Episode 11: Fighting With Fear

Sometimes fighting scared paves the path to victory. From heavyweight champion and legendary intimidator Sonny Liston, to a couple of iconic 80’s film heroes, multiple people and characters have provided examples of how fear can motivate you to win a fight.


Sonny Liston’s quote:

Music Credits

The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga aka NikNPhaser, licensed through Envato.

The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.

Other music for this episode: “Dread” by Tenacious Orchestra, licensed through Shutterstock

Full Episode Script

After brutally battering the reigning heavyweight champion to seize the title in 1962, Sonny Liston said the following when asked if his opponent, Floyd Patterson, was a coward.

“There’s a big difference between having fear in you and being a coward. I can have fear in me, too, and that kind of fear is good. Then I’d go into the ring and because I had this fear I’d try to take the other guy out as quick as I could. Patterson had fear in him, but he wasn’t no coward.”

The question came up in part because Liston was a uniquely terrifying figure in the world of boxing, still regarded by many today as the most intimidating boxer of all time based solely on what he could do to you in the ring. Even other notoriously intimidating and terrifying heavyweights such as George Foreman and Mike Tyson have essentially hailed Liston as the scariest boxer of all time.

Add to that, Liston’s criminal history and alleged mob ties and you could see why–in hindsight–some people thought the more gentlemanly Patterson was scared of the man, especially considering how long Floyd had avoided giving Liston a title shot. Floyd denied being afraid, which I find interesting in contrast with Liston’s quote. Possibly the scariest boxer to ever live was not ashamed to admit to being afraid, citing it as a motivation to win matches, while his eventually felled opponent could never admit to such fear–especially prior to the fight–perhaps out of fear of giving Liston a psychological advantage.

This being a podcast exploring how fear is, indeed, sometimes bad for us, but often can be healthy, it’s no surprise I’ve latched onto Liston’s quote. Once upon a time I thought of fear purely as a failing. Something that was holding me back. In hindsight, some of the fears I had of making a wrong decision or doing something rash or stupid were entirely founded. On the other hand, certain fears I had did indeed keep from pursuing things or following through on things I should have done much sooner. Recognizing which fears are rational and ought to be respected, and can even be used to your advantage, versus the fears that truly hinder progress or that will later leave us with regrets, that can be quite challenging.

There are times, however, when fear doesn’t really let you think in the moment, at least not the way we’re used to. It just kind of takes over and it’s not until later that we can look back and try to process what our fears led us to do. I mentioned, briefly, in season one that I had an encounter once with a man with a knife. Again, not something I’ll get into tremendous detail on, just not preference, but I will say that part of why I survived that encounter was because I was so afraid. Looking back, I made certain protective choices that I don’t recall thinking through, and that I know I didn’t have time to properly think through. I just acted. And I’m not a fighter, I have very, very limited experience with that, so it wasn’t muscle memory built from years of self-defense training or anything. What I remember most was being afraid, and protecting myself based on that tremendous, focus-enhancing fear.

Often, heroes in fiction are presented as fearless, never losing their cool. Almost unaffected by the stakes of the situation, at times. Other times, overcoming their panic or hesitation is a core part of the story. And, to be clear, in real life and in fiction, such bravery does have its place. The “losers club” in It, for instance, don’t make any headway against their tormentor, Pennywise, until they stop being quite so afraid of him. The “Litany against Fear” in Frank Herbert’s Dune condemns fear as a “mind-killer” that brings “total obliteration” that must be entirely overcome, and the protagonist uses this mantra to help him pass a trial that will subject him to extraordinary, excruciating pain.

Interestingly, the litany is apparently inspired by the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “cowards die many times before their death. The valiant never taste of death but once.” Caesar then says he believes it’s foolish for people to fear death, since it has to happen to everyone, and he thinks you can’t control your fate.

