Silence in 'A Quiet Place' Hints at Sedatephobia, a Burgeoning Human Fear

Silence is a terrifying thing.

A Quiet Place/YouTube

The real terror in A Quiet Place, John Krasinski’s critically acclaimed new sci-fi horror film, is an uncomfortably familiar one. Throughout the film, as monsters hunt their prey through super-sensitive hearing and horrified humans cower quietly in the dark, audiences are often plunged into complete silence. The dearth of sound is terrifying, and, some researchers have argued, that fear may linger long after we leave the movie theater.

Silence is used to great effect in horror films by sharpening the contrast between a scary moment and the calm leading up to it. In A Quiet Place, sound is used sparingly, so that, as NPR put it, “the jump-scares really pop.” Silence is terrifying because it means there’s just one less sense we can use to figure out what’s going on around us.

That feeling of fear and anticipation is pleasurable while watching a film, but in real life, it can be crippling. In an article in The Conversation published in 2013, media communications lecturer Bruce Fell of Australia’s Charles Sturt University argued that the fear of silence is a real one — and that it’s a fear that’s uniquely affected humans in the past century or so. It’s known, somewhat informally (as research on the topic is lacking), as “sedatephobia.”

Fell based his argument on his unpublished observations of 580 Australian undergraduate students between 2007 and 2012, which suggested to him that those kids, at least, couldn’t stand silence. From those observations, he wrote, “it can be reasonably argued that their need for noise and their struggle with silence is a learnt behaviour.” Referring to one Australian government survey, he noted that kids learned from their parents and grandparents to exist in environments where the TV (the “third parent”) was always on. The ubiquity of smartphones and streaming music now, he asserted, might just be making the matter worse, because they don’t allow people to learn how to deal with silence and all its psychological trappings.

Fell doesn’t offer much of an explanation after that, though, merely noting that his students can’t stand walking around without headphones and feel frightened without sound. It bears mentioning that a fear of silence is likely a cultural phenomenon, as some countries value — even embrace — it more than others; Japanese culture, as the BBC points out, puts a high value on reticence, and not everyone grows up in environments inundated with noisy technology, though that may be rapidly changing.

Most research into the fear associated with silence focuses on the fear of awkward silences in conversation, which make people feel very unsettled. One study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2013, for example, argued that uncomfortably long silences that interrupted conversations made people feel “distressed, afraid, hurt and rejected” because it decreased their sense of belonging and social validation.

It could be argued that our fear of silence — whether the short, awkward kind; the kind that haunts us when we forget our headphones; or the intentional kind in A Quiet Place — all comes down to a single root fear: the fear of what we don’t know. Part of the reason silence is so scary is because it creates a sense of anticipation — or anxiety — depending on what you’re hoping to expect. Without aural cues to alert you to what’s going on, anything seems possible. And is anything more scary than that?

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