Death, Danger, and the Paradox of Fiction

Bread and Circuses

Human beings have a long, strange history of being fascinated with death and danger. Somewhat oddly, we are fascinated by the death and danger of others – so much so, that we relish in it as a form of entertainment. We seek it out, we delight in it, we cheer at it; we eat and drink beer in celebration of it.

“It is so delicious to see a man risk his life, without being in danger oneself.”  –Charles Dickens, “Rome in a Crystal

Ancient Rome was famous for having violent and bloody ‘sporting’ events at the Colosseum. Gladiators would brutally combat each other to the death. Executions would be public, celebratory affairs, much to the raucous delight of cheering crowds.

Some found this macabre fascination detestable:

“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”   — Juvenal, Satire X

While the “circuses” – or “circenses” – that Juvenal refers to here is only very loosely related to the traditional or modern circuses familiar to us today, his point is (arguably) still applicable. Juvenal is complaining that the public had given up political freedom and other lofty pursuits for superficial, violent entertainment. One might dismiss this criticism as only appropriate for a different era. Gladiators and public executions happened long ago; we have thankfully grown out of such odious obsessions in modern – and more morally respectable – times.

But the history of circus tells a different story. Around the mid-nineteenth century, there was a noticeable surge in dangerous circus acts. Performances were more frequently promoted as “death-defying,” “dizzying,” featuring performers who were “risking life and limb.”  Acrobats kept climbing higher, attempting increasingly more daring feats, with a great race to be The Best! The Greatest! The Most Daring! There was a seemingly endless competition of performers surpassing their past selves and peers.  

In 1859, Charles Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. The rope was 1,000 feet long and was strung 160-270 feet above the falls. After the initial crossing, his performances increased in daring: he would tightrope blindfolded, on stilts, doing headstands and somersaults mid-walk. He took pictures of the crowd during one performance, gave his manager a piggy-back across the way during another, stood on a precariously balanced chair, and even pushed his 5-year-old daughter in a wheelbarrow across the abyss. (Blondin was latter legally prohibited from repeating this last act; the public drew the moral line at risking a child’s life).   

About the same time, Jules Leotard was performing astounding acrobatic feats on an apparatus of his own invention: the flying trapeze. Others followed suit. The Hanlon brothers executed incredibly dangerous exploits, always attempting to outdo themselves and their contemporaries, much to the public’s cheers and delight. One biographer describes the frenzy of the crowd:

“A blood-lust, not unlike that of the Ancient Romans, had been whetted. The Hanlon’s death-defying aerial stunts appealed to this very human, very perverse instinct.” –Mark Codson, The Hanlon Brothers: From Daredevil Acrobatics to Spectacle Pantomime 1833-1931

Eventually, one Hanlon brother fell during a performance – and survived, although with permanent mental damage. Thereafter, more attention was paid to safety, and nets and mats were more widely used. These days, circuses of all kinds take extreme precautions against death and injury.

So while there is currently some risk to the performers, the majority of contemporary circus acts involve athletes with years of physical training, tricks that have been executed thousands of times, on equipment that has been checked and rechecked and checked again – and all involved are heavily insured. Most of the death and danger is mere theatrical fantasy. The audience may gasp and hold their breath and clutch their seats, but the flips and drops and heart-racing stunts are (relatively) quite safe. These days, so-called ‘dangerous’ circus acts involve more histrionic illusion than genuine risk of death.

Yet whether the cause is real or imagined, the sense of danger evoked by certain circus acts is still very real – and it is still an incredibly seductive (and lucrative) draw. Circus performers rely on this, exploiting the audience’s thirst for peril. Lillian Leitzel, a famous aerialist in the early 1900s, would pretend to stagger and nearly faint before her aerial stunts, playing on the crowd’s fear and anxiety.

“Quite early, having learned the the crowd’s response to a faint was about like the ancient Roman’s enjoyment of lions on a Christian diet, she placed herself on a permanent wobbly footing.”  — Robert Lewis Taylor, Center Ring

Our odd obsession with deathly spectacles has not waned since Ancient Rome; it has merely shifted to circus and theater.

