Fear is Funny. No, really, it can be funny.

Zombies as portrayed in the movie Night of the...

Night of the Living Dead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I watched a scary movie, and while the soundtrack swelled and the people around me screamed and jumped in their seats and my heart pounded, I was thinking about behavior. There’s a good chance I need professional help. (But in the meantime, I have blog posts.)

Yes, a room full of people watching a horror film can be a great example of an important behavioral concept. Let’s talk about the third of the Four F’s.

The Four F’s

Ted Turner (the behavior expert, not the filmmaker) did a series of videos which I stumbled upon early in my clicker training education. In one, he talked about the possible responses to stress, which he summarized as the Four F’s:

  1. fight
  2. flight
  3. fool around
  4. …engage in reproductive behavior (my own paraphrase)

We often think of the first two, but not of the latter two (though #4 seems fairly de rigueur in bad romance novels and films). But in fact, fight and flight are probably the final stages in stress reaction, while the other two tend to happen earlier and are abandoned for fighting or fleeing only when they are not working.


Once, during my college years, a friend and I were in a smallish room on an upper dorm floor, and a guy we didn’t know entered the room, looking for someone. He fixated on us and didn’t leave, and while he kept his eyes on us he positioned himself firmly and deliberately in the room’s single, narrow entry.

He wasn’t a threat when he entered and asked after his friend, but when he blocked the exit and stared, he became a threat. When he stared flexing and posturing over our couch, he started to scare us. (He might have thought that he was simply showing off his admittedly-impressive musculature to impress the girls, but he had quite the opposite effect; we knew we really didn’t stand a chance if he decided to keep us from getting out, and we were afraid, not attracted. And in matters of fear, perception matters more than intent, always.)

I was afraid, and so I got angry. (Make of that what you will.) I didn’t do much to act on it, though, because I was afraid of triggering a response. But I was angry. My friend was equally afraid, and I remember being angry with her too because she kept giggling. As I look back, I believe he might have interpreted the giggling as maybe some sort of flirting and so kept escalating his flexing and posturing and eye contact, but it wasn’t flirting, it was fear. And as I was afraid and angry, I got angry with her, too.

Eventually he got frustrated, snapped some insults at us, and left. And today I see not just a creepy incident from my past, but a set of clear behavior cases:

  • lack of predictability and control resulted in a perception of threat (my friend and me)
  • frustration produced aggression (the guy, when we didn’t rise to the flirtation level he wanted)
  • fear was expressed in fear-aggression (me)
  • fear was expressed in humorous behavior (my friend)

Afterward, my friend and I never spoke of the incident. I never told her I was mad at her for just laughing in what felt like a very serious situation. I shouldn’t have been, though, because it wasn’t really a choice for her. She was having a perfectly normal stress reaction. There’s a reason we call it nervous laughter.

Get to the Horror Film, Already

A screenshot of the 1922 film, Nosferatu. Thou...

A screenshot of the 1922 film, Nosferatu.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, a group of us were invited to watch what we were warned was a suspenseful horror film. I don’t like gory movies– a good story doesn’t need gore, which just detracts — but I like suspense, and I’ll confess to being a total pansy before a good suspenseful horror flick.

I won’t say which movie it was, because that’s unimportant and if you didn’t find it particularly scary, it doesn’t discount the effect for those who did. We were perhaps 20 people in a little theater space, and for the first third of the film, we were quiet. Mostly. There were some jumps and screams at the first big scare.

As the movie’s tension rose, though, the room began less quiet. People began to shuffle in their seats (displacement behaviors) and comment aloud on the film. And as the plot entered the third act and the stakes were the highest for our imperiled protagonist, people began making jokes and laughing at things that weren’t remotely funny.

Fooling around. The third F. And generally, those who made the most jokes were those who jumped the highest and screamed the loudest.

What Does It Look Like?

Our dogs don’t tend to watch many horror films, or at least mine seem unimpressed by them, so this “fear-fun” might be harder to identify. But you’ve probably already seen it. When a conflicted dog moves forward and backward from a stranger, alternately barking and play-bowing? That’s fear-fun.

Pug fawn play bow

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Puppies especially fall on this kind of response to stress, because they inherently know that flight and fight are not really valid options for them yet; they’re slow and they’re weak, so they need to appease a threat or wiggle out, “I’m just a cute li’l puppy who wants to play!”

In my own dogs, I might see it when a big storm is rolling in and Laev begins jumping up on me and throwing bows in my direction. It’s an early expression of what might become more serious fear if I don’t give her some melatonin or a chew to help her cope.

It can be the “frantic” in Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out, when a dog engages in manic play or play invitations. It’s easy to assume that the dog is just being rude or is over-excited, and certainly that might be the case, but sometimes it can be a desperate-to-fool-around response to fear or stress.

Have you ever found yourself fooling around under stress?

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.

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  1. So interesting. I never heard of numbers three and four, but it certainly makes sense. I thought that number three would be “freeze,” and I’m wondering why it’s not on this list? I will keep my eye for fun/fear behavior now.

    • Great question! I think that any numbered list is necessarily somewhat arbitrary, but without conferring at all with Mr. Turner, I suspect that this is a list of “active” responses to stress or fear, while freezing is an inactive response. A very slight variation, and you are quite right that freezing is often seen as well!

    • I’d add “appease” (I’ve often heard “fight, flight, freeze and appease” as the phrase)- although freeze is more specific to prey animals and appease to social animals, but not exclusive.

  2. And at the next scary movie night, I will be watching the audience as well as the movie. ~ DebC.

  3. Great post Laura. My 3-year-old GSP has always shown displacement behaviours when there’s something he isn’t sure about. He’s always been a bit of a stress head anyway and it can sometimes be really hard to get him to ‘join in’. He acts really aloof though looks like he desperately wants to be a part of what’s going on. I’m now thinking that this too could also be a displacement behaviour as he’s maybe feeling a bit ‘under pressure’ at what he’s being asked to do (even when it’s just what I would call play). Does this sound feasible to you?

    • Definitely! Social pressure is still pressure, even if it’s friendly. That’s one reason we give the dogs total freedom to opt in or out of a tough training situation; if I find myself repeatedly coaxing, I’m probably pushing too fast for the dog’s comfort.

      For dogs worried about approaching, I will often click the approach and then toss the treat far away — positive reinforcement (food) and negative reinforcement (reduced proximity to the scary thing) in one! And then he’s never “stuck” close by to eat and can choose whether or not to approach again.

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