The Sociology of: Hex, Fear, and the Panopticon

hex

A few days ago, I posted a review for a book called Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. It is a psychological horror about Black Spring, a town cursed by the local witch who has her eyes and mouth sewn shut. It is a truly horrifying novel that is unsettling and creepy (and I do advise seeing the trigger warnings I outlined at the bottom of my review), but what I enjoyed was its clever and thorough analysis of fear.

In today’s post, I want to discuss the book Hex and how the narrative intertwines with fear. How is fear socially constructed in the book? What does it mean for an emotion to be socially constructed? I will also be talking about the Panopticon – what is the Panopticon, and how it relates to the story of Black Spring.

– The following discussion contains minor spoilers to Hex –

The town is haunted by a 17th century woman, dubbed the Black Rock Witch, wrapped in chains with her eyes and mouths sewn shut. The townspeople may be haunted by the Black Rock Witch, but she is also a part of their normal, everyday life. She appears in people’s houses (in their living rooms, while they eat, or even in the bedroom) at random, and she can teleport at will. More so, the Witch doesn’t do anything – she merely stands there and seems to observes impassively (reminder: her eyes are sewn shut).

The townspeople say, do not open the witches eyes. What the townspeople fear most is not the object of their fear (the Witch), but more of what catastrophe would befall them if her eyes and mouth opened. Though the townspeople do not know what would happen, the ever-present fear of what might happen and the promised doom if it did happen is a point of tension and fear within the community.

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Fear as a social construct

Like all emotions, sociologists assert that emotions are tied to biology, but fear is also something that is socially constructed. In other words, although our response to fear is partly psychological, how we respond to fear, how we express fear, and what we fear are informed and shaped by social and cultural norms.

On a small scale, we see this with the townspeople and their interactions with the Black Rock Witch. To those living outside Black Spring and who do not know about the curse, seeing the Black Rock Witch – chained and eyes sewn together – would be terrifying; supernatural beings would evoke a fear response because cultural norms tell us that it is unnatural, not part of reality, and something that should not exist. It is not necessarily something determined by ‘fact’, but more of what our societal environment has taught us.

In contrast, the Witch is part of the townspeople’s every day life – she is a part of their normal and their society. Merely seeing her doesn’t evoke fear; in fact, the townspeople are more afraid of what would happen if she opened her eyes – a fear instilled into them from young, taught by their society to avoid and fear vehemently.

On a wider scale, think of fear as a mechanism in society, or something that has a function and purpose. German sociologist Norbert Elias argued that fear is a mechanism in which the structures of society are transmitted to individual psychological functions, and this rings true in Black Spring. Underlying every institution in Black Spring – from the town’s norms and responses to danger, to the townspeople’s motivations to actions – is fear.

Within Black Spring, there are systems and rules in place to ‘protect’ the Witch and the people and there is a high level of video surveillance used to monitor the Witch and also the townspeople’s movements. Though for the town’s safety, the level of control is an insidious double-edged sword. Crime, and what is perceived as a crime, is constructed differently – not only because of the supernatural forces at work, but because of the level of fear in Black Spring. As evidenced later on in the story, punishment enforced on people who commit crimes is harsh, brutal, and almost medieval. After that, transgressors are sent to ‘re-education’ reminiscent of 1984. Not only do these institutions exist in Black Spring, they are accepted among the people, justified, and at one point, encouraged to be more brutal and severe.

Fear drives people – normal people – to do terrible things, to accept extreme measures to preserve a sense of safety from any threat (perceived or real), and to even allow violence (or advocate for it) to drive fear away. Though Hex was terrifying for its horror, witnessing what people did out of fear was the true horror of the story.

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The Witch and the Panopticon

This quote from social theorist Bauman’s Liquid Fear describes the Witch perfectly:

Fear is at its most fearsome when it is diffuse, scattered, unclear, unattached, unanchored, free floating, with no clear address or cause; when it haunts us with no visible rhyme or reason, when the menace we should be afraid of can be glimpsed everywhere but is nowhere to be seen.