These are, admittedly, pretty cool quotes on their own, but I think it’s worth pointing out that, in context of the play, they reflect Caesar’s arrogant refusal to even acknowledge the possibility that death is a legitimate and immediate threat to him and that it’s okay to be afraid of that in the interest of self-preservation. Calpurnia, his wife, is begging him to stay home on the day he’s prophesied to be murdered, and earlier in the Act he dismisses her concern by saying anyone or anything meaning to harm him would only think to do so behind his back; when he goes out to face the dangers and looks them eye to eye, they’ll disappear, presumably because they’re so terrified of him they’ll shrink back into the shadows. Again, sounds very impressive, but it also makes it easier to set him up to be assassinated, and his enemies play on his arrogant need to never even appear to be afraid, luring him out of the house after Calpurnia finally convinces him to just stay home for the day. Caesar goes forth, not dying the many metaphorical deaths of a coward, but a valiant, single, literal death, which is really the only type of death you need a guy to go through when you’re trying to actually kill him, and that prevents him from living out all of his ambitions.

Now, this is not a criticism of Herbert’s masterpiece Dune for taking some literary inspiration from Shakespeare’s Caesar, which should go without saying, but it is a light jab at people who might take those Shakespearian quotes out of context and to heart. A healthier fear of death in Shakespeare’s Caesar might have saved him from being stabbed up by a host of Senators, which I think is a pretty explicit element of the story. But I digress.

The point here is that fear is not always a hinderance. The motivational and even strengthening potential of fear does appear on occasion in works of fiction.

One of my favorite lines in a book comes from Walter Mosely’s Devil in a Blue Dress, where the lead character, Easy Rawlins, says the following regarding a specific combat experience he had in World War II:

“The first time I fought a German hand-to-hand I screamed for help the whole time I was killing him.”

I think of that line any time I read or watch a scene in which a character successfully fights for their life all while clearly terrified, particularly if they end up killing their attacker. I wonder if part of what saved Easy’s life in that situation was that he might have been more afraid of death than the German soldier was.

In the original Halloween, famously, much was made of Laurie Strode not being sexually active, and tying that to her survival as some kind of theme or message. What always stood out to me, though, is that she’s the only person among the targeted teenagers in the film who has time to be afraid well before she gets attacked. All of Michael’s onscreen kills are sneak attacks. Annie and Lynda are both killed when they have their backs to him and don’t even suspect a threat is present. Bob is so taken by surprise in the kitchen that there’s already a hand the instant he has a chance to know what’s going on, and Michael’s sister reacts with annoyance, not fear, when Michael enters her room, apparently not seeing the knife until it’s being used on her.

Michael tries the same thing on Laurie, attacking her from behind a couple  of times, and really just blows a layup whenever he has a chance to kill her, but her fear also drives her to fight back in a way her friends never even had a chance to. First she delivers a perfect turnaround neck-stab with a knitting needle. Then, when she’s trapped in a closet, seemingly doomed, her fear drives her to try something desperate–fashion a clothes-hanger into a pointed rod that she can stab into the madman’s eye. Which she successfully does in the dark. Michael’s out here shooting airballs right at the rim, while Laurie’s hitting three-pointers in the clutch. And there’s nothing within the story to suggest she should be any good at all at defending herself. The one advantage she has, the one thing saving her life, is that she’s terrified, and knows she’ll be killed if she doesn’t fight back. There is pure terror on her face when she reaches for and uses the metal hanger. Her eyes are full of tears as she clutches the knitting needle. Her terror gives her the ability to kill her would-be killer.

In some other stories fear doesn’t just fuel an immediate fight or flight benefit. It inspires a person to be better prepared for the worst. In Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, the hero, named Hiro, is driven by the fear of a near-death experience to train himself more strenuously than he otherwise would, preparing for his next potential encounter with Raven, the baddest man in the world, and the one who almost killed him. This training proves essential later when their climactic encounter inevitably arrives.

In the third of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne is coached to use the fear of death as an adrenaline booster that will help him to jump across a distance so that he can escape a prison. He’s specifically told that he failed in his previous efforts because he jumped with a makeshift safety harness, and that the person who made the leap before him–a child, no less–managed it because they knew if they fell, it was all over. Their fear of death gave them the strength to make the jump. When Bruce takes that advice, it works out for him, as well.