But why this gory obsession? Why would we want to watch what is awful and horrible, even if it is staged? Why are we so fascinated with (someone else) risking life and limb, even if we know that the risk isn’t real?  

The Paradox of Fiction

Curiously, it is not just death and danger that fascinates us. There are a whole range of negative emotions that we delight in experiencing. David Hume noted that this is especially evident in the theater. 

“It seems an unaccountable pleasure, which the spectators of a well-wrote tragedy receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety, and other passions, which are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy. The more they are touched and affected, the more are they delighted with the spectacle, and as soon as the uneasy passions cease to operate, the piece is at an end.” –Hume, Of Tragedy

In the theater, audiences knowingly invite and enjoy a wide range of otherwise undesirable emotions: sorrow, terror, fear, anxiety, etc. People flock to terrifying horror films, tragically sad movies, chill-inducing thrillers, tear-jerking dramas, etc. Indeed (and as Hume noted), the more intensely a play (or movie) makes the audience feel the relevant, negative emotion, the more successful we consider the work of art.  

The draw to entertainment that knowingly invokes negative emotions, which we ordinarily try to avoid, is puzzling and strange. (For more on this, check out a related puzzle: The Paradox of Tragedy.)

The Paradox of Fiction does not focus so much on the negative emotions that are produced and then (peculiarly) enjoyed, but rather on the fact that the source of the negative emotions is a work of fiction. There is something particularly odd about the fact that we enjoy being emotionally moved by fictions, since fictions are things that are known to be false.

If someone is scared by a horror film or grossed out by a bloody, violent scene, you can ease their discomfort by reminding them that it is all fake. Those characters are merely actors, the stunts are all choreographed, that red goop is just ketchup, and the whole scene is mere theater, CGI, and make-believe. But if reminding someone that something is fake is suppose to make them feel better, then it seems that our emotional involvement is tightly connected to what we think is real or not. If something isn’t real, our emotional reactions dampen. Yet certain plays and movies, which are known to be fictitious, false, or untrue, seem to emotionally move us anyway. This is the Paradox of Fiction.

There are multiple ways to describe a paradox. For simplicity, and because we will be using this notion again in a few weeks, we will define ‘paradox’ as follows:  

Paradox: any number of individually plausible, but mutually inconsistent, statements.

In general, we will try to keep the number of statements needed to state a paradox to as few as possible. This will help make the relevant problem more tractable.

To say that the statements are ‘individually plausible’ means that each statement, taken on its own, seems to be true.

To say that the statements are ‘mutually inconsistent’ means that even though each statement seems true on its own, they cannot (as a matter of logic) all be true together. That is, when you accept all of the statements together, you get a contradiction; one of the statements must be false. This is a paradox.

The Paradox of Fiction can be formulated with the following 3 statements:

  1. REACTION – We have genuine, negative emotional reactions to fictions.
  2. BELIEF – We believe (know) that fictions are not real.
  3. REALITY – We only have genuine, negative emotional reactions to that which we believe (know) is real.

Let’s look at these statements one by one.

REACTION seems true. Try to think about when a piece of fiction has moved you. Have you ever cried at the movies during a sad scene? Has a horror film ever made you jump? Have you ever held someone’s hand a bit too tight during a thriller? Has a chase scene ever had you on the edge of your seat, and you didn’t realize until after it’s over that you had been holding your breath the whole time? Has a beautiful aria or dance number ever moved you to tears? Has a comedy ever made you laugh? (The emotional reactions involved need not be negative to generate a paradox.) Just reflect on your own, personal reactions to movies, film, shows, theater, dance, literature, or performance art. If you can recall one time when you have been genuinely, emotionally moved by a work of fiction, then REACTION is true.

