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Primal Fear

History Channel // 2008 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // January 31st, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Roy Hrab's primal fears include DVDs with the same title as films starring Richard Gere and Edward Norton.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Primal Fear (Blu-Ray) (published March 10th, 2009) and Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition (published March 10th, 2009) are also available.

The Charge

Our Deepest Fears Revealed.

The Case

Everybody is afraid of something. Many people believe their fears are a sign of weakness. However, fear is one of the main reasons the human race survived beyond primitive times. Fear prevented our ancestors from getting devoured by larger beasts. Fear protected, and continues to protect, us from danger. Most of the time, this is a good thing.

The History Channel's Primal Fear investigates the physiology, psychology, and history of fear: real and imagined, ancient and contemporary. Eight fears are examined: snakes, being buried alive, Hell, monsters, drowning, being burned alive, terrorism, and rats. Guiding the way are interviews with a host of scientists, doctors, historians, snake handlers, and survivors of trauma (e.g., a couple that survived a mountain lion attack). Some low budget CGI effects are thrown in for good measure.

Primal Fear is a fairly engaging and educational tour of fear. It starts with an explanation of the series of reactions that emanate from the brain following the introduction (or anticipation) of a stimulus perceived to pose a danger or threat. This "fight or flight" reaction, featuring the physiological responses of an increase in heart rate and breathing, pupil dilation, and tunnel vision, was responsible for keeping humans alive in pre-historic times. Those without the fear response didn't make it. Without any sense of imminent threat they probably stood and stared, like a deer at headlights, as a hungry tiger or alligator approached.

Following the intro Primal Fear quickly moves on to tackling specific fears. Some fears are based on historical experience while others are conditioned. For example, the fear of being buried alive goes back centuries. Before the stethoscope, other diagnostic tools, and advanced medical knowledge neither shallow breathing nor comas were detectable, creating a real possibility that a person could be buried alive. It should come as no surprise that being buried alive unintentionally did happen back in those days. Running out of oxygen in a confined space is not a pleasant way to die. The fear of rats, dating to the Black Death, is another fear based on history.

In contrast, the fear of Hell (or any other type of undesirable afterlife) is an entirely different type of fear. Nobody has experienced Hell and returned to tell the tale. It is something people were (and are) conditioned to fear through their religious beliefs. This was especially true in the literature of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. The fear of Hell served as a form of social control: "Be good, or else!" Of course, Hell also appeals to our sense of fairness: the unjust will be punished. At the same time, because we cannot observe Hell, it is a fear based on our ability to imagine. This is related to other imagined fears, such as the Boogeyman (and other monsters), that parents teach their children to get them to behave.

Additionally, humans have the ability to fear things that are real, but not experienced. For example, you can fear drowning without having ever gone swimming. We can also fear things that we witness indirectly like the consequences of terrorist acts. Primal Fear delves into this fear. The most interesting information revealed is techniques that have been developed to help people overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. This is illustrated through the story of a 9/11 fireman being treated for trauma by using virtual reality therapy that recreated the events of the attack. It is believed that by being exposed to the fear in a safe environment that the brain can unlearn the fear.

The audio and video are adequate, showcasing standard production values and minimal use of CGI; typical for a History Channel offering. There are no bonus features.

Fear is part of us. Without it we would never have made it this far. At the same time, a particularly traumatic fearful experience can seriously impact our ability to live our lives. Primal Fear is a good survey of the complexities of fear. It's worth a rental if you're really interested in the subject, but probably best suited for educational screenings in high school classrooms.

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 75

Perp Profile

Studio: History Channel
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb
• Official Site

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