When I was reading Hex, the power of the Black Rock Witch reminded me of the Panopticon. The Panopticon was is an infrastructure blueprint designed by social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. What makes the Panopticon so significant in Sociology is its implications of the design: circular, with prison cells on the circumference of the circle, isolated from another, all facing a central tower in the middle.

This design allowed a single watchman to observe inmates of an institution (prison, hospital, or asylum), without the inmates knowing that they were being watched. Though it is impossible for one person to watch all inmates at a given time, because the inmates didn’t know that they were being watched, the inmates will act like they are being watched, therefore essentially controlling their behaviour. It is important to note that power over the inmates does not require an individual to enforce and operate that power. Rather, the power is ‘deindividualised’, meaning that the power lies in the institution itself (for further reading, see Foucault). The Panopticon is a concept often used when we try and understand surveillance and power over the mind and behaviour.

The Black Rock Witch has a similar effect to the townspeople in Black Spring, and there are some very compelling parallels to the Panopticon. Though the Witch has a corporeal form, her presence is almost omnipresent. She may be physically in one place, but because of her unpredictable behaviour and supernatural abilities, her presence permeates the town and the townspeople’s minds. Fear of her occupies the townspeople’s minds. Her movements are monitored, and when they cannot find her, they search desperately for her. The townspeople, with their healthy fear of her and what could push her over the edge, thus behave. Strict rules that demanded obedience and conformity are imposed. When one townsperson transgresses, the town punishes them — not the Witch.

The townspeople are the inmates, and Black Spring and The Black Rock Witch their watchmen.

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References:

  • The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias, 1982
  • The only thing we have to fear is the ‘culture of fear’ itself by Frank Furedi, 2007.
  • Discipline and Punish by Michael Foucault, 1975.

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Months ago, I dabbled with the idea of having a new feature wherein I discuss books with a sociological perspective. Today’s post is a sort of trial, to see whether this will be a feature I will continue with in the future. So friends, I would love to hear your feedback; if this is a thing you would like to read about, maybe I will analyze more books in the future!

  • Did this (the discussion or the feature) interest you?
  • Was the discussion easy to understand?
  • Did the sociological concepts make sense?
  • Or, if you have any thoughts about the discussion about fear and the Panopticon, I’d love to hear them!
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28 thoughts on “The Sociology of: Hex, Fear, and the Panopticon

  1. I’ve done plenty of readings on the Panopticon when I was in uni but I LOVE this post! It explains things so much more clearly and uni, it amazes me how deeply you think sometimes. Like if it were me reading that book I’d probably be like “OMG SCARY!” and then never give it a second thought beyond that surface. OK, this paragraph has nothing to do with the actual post and is just me being totally in awe of you SO.

    But. YEAH. This type of discussion interests me though tbh I don’t reckon I’ll be able to contribute much beyond “that is SO smart, I’ve never thought of x thing that way!”. I’m already familiar with the sociological concepts you brought up because some of my uni subjects covered them, but I imagine anyone could come in here and pretty much understand where you’re coming from.

    In regards the Panopticon itself… I think it’s super creepy and super smart how it was designed to ‘induce’ fear, and I love the way you relate that to the book! I’m honestly a huge scaredy cat and likely would never pick up the book myself because even reading your description spooks me a little, but wow. Great post, CW. 💖

  2. I really love this idea, and I can’t wait to see where you take these feature. Personally, I shy away from thriller and horror as genres, but I think this analysis is fascinating. I completely understand how fear can be societally constructed, but there is something base that we react to. Without fear, we would never survive as a species.

    • Hi Jackie!
      Oh thank you! I’m pretty excited to see where it can go – I hope I can find more books I can write about though.
      Oh absolutely, there is definitely a base as with all emotions. Agreed! You’ve said why it’s so important biologically. It’s fascinating that fear can be twisted and shaped into different things because of what we perceive and absorb from our environment too.

    • Oh, thank you Marie!!
      Not weird at all! I appreciate it completely! And oh, thank you! I think I will write more in the future. The question of ‘on what book though??’ is on my mind, but I’ll find a book – one day!

