Rational fear can be a valuable cerebral response. It can protect us from harm, and render a positive influence on some of our most consequential decisions. But it can also be used as a weapon, and strangle our ability to interpret the world around us from a clear perspective. By understanding fear, however, we can empower ourselves to use it to our advantage and avoid falling under its potentially destructive spell.
Throughout its far too brief twenty minute running time, the documentary A Virus Called Fear seeks to reach this understanding with mixed results.
It's a huge subject to cram into such a short window, but the film benefits from a series of illuminating insights presented by several noted psychologists, as well as acclaimed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. These interview subjects tackle the fundamental questions behind the existence of fear and our responses to it.
Are we born with fear? Or is it a mechanism we develop over time based on our experiences? There's no doubt that a healthy amount of fear is essential in sharpening our survival instincts, but it can also lead to unfounded paranoia, irrational superstitions and a destructive us-versus-them mindset.
The film races through the early and influential behavioral studies of Dr. John Watson and Dr. B.F. Skinner. Their observations on the nature of fear continue to resonate today, and have defined our understanding of everything from child rearing techniques to the balance between risks and rewards. We're also given fleeting examples throughout history where the fears of many have been manipulated to advance the interests of the few. These include the skewed and sensationalized barrage of 24-hour media, the deceptive comforts of religion, the scourge of schoolyard bullying, and the horrifically effective powers of leaders like Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson and Jim Jones.
How do we work to overcome our fears, and relearn the behaviors which have conspired to limit our potential? These are the investigative strands that are most sadly absent from the film. A Virus Called Fear is polished and precise in its presentation, but it lacks the breadth that is clearly required of its fascinating and complicated themes.