs into its stupid eyes, swearing a blue streak.

My reaction to fear is, I think, sort of different than most. I feel fear, sure, but my instinct is almost always ‘attack’ rather than ‘run’. That pounding of the heart, the chills in my bones, the tremble in my hands–all of that gets focused into a sort of berzerk sort of rage that I direct at the object of my terror. I can control it, sure, but if you jump out from behind a bush as a joke, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll slug you as hard as I can. Horror movies frustrate the hell out of me, primarily because all the people do the exact opposite thing that I’d do. They go all limp and start squealing or running or whatever–I gave that up a long time ago. If I see Freddy Kreuger, I’m going to go for his jugular and hope that glove of his doesn’t finish me off first. I’m not going to give him the time to deliver his pithy one-liner.

Fear is a terrific motivator. Not only can it change me–relatively peaceful, easy-going guy–into a norse berzerker, but it reduces otherwise intelligent people to drooling idiots, organized people into flighty bubble heads, and stupid people into superheroes. Panic is enormously powerful.

In Frontier: 2280, I’ve included a weapon called a ‘panic bomb’. I stole the idea from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers: it’s a weapon that looks like a bomb, sounds like a bomb, acts like a bomb, but isn’t actually a bomb. You toss it in a room and it starts hissing and beeping and a little LED counter starts down from 10; it might even announce that it is a bomb in a loud, scary voice. The idea of the weapon is a way to flush people out of cover without actually exposing them to anything harmful or, conversely, cause confusion and panic in the defenders. If you don’t think such a weapon would work, you’ve never been in a crowd of people who were frightened of something before. Us berzerkers start smashing things to stop the danger, the panicky ones start running amok, the squealers start yelling their heads off, causing more panic–things get ugly, and fast. All the rationality and higher thought that we, as a species, are so proud of goes straight out the window, and we become little better than stampeding cattle.

I’ve talked before about how the zombie apocalypse trope underwhelms me. I don’t see zombies as wiping out a huge number of people, all things considered. You know what would, though? The panic associated with the possibility of zombies attacking people and the dead rising from the grave. Can you imagine the looting? The violence? The chaos? All perpetrated, by the way, by humans  against other humans. All those anti-zombie fanatics who actually have spent time thinking about ‘what they would do if the zombies come’ are going to be running amok, chainsaws in hand, trying to ‘survive’ when, in the end, they’ll mostly be hurting other people or getting hurt themselves. That’s the power of panic, you see–more potent and faster spreading than any disease you can name, and probably the cause of more deaths.

There’s a reason, after all, that it’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a movie theater without cause, and it isn’t just for the hell of it. People have died because of that, trampled beneath the sticky soles of a thousand other panicky movie goers who, for the love of God Almighty, do NOT want to burn alive.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on March 19, 2012, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This is an aesthetic thing, and one I’ve noticed on my blog as well and found a way around, if you care: the usually double-dash (like–this) appears as tiny little smaller than usual dash when the posts go up. To keep the (likely) intended look, if you put spaces around it — like so — and then it doesn’t look weirdly small.

    On-topic, I’ve never been in a situation where panic ruled like that — I’m not entirely sure how I would react. Probably more with the runners than the fighters, but I like to think I’d be able to more or less keep my head and my wits about me. Who knows, when I have nightmares now I tend to realize what they are and force myself awake to get out of them!

    • Yeah, I know about the dash thing. It’s an old habit, though, and really hard to break. I also confess to not trying too hard.

      I’ve been in a couple situations where I felt the panic rising, but it didn’t quite crest. In both instances it was for pretty stupid reasons, too. In one, a helium canister for filling up balloons fell over and started hissing loudly. At first everybody just stared, but then you could actually see and feel the mood of the room change as people started thinking (I presume) that it was dangerous or might explode. They were going to bolt, the lot of them. My brother in law, fortunately, ran over and just shut it off before that happened. The second instance was when the power went out at a hockey game in Conte Forum. Again, at first people just chuckled, but then you could feel the mood change and people start to get worried. They were, again, a hair’s breadth from panic, and it would have been really ugly. It was a really disturbing feeling (especially since we weren’t anywhere near an emergency exit).

      Deirdre’s also been reading a history of the Coconut Grove Fire in Boston. There, it was as much the panic of those inside as the fire itself that killed hundreds of people.

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