Exaggerated though this may be for heroic effect, it is rooted in reality. Frightening situations make our hearts race to increase blood flow, which in turn increases availability of oxygen throughout our bodies and boosts our energy. It can make our eyes dilate to draw in more light and improve visibility. Fear can also produce an adrenaline rush, and adrenaline is known to decrease your ability to feel pain and temporarily increase strength. There is, of course, a limit to how much this might benefit you. Adrenaline might lessen how much pain you feel, for instance, but it doesn’t lessen the damage done to you.

Nonetheless, an underrated aspect of adrenaline–which, again, is often a product of fear of immediate peril–is an increase in focus. This is represented in The Matrix, when a do-or-die situation forces Neo to immediately learn to dodge bullets. Given that the matrix itself is a mental construct, this is entirely something he’s doing with his mind, not his body. And he is clearly afraid the moment before the agent shoots at him. It’s evident in his voice as he asks Trinity for help. Later, when he’s stopping bullets with his mind instead of merely dodging them, he seems no longer even capable of being scared, but he couldn’t have gotten to that point had he not been so afraid for his life that he was able to take the next mental step in understanding how to bend the laws of his world to his will.

Some people, unfortunately, have a different response to fear. For some terror is can lead them to make a mistake. For others it can be crippling or even paralytic.

In my favorite horror movie, Alien, one of the crew members of the Nostromo, Lambert, becomes petrified in the presence of the titular alien that has invaded their vessel. (By the way I’ve always struggled with calling it a xenomorph–in my head it’s always just been the alien, that captures its menace better, to me. Again, I digress). Lambert’s inability to even move away from the monster makes the fight response of her colleague, Parker, useless. He has a flamethrower that might help keep the creature at bay long enough for them to get away from it. But he can’t fire at it without hitting Lambert, and she is rooted in place. Her motor skills have effectively shut down on her.

Parker’s fight instincts are still driving him, however. The only thing he can think to do, since he can’t use the flamethrower, is charge the creature. Engage it directly. He sacrifices himself so that Lambert can get away while the alien is fighting and killing him. But she still doesn’t move. Surely she hears him tell her to run, just like he told her earlier to move out of the way, but, at best, she can’t get her body to obey the command. She might not even be processing what she is hearing. Her fear has consumed her, overriding even her flight response, much less the fight response.

One of my favorite scenes among many in the second film in the series, Aliens, sees Ripley openly admit to being scared when she and her effectively-adopted surrogate daughter Newt are trapped in the med-lab with two facehuggers.

The fact that she can verbalize her fear, even with something as simple as a “Me too,” in response to Newt saying, “I’m scared,” shows that Ripley is, at minimum, still thinking relatively clearly in spite of how hopeless things seem. All of her efforts are geared toward escape. She knows that she can’t win a literal fight with this small but tenacious animal. There’s no forced, stoic bravery interfering with her fight for survival, however. She and Newt need to get out or get help. They can’t open the door or break the shatterproof glass window to get away. Waving at the security camera doesn’t work, because the person who set her up to die, Burke… Burke… he cut off the video feed before anyone else can see it. Ripley keeps her wits enough to try something else. She holds a flame to the sprinkler system, activating it and the fire alarm, bringing in the armed space marines who can shoot the facehuggers to pieces.

Ellen Ripley, our hero, couldn’t win that particular fight, but she had allies who could, and there wasn’t anything less heroic about what she did to get them involved. That allowed her to live to fight another day, which she does so magnificently later in the film. That all eventually comes about because of an earlier moment where she was able to acknowledge that she was afraid of being killed.

