Definition and Characteristics of Atavistic Fears

The list of atavistic fears isn't very long, but the list of its derivations is. A good part of human daily fears stem from ancestral inherited ones that have the purpose of keeping us away from danger.
Definition and Characteristics of Atavistic Fears

Last update: 30 November, 2020

Atavistic fears represent those most humans share. In fact, people have been aware of them pretty much since the beginning of time. This is because human existence depends on them. Thus, they’ve been passed down from generation to generation and remain forever regardless of individual experiences.

The word atavistic refers to an ancestral or archaic past. Therefore, atavistic fears are those acquired as species in a remote past. It’s worth mentioning how interesting it is to explore these ancient fears to give an account of the means humans use to this day to manage them.

In principle, fear is an adaptive response to risk or danger. It’s a warning, inviting internal alert to be on guard. As you can see, it plays an important role in the preservation of your life and integrity. Atavistic fears are a collective adaptation to the most serious threats.

“Beware the goblin men and the wares they sell.”

-S. Jae-Jones, Wintersong-

A woman experiencing an atavistic fear.

The five more common atavistic fears

There are several universal fears but only five of them have been present at different times in the various cultures. That is they’ve been transversal across time and space. In fact, many institutions have used them to either consolidate or maintain themselves.

Fear of being buried alive or losing autonomy

This is one of the most common atavistic fears and it isn’t only about being buried alive but also about any form of entrapment, paralysis, or limitation that prevents action while being conscious. This is the most terrifying thing, as it’s to be aware of radical powerlessness in the face of a death threat.

Fear of being attacked when alone

No matter how lonely or independent a person may be, deep down inside, everyone is social and feels much more comfortable knowing there are others around.

Human beings are weak mammals that managed to survive in groups. Thus, we receive many great contributions from the groups that are no longer there and build new realities for future generations. Being alone in a forest, for example, brings out the atavistic fear of being attacked.

Fear of bad smells is one of the atavistic fears

This atavistic fear manifests, first and foremost, as rejection. Under normal conditions, a bad smell is repulsive because it refers to decomposition and, therefore, it’s dangerous to health and life. A strong fear may emerge right after picking up an unknown bad smell. This is because humans naturally associate it with risk and aggression.

Fear of mutilation or loss of unity

This isn’t a common fear in the human line of thought. Yet, it’s one of the most frequently manifested atavistic fears. Mutilation isn’t only about the physical loss of a body part but also about the loss of its function. As you can see, the fear of illness is also part of it. It’s an attempt to preserve your body as you know it.

Fear of sexual assault

This is present in both males and females. However, women fear sexual violence because they know this desire is common in many men. Men, however, fear the women they love could be the victim of a sexual assault. To a lesser extent, they fear being victims of such abuse themselves. This is one of the most straightforward atavistic fears.

A woman crossing a bridge.

The antidote to atavistic fears

Much of the configuration of buildings, cities, and social and cultural systems intentionally conjures up these atavistic fears. Religion and science are also a response to universal fears no one can ever escape from.

Other ways to overcome these fears are by not thinking about them and creating situations that take you away from that idea and distract you to such an extent that these types of fears won’t touch you. Modern society has emphasized this path, which is why the universe of distractions and entertainment is so wide.

However, no matter how much you try to take them out of your mind, those fears are and will always be there. They’re a reminder of how curious and resourceful, but fragile and deadly, our species can be. These are just some of the most important human paradoxes.

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  • Padilla, I. (2013). El legado de los monstruos. Tratado sobre el miedo y lo terrible. Taurus.