A Thrill of Fear

There is something which is said just enough to seep into my consciousness, but never enough – before now – that I could understand it. Every time I heard it, it stopped me, and I stood or sat briefly still, and wondered.

Anyway, the comment in question is one I encountered a lot at university, and have heard a little since in the media: and it relates to climate change, and the threat of the things to come.

Occasionally young people – they were generally women – would tell me, or say within my hearing, that they not only thought about the changing climate with the regularity any forward-looking person might, or with the concern of the activist or observer of world events.

Instead, these women said, they would picture the uninhabitable world they would soon see before them. They would see it and think it through, holding it in mind, and might even begin to experience cold fear, or have an attack of panic.

These women would imagine the burning earth, the bank-breaking oceans, the tropical storms, the storming dust, the powerful thirst of millions – all confidently predicted – and they would get something from the visceral reactions these things prompted.

Now this reaction is one thing. Whether it could be justified is worthy of discussion. Whether it’s all likely is another.

But the thing which surprised me enough to strike me anew every time – the central point – was the manner of delivery. It was all in the apparent pleasure these women would take in announcing their own panic. As though it signalled something good about themselves (if we’re attributing a crude motive); or as if it was a good sensation in its own right.

That struck me as strange, for a couple of reasons. Our culture rewards certain types of outwardly-expressed emotion. Celebrities who open up – not all, but a good number – are told they’re brave, and doing the right thing. Individuals who express upset or fear in their own lives – if you’re not cruel – can only strike you as deserving sympathy.

But the taking of pleasure in such things? That’s something else.

A while ago, I read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s short book on Europe’s houses of prayer, A Time to Keep Silence. One of the holy places he visited was a monastery of the Trappist order. There the monks wore hair shirts and denied themselves and prayed reverently to God in the shadow of death.

Above their beds, in their cells, the author found a picture and an inscription. The picture depicted death, reaper of souls, in its most matter-of-fact and terrible guise. The inscription ran as follows: tonight, perhaps?

At that point, and since, I was and have been possessed not so much by morbid curiosity as morbid concern – so this image and its jaunty caption stuck out. Stark, and harsh; but true.

My odd enjoyment of this memento mori was tough to translate. In describing it to someone, a few days later, I broke into brief hysterical laughter, which seriously unnerved my interlocutor. Her reaction was enough to ensure I haven’t revisited the subject.

Did I experience a similar frightened thrill to these girls I mentioned above, eagerly chatting about not only the destruction to come – but how worried it all made them? They spoke happily about worrying themselves sick. I laughed about so sharp a statement of the end for us all.

It’s possible the two are related. And perhaps this link was the best example, and the closest I could then come, to understanding the people whose attitudes had confused me before.

But now, very possibly, another analogy has come along – a better one. One even with an origin in nature – unpredictable in itself but accounted for among the catalogue of harms that past and ancestral experience, and science, tell us must at some point recur.

That analogy, as my title suggests, is the coronavirus presently trying its best to test the healthcare systems of the world, and take a not insignificant percentage of the people who encounter it from us before their time.

Its appearance was relatively easy to ignore, or dismiss. As late as this week, some people are getting their kicks from calling it a jumped-up species of the yearly influenza outbreak. And maybe they’re right to do so.

But that’s getting harder and harder to say with a straight face, isn’t it? Some people, who have bet everything on nothing major happening, in relative terms, you understand, are in danger of losing their shirts.

Health ministers speak blithely of containment, and the World Health Organisation ostensibly believes the numbers of infected and dead supplied by China and Iran – and all of that is well and good, really, until of course those numbers start to have real, serious effects.

This is not the place to reiterate the debate among virologists about precisely what percentage of humanity is likely to come into contact with COVID-19 in the coming months. But it is to understand the internal pressures such discussions invariably have.

It’s harder to be blithe, hearing them talk.

If you have elderly relatives, or friends or family with long-term health conditions, or suppressed immune systems, hearing that it’s only those groups seriously at risk – like in a flu outbreak! – is of little comfort. Honestly.

And though the numbers are small now, they are not going to stay small for all that long. And the amateur statisticians have had some fun already. If only eight percent of the British population gets ill, a widely-circulated Medium post posits, the heath system will not only be overwhelmed; it will be drowned in people requiring hospitalisation.

The spectre of quarantines, and lock-ins, comes closer at the same time. We are left, those of us who watch American CDC press conferences and British parliamentary questions, and WHO conference calls, awaiting the worst.

The exact dates are unknown; the end result uncertain; the numbers speculative. But we hear the predictions, and see the possible, and in between daily life and the entertainments we take, occasionally remember what might be coming along.

And we feel it – what those women felt; what the Trappists might have felt, lying in their cells at night, the hair shirts irritating their backs, looking up at the grim icon and its comic inscription. What might be described as a thrill of fear. Fear of what might yet come.

This piece was originally published in Correspondence, a new occasional journal.

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