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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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!