Thomas Hobbes defined fear as aversion coupled with the belief that the object of our fear will hurt us. Evolution instilled fear in our species, and in other species with a highly developed nervous system, to enable us to survive. Fear is the apprehension of danger followed by an impulse toward fight or flight. A vestige of a more brutal and also a simpler past, fear gives us a burst of strength and speed but at a cost. We are spurred to tremendous exertion but rendered incapable of deliberation. Mr. Spock was right; the adrenal gland can be most inconvenient in our modern world.
Horses will often run into a burning barn, and it isn’t only animals that become misdirected when frightened. Montaigne recounts:
When Monsieur de Bourbon took Rome, an ensign who was on guard at Borgo San Pietro was seized with such a fright upon the first alarm, that he threw himself out at a breach with his colors on his shoulder, and ran directly upon the enemy, thinking he had retreated toward the inward defenses of the city, and with much ado, seeing Monsieur de Bourbon’s people, who thought it had been a sally upon them, drew up to receive him, at last came to himself, and saw his error; and then facing about, he retreated full speed through the same breach by which he had gone out, but not till he had first blindly advanced above three hundred paces into the open field.
The discombobulated ensign is not alone. Panic flings us into furious action, but into courses which will often kill us rather than save us. Nearly every swimmer has been told what to do when caught in a rip tide but when they’re being swept out to sea, so many of them try to make directly for shore, vainly thrashing and struggling as they’re borne away. Moving bodies that follow a set track independent of impinging forces aren’t found in nature, which is why animals never understand that to avoid a car they must stay off the road, and why so many creatures will run right under the wheels of an oncoming car. The flight responses that evolution has instilled in our brains will put speed ahead of everything else and set us to running in a straight line.
Most of us are acquainted with life or death situations by watching them in movies or on television. We become very impatient with characters when we see them fall into panic. We had wanted them to survive but in our disgust, we conclude such stupidity merits death. At the end of Prometheus, Charlize Theron is running away from a huge rolling disc, and she runs straight, falls, and is crushed. The viewers become very angry with her. From their couches, they work out the geometry of the situation and they calculate the angle optimal for escape. The answer lies somewhere between ninety and forty-five degrees, and perhaps only a physicist can know for certain.
Our viewing culture has become reflexive, and it can be more instructive and entertaining to watch people watching a show, than watching the show itself. Everyone who’s watched The Battle of the Bastards, episode 06×09 of Game of Thrones, reacts in the same manner. We see Rickon Stark led to the front of the Bolton forces, we see the knife drawn and held up, but then used to free and not to kill the prisoner. The more observant have noted the finger tabs Ramsey’s wearing. We call out to Rickon as he starts running, we implore him to zigzag. He doesn’t hear. He runs straight. Ramsey misses on purpose until Jon has nearly reached him, and then he sends the last arrow through Rickon’s back. We see him fall with a cry of anguish.
Another Stark is lost. They’re so noble and so utterly hopeless. Why do David Benioff and D.B. Weiss make them so incredibly stupid? Why does Arya allow the waif to come up behind her and stab her? Nobody can be constantly keyed up and vigilant. The human nervous system can’t be put on high alert indefinitely. Why does Rickon run straight? Because the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and panicked human being in flight wants to put as much distance between himself and danger as possible. Perhaps it would be instructive to watch a character who did everything right, who stayed calm and thought matters through, who followed the steps most likely to result in survival and didn’t make any mistakes, and who died anyway. Such an exploration might be intriguing; it would certainly be sobering. Perhaps after watching this exercise in futility, we’ll conclude that we prefer that our protagonists blunder into their untimely end. A sorrowful death we can bear, but an inescapable one may be too bitter.