Time and distance. When you’re young, when the idea of a horror movie is fresh, when the concept of aliens or monsters hurting you is brand-new, you are afraid. Time, thousands of repetitions, and the rationality of adulthood makes these fears lessen. You might still jump when the girl climbs out of the TV in The Ring, but you’re not literally afraid a girl is going to climb out of your TV and strangle you. It might be an unsettling image, but if you’re afraid, you’re afraid of what she represents, not what she is.
But fear does not go away. New phases of life bring new fears. Kids grow up and become adults. Adults have adult fears. While they might lack the visceral impact of a horror movie, on the whole, they are far more unsettling. This is because they are based on real life. An adult fear is one that could happen to you. Your child could be kidnapped. You could be cast into abject poverty. Someone you trust and love could betray you.
Movies and TV shows that can capture this fear, and capture it well, will often haunt us long after we forget the monster of the week, or even the one under the bed. Breaking Bad did this masterfully. The last season was gut-wrenching moment after gut-wrenching moment. I think I felt physically ill at the end of “Ozymandias”. Is that a good thing? Yes, absolutely. Stories allow us to explore strong emotions without real-life consequence. Breaking Bad did it best most recently. Where else can you find such a master class?
Stephen King has his detractors, but he’s an expert at Adult Fear. The Shining was basically a treatise on this. It deals with Jack Torrance’s fear of hurting his family, of becoming an alcoholic, and of failing as a writer. The fact that there’s a supernatural element doesn’t take away from the fact that the fear comes from an everyday place. And it’s not the first time King dealt with Adult Fears and gave them a supernatural twist. The whole plot of Pet Sematary hinges on the fact that a father has a fierce love for his child, and will do anything – in this case, a little too much – for him. Of course, the fact that kid dies before the dad goes to the extreme of interring him in an Indian Burial Ground is its own special kind of nightmare…
This is the big one. Outliving your children, fear of things harming your children, fear of your own actions harming your children… it’s enough to make one swear off the concept altogether, really. I mean, we have 7 billion people, I think we’re good on the whole “biological imperative” thing. Anyway – this is something that always packs an emotional punch because of the subject matter, but sometimes, movies just get it absolutely, heartrendingly perfect:
The Twilight Zone basically embodies Adult Fear. It took quiet, contemplative fears – that we will accomplish our goals and be left empty, or that all our plans will be brought to ruin – and takes them to the logical extreme.
Video games can draw this well, too. The criminally overlooked Majora’s Mask is chock-full of symbolism (including the various areas representing the Five Stages of Grief), but in a broad sense, it’s a deconstruction of the coming-of-age story that is Ocarina of Time - Link deals with adult problems while given the perspective of a child. There are fantastical elements, too, but many of the encounters are based on Adult Fear. Like this one…
To have his daughter comfort him… telling him he’s had a bad dream? Ouch. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Other fun encounters in this game include: (from TVTropes)
A father is grieving for the loss of a son who is missing and presumed dead, while a toddler is raging because of the death of his father. A newlywed is about to die and laments that he will never be able to see the his children born, while a child is about to lose her father to a illness. One man can’t show his face to his fiancee because he broke a promise, while another has been imprisoned because his lover’s family thinks he is responsible for her disappearance. A woman about to be wed fears that her fiancee left because he no longer loves her, while a wife can’t work and can barely function because of her husband’s disappearance and the deteriorating health of her children (and there is nothing she can do about it.) Guards are torn between doing their job and fleeing for their lives, while soldiers obey orders for a war that has already ended.
For a game that I played as a teenager, a lot of that went over my head. I always thought Majora’s Mask had a vaguely unsettling element to it, but when I played it, I never thought about it like this. That’s the kind of perspective that a decade gives you.
Finally, let’s look at a classic in two parts.
This is exactly what I’m talking about. Perspective. When I first saw this in my callow youth, I thought it was a hilarious, badass scene. I thought the cessesion of hostilities as Vernita’s daughter came home was pretty funny. I still think it was supposed to be 30, maybe 40% played for laughs, but these days, it’s an emotionally fraught scene as well. There’s a pretty big Adult Fear element. On a lot of levels. Your past coming back to haunt you. The death of a parent. The need to protect a child not just from physical harm, but from emotional trauma.
We don’t lose our capacity to imagine outrageous fears, to experience primal fears, and even to invent new ones. But as time goes on, it’s the mundane fears that are the most terrifying, because they’re the most likely to happen to you. When you uncomfortably identify with a character in a movie who’s going through something you know you could go through yourself, and when that character manages to convey something universal – well, that’s a powerful moment.