In another famous and highly influential 80’s action film, the hero spends even more of the movie clearly afraid of what’s happening around them, despite frequently cracking jokes to mask their fear at least as much as to taunt the villains. He wouldn’t be the first hero to do this. Spider-Man has admitted more than once that he cracks jokes while fighting to hide how nervous he is, as well as to aggravate his opponents, possibly to the extent that they’ll make a mistake. This is what set him apart from cool, collected heroes like James Bond, who is also quick with a quip, but is almost never portrayed as remotely worried about what might happen next. Beyond Bond, this was fairly standard for action movie heroes, even dating back to decades that pre-date the more general term action movie, when things were categorized more so by the sub-genres of Westerns, War movies, Crime movies, Spy movies, etc. Even before almost every hero was cracking jokes or delivering cold-blooded quotes, they were still notably fearless. By the 80’s almost all of them were either scowling or laughing in the face of danger.

And John McClane did let himself smile a few times, but he was just as often wide-eyed, panicked, and even praying not to die. At no point in Die Hard does he ever lose the sense of urgency that fear instills in him.

Die Hard is obviously not a scary movie, but it does have tense moments that would be frightening in real life and could place viewers at the edge of their seats in a way that something like, say, Rambo III, or Missing in Action III, could not. Those other two movies also came out in 1988 and are a much better reflection of the state of the action hero overall at the time. That same year also saw the ever-composed Dirty Harry return for The Dead Pool and saw Schwarzenegger in his most stone-faced role this side of The Terminator in Red Heat.

Even in excellent action films from earlier in the decade like Lethal Weapon or The Predator, the lead hero is never close to as unnerved as McClane is. McClane wasn’t the first frightened action hero, but men like Kyle Reese were in very short supply compared to their counterparts, and most often appeared in films that were as close to horror as they were action, such as The Terminator.

Die Hard, meanwhile, almost had the vibe of a 70’s or early 80’s suspense thriller, in places, which I think is evident in the better of its two original promotional posters. The lesser of the two is a much more conventional and boring shot of the hero holding a gun and looking determined. It’s a dime-a-dozen image that looks like no significant thought went into it. The other poster, though, is split between McClane’s subtly anxious face–looking like he might have just heard someone coming, or is worried he made a sound that gave away his hiding place–while the other half of the poster showing Nakatomi Plaza at night, its roof exploding, looking like the building itself is the menace. It has more in common with the poster for the horror-tinged disaster picture The Towering Inferno than any other poster for an action film released in ’88. McClane’s expression also makes me think of Meryl Streep’s expression on the poster for the 1983 political thriller Silkwood far more than, say, Steven Segal’s icy glower on the poster for Above the Law.

Hell, Die Hard even has a scene at the end where a murderous villain, previously thought dead, springs to life for one last chance to kill the hero. That was a slasher film staple by then, brazenly employed by the biggest action thrill-ride of the year.

And I mention all of this because, again, John McClane is appropriately afraid–at least as much as you can expect a hero in this genre to be–throughout Die Hard. Much was made at the time–rightfully so–about the contrast in physical appearance between Bruce Willis and the standard for action stars of the era. Everyone else was either muscular, or in the case of Eastwood noticeably tall and therefore still physically imposing, or with the likes of Segal and Chuck Norris, known to be martial arts practitioners, which still put their physicality at the forefront. Willis as McClane is much more of an everyman. In later years he’d bulk up some and the McClane character would eventually become more like a superhero and less like his original self.

But that first iteration of John McClane is a man who is regularly afraid for his life, and for the lives he is responsible for due the circumstance he finds himself in. More than the physical appearance, that’s what really set him apart from his contemporaries. Even when he gets a machine gun–“Ho, Ho, Ho”–that brings him closer to the level of firepower the villains have, it doesn’t turn him into a super-confident “badass.” You can do an image search of McClane firing his gun while shouting and the see panic pulling his face in every direction. Compare that to John Rambo’s grunting and roaring as he empties his machine gun in his second film and the difference couldn’t be much clearer. Rambo’s posing for a poster; McClane looks like he’s actually in a gunfight and worried about getting hit.

The more interesting comparison, in my opinion, between McClane’s fear and another person’s relative stoicism, however, is available within the film itself. Hans Gruber never sincerely appears afraid until it’s too late to be of use to him. Even when he’s hanging outside a skyscraper, hundreds of feet above the ground, the only thing keeping him from plummeting to his death being the tenuous grip he has on a woman’s wrist, he doesn’t look scared. He sneers and calmly raises his gun, planning to kill his nemesis as a final act before he checks out.