  3. I honestly just want to sit here and applaud you. What a FANTASTIC blog post! I would definitely love to see more of these discussions, I found this to be so enlightening. In many ways I was aware of how the concept of fear works within society and how it serves to control people, but you formulated it so well and eloquently and really brought the discussion to another level. I love the parallels you drew between the book and the Panopticon, so interesting! And I could totally understand what you were saying even though I haven’t read Hex. The idea of the Panopticon itself is really fascinating to me: my Organisational Behaviour professor briefly mentioned it in one of her lectures and I researched it after. It’s such a scary thought. And everything reminiscent of 1984 gets a thumbs up in my book :)

    • Hi Chantal!
      Oh goodness, thank you so much for your words! (It means a lot!) And thank you for the feedback too – I’ll consider writing another in the future, if a book offers something for me to go from!

      I totally agree – the Panopticon is really fascinating, but also very scary to me?? I think it’s a very important concept because we can understand a lot of things through the mechanisms of the Panopticon.

      Hehe agreed! 1984 is the dystopia I put on a pedestal — but mostly because it has a special place in my heart for being the first dystopian classic I ever read!

  4. Huh. This is an interesting article that offers readers introspection. I mean, I think about my own fears and how they don’t seem to align with the fears of my friends and peers. Yet, my fears are reminiscent of many people with family: the fear of losing those dear to us. Do you believe this is a social fear? Is it possible that this is only part of some societies as a reflection of their religion/beliefs? It’s an interesting idea (one I don’t have the background in societal structure to really delve into.) But thank you for making me think and use brain cells today, CW. I will think of this information when I use fear in my own novels in the future.

    • Hi Melanie!
      Thank you!
      I’m more inclined to think that the fear you mentioned can be social. It could have arisen from your own experiences, upbringing, etc., so I really couldn’t say.
      How we conceptualize fear differs from society to society, so it’s hard to pinpoint. Personal experiences also come into the mix, but how we deal with personal experiences or how we make sense of it are informed by society too.

      My pleasure! I’m glad that this made you think. ^_^ Feel free to ask me if you need help re: fear for your books!

  5. This was so interesting! More of it, please!

    My first thought is that I seriously need to read this book.

    That Bauman quote sent me spiralling. I was thinking about how so much of life – especially the shitty things people do – are based on that primal fear. Then, when I tried to name it (the thing that is everywhere but is nowhere to be seen), the only thing I could come up with is the unknown. And the unknown is everywhere! The unknown is, ultimately, each other. We can think we know a person, but we are never actually going to be inside of their minds. No matter how much you might love a person, there is always going to be a piece of them that is uknowable. And that is kind of terrifying when you times in by however billion people there are on the planet at this point.

    I guess that’s why people get so attached (to the point of violence) to structures of society. They are an agreed upon way to combat that sense of terror. And there are extreme punishments for people who can’t – or won’t – participate in whatever those agreed structures are. Like homeless people, for example. They are pretty much excluded from society, and not even really considered people any more by most of us. We walk by them every day and try and ignore them because they make us uncomfortable, or afraid. It’s like they are an example of what happens if you can’t function in our – I guess you’d say capitalist? – structure, then you’ll end up alone, dehumanised and hopeless. And we all just accept that that is something that happens! We are all so messed up.

    Okay, you sent me off on a huge, nonsensical tangent. All of this is to say that this was an amazing post. Thank you for making me actually try and use my brain to think about things more complicated than my favourite TV ships.

    • Oh Lydia, I loved your response!
      Hex is a fantastic book, but it has its very graphic moments. If you’re okay with those, then I highly recommend it.

      You raise some great points about the unknown and structures of society. I like, and agree, with what you said about homelessness. Homeless people are dehumanized over and over again by people and institutions. People say that they’re representations of how society has failed the people who have fallen through the cracks, and I agree (though I don’t agree to the objectifying part or reducing them to points of analyses). We are messed up.
      Homelessness is a whole can of worms though, which I won’t open up. If I ever read a book about homelessness though, I will.

