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Scared Scareless

The brain can only fear so much.

Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By JOE QUEENAN
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A few weeks back I was coming out of a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden when I happened to glance up and see a massive, brightly lit billboard promoting a TV show about pawnbrokers. The pawnbrokers were really scary-looking, so scary-looking that the friend I was with didn’t even want to look up at them, because they were just so, so scary—and he is a bit of a wuss. After we said goodbye, I started walking up Eighth Avenue toward Grand Central Station. On the way, I passed a series of posters advertising an upcoming hip-hop concert. The young men depicted on the posters had lots of tattoos and chains and sunglasses and muscles, and they were really scary-looking. A couple of blocks up I eyeballed another billboard advertising an upcoming action movie. The guy in the promo was incredibly scary-looking. So was his costar. I mean, really scary, very gangsta.

Scared Scareless

Cher, 1986

Mirrorpix / Newscom

Walking along 42nd Street, I passed quite a few scary-looking guys, a couple of whom tried to make eye contact with me—presumably to scare me. The same thing happened when I got on the train that went through Yonkers on my way home to Tarrytown. There are always scary-looking guys going to Yonkers, just as there are always scary-looking guys going to the Bronx. (No, not Derek Jeter.) When I got to the station in Tarrytown, I grabbed a cab and headed home because I didn’t want to walk past the bar where the scary guys hang out. As soon as I had my front door safely locked behind me, I turned on SportsCenter where I saw some really scary footage of Ray Lewis and Clay Matthews and Brian Urlacher and James Harrison. Each and every one of them was terrifying enough to scare the bejesus out of the average person. Even if the person in question was kind of scary himself.

But all of a sudden, I noticed something incredibly strange: These guys didn’t scare me anymore. They just didn’t. I’m not saying that they weren’t scary—they were!—but all I’m saying is that, for whatever reason, that part of the brain that tells you to be scared in the presence of genuinely scary guys was no longer functioning properly. As my thoughts drifted back to the images of the dangerous-looking rappers and intimidating pawnbrokers, and then even further back to the TV shows featuring the worrisome ice truckers and the frightening ax men and the daunting bounty hunters and the menacing wrestlers and the sinister boxers and the threatening free safeties and the malevolent drug dealers and Judy Woodruff—all of whom were stone-cold scary—I realized that something bizarre and utterly unforeseen had occurred: I had physically lost my ability to be scared by any of these scaremongers.

Let me reiterate: It wasn’t that they weren’t scary. Oh, no! But as a friend, a very successful psychologist, explained it to me when I mentioned my situation the next day, I had lived long enough that the circuits in both my neocortex and hypothalamus, the parts of the brain that ought to tell me to be scared by all these scary guys, had literally burned out from overuse. “A hundred years ago,” my friend explained, 

Before television and the movies and the Internet and Cher, the average male might only meet a genuinely scary person a few times a year. It was usually his boss or his landlord, or the thugs employed by these men—though occasionally he might happen upon a wayfaring stranger with a baleful countenance or forbidding demeanor. Even when a man went to war, he would rarely come face to face with a scary-looking guy, because the enemy would be hundreds of yards away, hiding in trenches or behind breastworks. By the time two men came face to face, one of them was usually dead. Anyway, wars aren’t won by scary-looking guys. They’re won by technology.

Of course, all that changed with the explosion of modern media. Today, a man is exposed to literally hundreds of images of scary-looking men every day of his life. Posters. Billboards. Television. Music videos. Not to mention the real-life scary people he meets in the subways, heartless brutes who have patterned themselves after the scary-looking guys they see on television. As a result, by the time a man reaches his late fifties, the nerve endings telling him to be scared in the presence of really scary guys have literally exhausted themselves. Just as rats will eventually develop an immunity to rat poison, just as even the most powerful antibiotics will eventually lose their ability to combat infection, the part of the brain that tells you to be scared of scary-looking guys will eventually conk out, like a dead battery. And that’s what has happened to you.

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