Hans is not emotionless throughout the film. He gets frustrated, impatient and even angry, but never to a degree that seems to approach real concern. He never seems to believe he’s losing control of the situation until after he’s lost control. To be fair, he has cause to be confident. His plan, while merciless, is pretty strong by action villain standards. He believes, as he states, that he has left nothing to chance, and it’s really just the extraordinary misfortune of a guy like McClane being there on that particular night that is his undoing. Still, he has hostages, superior numbers, and firepower on his side compared to the lone man disrupting his operation. Hell, even the majority of the law enforcement personnel involved is unwittingly doing what he wants them to do. Now, the very nature of what he’s trying to do–this high risk, high reward, homicidal heist–should probably be enough to inspire a little bit of healthy fear in him on its own, but it doesn’t. When Hans makes jokes he sounds more like James Bond than McClane does, and not just because of Alan Rickman’s wonderful, English, definitely not Hans-like accent. His one-liner after killing Takagi is delivered nonchalantly and almost sounds like he wrote it in advance, expecting he’d have to kill somebody and wanting to have a prepared statement for the occasion.

McClane, meanwhile, frequently has his brief moments of levity undercut by something horrific. He’s a good guy in the relatable sense of not just caring about his own survival, but that of others as well. Even people he doesn’t know or personally like. Within seconds of delivering a decent little insult at Hans’s expense, he’s horrified to find out he has to make a decision that determine a man’s fate. A man he just met that night, the memorably annoying in an oddly captivating way, Ellis. John’s voice reaches a higher pitch as he pleads with unfeeling Hans and the overconfident Ellis, desperately wanting to save the latter’s life, while probably knowing it’s impossible. And it doesn’t matter that Ellis is unlikable, John doesn’t think he deserves to die. He’s afraid for the man’s life. But he also knows that he doesn’t really have a choice here, Ellis is trying to get John to give detonators back to the terrorists, which would cost even more lives. Dirty Harry might have told Ellis he was a moron and deserved what was coming. John Rambo might have sternly told Hans to do what he had to do, but know that his hours were numbered.

But John McClane is afraid that he can’t save this man, or anyone else held hostage in the building, which would include his wife, or even himself. Yes, some of his fear is fear is certainly driven by the fact that he can’t be sure that Ellis won’t tell Hans that Holly is John’s wife, but after Ellis dies, John does not appear relieved. When he hears Ellis die he is visibly disturbed, and temporarily speechless. It takes Hans openly threatening to kill more hostages, assured that he will eventually kill someone John is personally connected to, to coax a final response out of John. When he finally insults Hans one more time, it’s nothing witty or forceful. He sounds emotionally spent. The manifestation of something you feared can do that. But it also empowers him to keep fighting, because even besides Holly there are other lives like Ellis’s that are worth fighting for.

It gives him a sense of urgency that continually propels him against odds that should be insurmountable. When caught between the fear of dying in an explosion and the fear of falling from a skyscraper with nothing but a hastily tied fire hose around his waist, the fear of what he can’t survive wins out. He prays, “Please don’t let me die,” then takes a chance that still almost kills him, but the difference between dying and almost dying is sometimes big enough to fit an entire lifetime inside it.

Later, Hans, in a somewhat similar predicament, as I mentioned before, shows no fear when faced with his own do or die dilemma. At least not at first. John and Holly, are both afraid of her getting dragged out the window to fall along with Hans, and John works frantically to unclasp Holly’s watch to loosen Hans’s hold on her wrist. Hans is only thinking of killing, not anything he could do to save himself. That is until the watch clasp does come undone, and Hans starts to fall, and his eyes famously look like they’re going to pop out of his head, like they’re trying to jump back into the building and leave his falling body behind. Now, at long last, Hans feels fear, after it’s become useless to him. Maybe if he had embraced it a little sooner, he might have stood a better chance against the man who was letting it fuel him all night long.

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