      Heh you’re welcome! I’m glad to have stimulated your brain. (Writing this really stimulated mine, lmao, I’m so rusty!)

      • I haven’t ever read a book about it either. There must be YA about it somewhere. Maybe I’ll have to find some. It was on my mind because I saw a guy beating a homeless man up on my way home for work the other day. I tried to intervene (did not work) so I ended up calling the police. The whole thing was so sad.

  6. Great review! The word ‘panopticon’ sends me running away from my undergrad memories but it’s still a concept I appreciate. I love how you’ve tied that internalised sense of fear, which influences the normal behaviour of people to Hex. If I stray into horror again, I shall check it out. The Ballad of Black Tom was a great horror fantasy read too. On a related note about fear, I remember one of my cultural studies classes touched upon how the detective psychological thriller genre emergred as urban environments became more prominent in the world, so is interesting to see how the social environment shapes fear (i.e. Psycho Pass. I sure hope someone wrote their panopticon thesis on that anime.) I also second the previous rec of The Village – such a creepy film.

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  9. Well, now I’m even more keen to get my hands on Hex! Fabulous post! I love the idea of a character functioning as a panopticon. A panoptic character–is that a term yet? Can we make it one? It sounds fancy. I remember reading Discipline and Punish for a cultural theory elective at uni and feeling my worldview undergo a real paradigm shift. Looking forward to reading more of your sociological critiques!

    • Hi Margot!

      Thank you so much! (Let’s make panoptic a thing!) I think you will enjoy Hex; there’s so much in the narrative and it’s very mentally engaging.

      Thank you so much! I’ll definitely endeavour to write more in the future. :)

  10. Hi, I really loved the post and the new feature! I think it’s very interestng to discuss books in a new perspective, not only thinking if we enjoyed it or not and why but also how we can relate the themes of the book to our studies (I’m assuming you study/studied Sociology, sorry if it’s not true).
    But I actually really enjoyed this post because I studied the Panopticon and Foucault in my Communications Studies class last semester and it was one of the (few, I admit) things that we discussed that I was really interested about. We mostly related it to social media and how we can think of it as the new Panopticon since in them we share our lives for everyone to see, even people we don’t know, and we don’t even know who’s seeing it or not and what they’re seeing. In that way, everyone is the watchman but we are also the watchmen of others because we also see what other people post on social media. The discussion was very interesting and your post reminded me of that.
    Anyway, I would like to tell you your sociological discussion made me want to pick up the book but I don’t read horror or thrillers (besides Gillian Flynn’s psychological thrillers but even then I only read one of her books yet), so I can’t. The way that the anticipation of what the Witch might do controls the townspeople’s behaviour seems very interesting to read about though so if I ever want to reach out of my comfort zone I’ll keep this book in mind.

    • Hi Ritta!

      Thank you so much for the feedback! Yes, I did study Sociology once upon a time, so don’t apologize!

      Ah yay, I’m really glad you enjoyed it! I remember associating the Panopticon with social media too! Isn’t it so interesting – and a little terrifying? I remember deleting some of my social media (which I hardly used) after that particular class. Everything in modernity feels so fragile.

      Ah, that’s okay! I don’t read horrors or thrillers either — or, I read them once every two years, haha.
      That’s great! Let me know if you ever get the chance to read it. I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts. <3

  11. Both your review and your discussion of Hex were extremely compelling and clearly written. Regardless of the topic, I would make time to read and savour any discussion you write! I absolutely love how your discussions stimulate and challenge me to think outside of my own experience and norm. Not to mention, the depth and passion of your writing is so inspiring and encouraging. Going back and reading your posts is one of my absolute favourite things <3

    • Hi Paige!

      Oh, thank you so much! That really, really means a lot to me, and I really appreciate your kind and thoughtful words.
      I hope to write more in the future, but this comment really motivates me to actively see out books or narratives that would invite sociological discussion. Thank you so much for your comment Paige; it really made my day. <3

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