BELIEF seems true, too. Think about a time that a horror film has freaked you out. Did you run from the theater screaming? Did you call the police to report that a monster was on the loose? Did you tell your friends and loved ones to lock their doors and protect themselves? Did you pack your bags and leave town? Probably not. While you were scared and maybe closed your eyes and peeped cautiously through your fingers, you didn’t leave your seat. You didn’t drop your popcorn. You didn’t call the police. These are all behaviors that reveal that, even though you may have been emotionally moved, you nonetheless were very aware that the story you were seeing, experiencing, watching, reading was not true. But this is just to say that BELIEF is true.

Why should we think that REALITY is true? Suppose I tell you that I have a neighbor whose house just burned down.  All of their possessions, all of their savings, all of their cherished family mementos – everything has been destroyed.  Even worse, all of their beloved pets were in the house during the fire: they sadly lost their most cherished dog, who had just had puppies, as well as all of the newborn puppies. They lost their tropical fish, the exotic birds, and several mewing, lost kittens they’d just saved and taken in.

As you (understandably) get more upset listening to my story, I eventually tell you: “Just kidding. None of that really happened. I just made it up.”

No doubt you will be angry at me for having misled you. But are you still upset? Do you still mourn for the lost pets and the sad situation of my neighbor? Probably not. Once I’ve told you that none of the story is true, I’ve canceled out any reason for being sad or upset. Your emotional reaction to the story is dependent on the story being true. Once we realize that something isn’t real, we cease having a negative, emotional reactions to it. In other words, REALITY is true.

So, REACTION, BELIEF, and REALITY each seem true, individually. The problem is that they cannot all be true together without generating a contradiction.  One of the statements has to go.

Your position on the Paradox of Fiction can be characterized by which of the three statements you reject.

Some reject REACTION. Kendall Walton (1990), for example, proposes that we do not have genuine emotional reactions to fiction; rather, we only have quasi-emotional reactions.

When you were little, you may have played a game of ‘hot lava’: hopping from cushion to cushion, you avoid stepping on the floor, which you make-believe is molten magma.  If your step falters, you may pretend to be in pain, as you collapse to the floor in a melting heap, bemoaning your liquefied demise. Did you really feel pain? Were you really terrified and full of anxiety as you leaped across the floor? Probably not. Walton (and others) propose that something similar is going on when we’re watching a play or film, or reading a book. We are not really feeling the emotions we think we feel when we are wrapped up in a fictitious story. We are playing along, like a game of make-believe, and our seemingly emotional reactions are merely quasi-emotions.

Others deny BELIEF. Some claim that while engaged in a fiction we are under the illusion that the fictional events and characters are real. Talk of ‘suspension of dis-belief’ may be helpful here. If we momentarily suspend our disbelief in the events and characters of the fiction, then we can somehow ‘let’ ourselves think that the fiction is real.

Finally, some deny REALITY. Noel Carroll (1990) argues that we need not believe that fictitious events or characters are real in order to have an emotional response to them; we can have genuine, emotional reactions to things that are merely imagined.  Tamar Szabo Gendler (2008) argues that we can have emotional responses to cognitive states other than beliefs – in particular, we can have ‘aliefs’, which do not necessarily rely on representing certain things as being real or true. (We will be discussing Gendler’s view in more detail in a few weeks.)

What do you think?


Paradoxes can often be relatively easy to state, but notoriously much harder to solve. Since we do not have the space here for a lengthy discussion of each of the moves I mentioned above (although we will discuss it in more detail in class), I will end here somewhat open-endedly, by posing a few questions.

What are the costs or benefits of denying one of the statements of the paradox, as opposed to the others? Which move seems to best cohere with your experience of fictions?

When you watch an aerialist or trapeze artist or dare-devil entertainer, are you genuinely scared? Are you clutching your seat or holding your breath? Do you feel that you are taking the risk yourself, vicariously? Or do you comfort yourself with assurances that these are circus professionals who have performed a thousand times before? Do you remind yourself of all of the hours of practice put into it and all of the safety precautions taken, and that playing on your anxiety and fear is all part of the show?

Do you enjoy feeling terrified or anxious or fearful or sad in response to things you know aren’t real? Why? And (why) do you keep going back for more?

Suggested Reading

Got thoughts?