Primal Fear

by Ian Chant

8 February 2009


The History Channel’s Primal Fear sets out to explore the scientific and societal underpinnings of some of our deepest fears, helping us to understand why so many of us are frightened of snakes, or why every culture in the world has a bogeyman. Unfortunately, it’s not satisfied with just explaining we’re afraid of these things, or how the sensation of fear works in our bodies and minds. It also strives to provide some chills of it’s own, and here, hampered by low budget recreations and amateur hour CGI, this laudably intentioned documentary falls laughably on it face.

The most interesting moments of Primal Fear come during interviews with biologists, psychologists, doctors and anthropologists who discuss why and how fears develop, as well as what they do to us. Fear is traced back along evolutionary lines, and given its proper place among our most important and basic emotions. For early hominids, knowing when to be afraid of something was an invaluable trait for survival in a harsh and unforgiving world. And for as much as we’ve progressed from our sharp rock-wielding ancestors, many of our basic fears can be followed directly back to the days of loin cloths and clubs.

cover art

Primal Fear

(History Channel)
US DVD: 20 Jan 2009

Many of our fears are simple matters of evolution. Why do snakes give so many of us the creeps? Because being afraid of snakes is a good way to reduce your chances of being bitten by a snake. This in turn increases ones chances of surviving and passing on their genetic material, which on some level includes knowing that snakes are bad news. Consequently, nature selected for a certain degree of well-reasoned cowardice, with more adventuresome individuals rendered brave and noble cul de sacs on the map of human evolution. Other fears, like fear of sharks and terrorism, are more recent developments, perpetuated by mass media that brings rare but horrific incidents like shark attacks into living rooms and front pages throughout the world.

Unfortunately, all of this interesting subject matter is crippled by distractingly bad CGI effects, low rent dramatic re-creations and shoddy editing.  The graphic for a burst of hysterical strength is essentially a Visible Human model getting hit by lightning bolts against a glowing purple backdrop. And while this same graphic looks a little better when it’s demonstrating how snakes kill their victims, by the time it’s demonstrating how what you look like buried alive, it’s gotten kind of old. Dramatizations of episodes like bear attacks are strobelit, shaken camera affairs that are more comical than intimidating, inducing cringes for all the wrong reasons.

Primal Fear also suffers from some lazy editing. It switches narrative gears without warning, using ham-fisted segues that resemble PowerPoint presentations. Even more infuriatingly, the DVD is presented with commercial breaks intact. And as with any media that relies on a group of interviews for expert testimony, the interview subjects, doctors, professors and expert witnesses vary widely in their level of comfort on screen.

The covering of a lot of different fears results in a plethora of interesting information on display, but the context of it suffers. Certainly, there’s something to be said for a film in which you can learn something about smilodons, the French revolution, the Devil’s Bible, rat physiology, the Victorian fad of safety coffins and modern virtual reality treatments for mental trauma. But this broad focus costs the film time that could be devoted to really exploring the nature of fear, how it makes us tick, and other deeper questions that are never addressed.

For instance, what is it about being afraid that gets us off? Why do we now, through roller coasters, slasher flicks and survival horror video games, actively seek out a sensation that was designed to warn us of our probable imminent demise? What is it about fear that has turned it into a thriving industry? The filmmakers do themselves and their audience a disservice by turning away from these deeper questions.

While Primal Fear shows promise as a study of why our fears are so important, it squanders it’s potential, providing only shallow snapshots of some of the many things that scare us. Eventually, the film simply comes to feel like a slideshow of misery, a sort of terrible America’s Funniest Home Videos. Putting the world’s most horrible natural disasters, nightclub fires, mine collapses and animal attacks on display is more emotionally manipulative than genuinely informative. And expert testimony on suffocation, drowning and burning to death quickly comes to seem ghoulish.

It’s a shame that a film that could have been an intriguing exploration of a misunderstood and elemental human emotion becomes, through the squeamishness and seeming disinterest of the filmmakers, a pallid, PG rated Faces of Death that seeks to simultaneously shock and inform, but ultimately fails at both.

Primal Fear


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