Fear of the Unknown: The 8 Scare-inducing Moments in History

Fear of the Unknown: The 8 Scare-inducing Moments in History

Fear is an ancient emotion. When modern humans skydive for the first time, they experience the same fight-or-flight response that cavemen experienced when confronted with a ravenous saber-toothed tiger.

Our heart rate rises, blood is diverted to key body regions, adrenaline levels skyrocket, and our strength, stamina, and senses all improve.

In other words, we transform into terrified superheroes who are prepared to fight or flee depending on the situation. It’s a reflex that has served us well; scientists credit it with contributing to our species’ survival.

Unfortunately, many awful events in our past have caused terror in the minds of people all across the world.  In many of these cases, the threat was immediate and terrifyingly obvious, such as the sight of a mushroom cloud rising over Hiroshima in 1945 or the tsunami wave sweeping toward Indonesian coastlines in 2004.

Other times, the threat was less clear, and anxiety lurked in the dark unknown. Will a natural calamity strike and wipe out your town?

Could a serial killer target your neighborhood and threaten your family? Could an astronomical event affect the Earth and all life on it?

Will a regional conflict spread globally and start World War III? We prepared our list of eight scare-inducing moments in history based on this perspective: fear of the unknown.

1. Y2K

Fear of the Unknown: The 8 Scare-inducing Moments in History
Avalon/Getty Images

In December 1999, the Y2K bug dominated headlines. People built bunkers and stocked them with Spam after dire forecasts of inadvertent missile launches, nuclear meltdowns, financial turmoil, and planes falling from the sky. Wilderness survival boot courses attracted more participants than ever before.

Even Time magazine put up a generator-powered “war room” in the basement of its headquarters. People were apprehensive, despite professional reassurances. So, what was the Y2K bug, and why was it transforming otherwise ordinary individuals into end-of-times?

Y2K was a computer bug. An avoidable computer bug. The difficulty began in the 1960s, when computer programmers, concerned about the cost and constraints of digital storage, created code that only permitted two digits for the year. “10/15/1965,” for example, would simply be coded as “10/15/65.”

Everything was good until the 1990s when there was growing concern that computers would misinterpret the approaching year 2000 — known in computer jargon as “00” — as 1900. Calculations for everything from bank interest rates to nuclear power plant safety checks would be wrong.

In preparation, the US spent millions of dollars modernizing the military, transportation, and financial computer systems.

People watched with little more concern and a little less jubilation on December 31, 1999, as the clock ticked down to probable Armageddon. At midnight, nothing happened. Everything was well, except for a few minor, isolated issues. Countries that did not prepare performed no worse than those that did. And everyone exhaled a collective sigh of relief

2. Climate Change

Fear of the Unknown: The 8 Scare-inducing Moments in History
Nick Paleologos, Getty Images

Politics surely obscures the problem of climate change. However, if 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists, 18 American scientific groups, 200 global scientific organizations, several science academies, US government agencies, and intergovernmental bodies are correct regarding human-caused climate change, you should be concerned. Very terrified.

These are the facts. Sea levels have risen by 6.7 inches (17 cm) in the last century. As of 2016, the ten warmest years since 1880 had all occurred during the previous twelve years. The oceans are warming and acidifying. Ice sheets, Arctic sea ice, glaciers, and snow cover are all receding.

And the cause of all these changes, atmospheric carbon dioxide, has climbed to levels unprecedented in human history. In 2016, an important measurement station in Tasmania observed levels greater than 400 parts per million, the highest in the previous 15 million years.

So, what is the big deal? Some of the repercussions of global warming are already occurring, such as rapid sea level rise, more intense rainfall, more severe heat waves, greater wildfires, and reduced water supply.

A trend toward bigger and more frequent hurricanes, while not linked to climate change, is anticipated to accelerate.

People in vulnerable locations, like as the low-lying Pacific island nation of Kiribati, are especially concerned but determined to fight back.

3. Yellowstone Supervolcano Eruptions

Fear of the Unknown: The 8 Scare-inducing Moments in History
Nick Paleologos, Getty Images

Events that occurred hundreds of thousands or even millions of years ago can be frightening, not because a large number of people witnessed them, but because they presage what may occur in the future.

Consider the Yellowstone supervolcano eruptions, which occurred 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago. The oldest of these eruptions produced a volcanic deposit known as the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff.

It erupted 585 cubic miles (2,450 square kilometers) of molten rock, forming a caldera 60 miles (96.6 kilometers) wide.

This makes it one of history’s five largest individual volcanic occurrences, about 6,000 times larger than the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption.

Yellowstone continues to be an active volcanic zone, as evidenced by its numerous geysers and hot springs. What happens if there is another such eruption?

One of the most serious issues would be the vast volumes of ash emitted into the atmosphere, which winds would transport across the United States.

The Pacific Northwest and Midwest would be especially heavily struck, causing short-term devastation to crops and streams choked with gray sludge.

An eruption of this magnitude would also spew massive volumes of gases into the atmosphere, creating a decade-long cooling. The resultant shifts in rainfall patterns and severe frosts may lead to widespread crop failure.

4. The Great Clown Scare of 2016.

Fear of the Unknown: The 8 Scare-inducing Moments in History
Bildquelle, Getty Images)

Every decade is defined in part by a unique event or fad. The 1950s had UFO sightings, the 1970s had Disco Demolition Night, and in the 1990s, people went into survival mode in the months leading up to Y2K. What distinguishes the 2010s? Most likely, folks dressed up as terrifying clowns and scared the pants out of others.

It all began in August 2016 in an apartment complex in Greenville, South Carolina, when a youngster told his mother about a terrifying encounter: two clowns attempted to entice him into the woods outside their building.

The story was unproven, but copycats quickly arose. A woman in Alabama started a Facebook group called “Flomo Klown” and threatened to kill students at a local school.

Police in Kentucky arrested a man dressed as a clown and hiding in a ditch. In just a few months, over 100 people reported clown sightings and threats in the United States, and the issue expanded to other nations such as England, Canada, and Australia.


5. Cuban Missile Crisis

Fear of the Unknown: The 8 Scare-inducing Moments in History
Bildquelle, Getty Images)

“As I walked out [of the President’s Oval Office], I thought I might never live to see another Saturday night” .That’s a scary quote, regardless of who said it or what they were talking about. But when you learn that was John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, talking about a probable nuclear strike on the United States, it’s plain horrifying. It simply goes to show how close the world was to a nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

The issue at hand was the Soviet Union’s use of Cuba as a launch site for nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States. Kennedy had cautioned Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev not to do so, but when American spy planes discovered missile launch sites on the communist island nation, tensions rose.

Very tense. On October 22, Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba to prevent the Soviets from transferring offensive weaponry.

Negotiations lasted six days, while the US Strategic Air Command, in charge of the country’s strategic nuclear strike capabilities, was at DEFCON 2, the greatest level of preparedness ever ordered.

Fortunately, cooler minds triumphed; otherwise, none of us would be here. On October 28, Khrushchev promised to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for an American guarantee not to invade the island and the removal of American missiles from Turkey.

The brush with nuclear war served as a wake-up call for the competing superpowers, who established a direct telephone connection between the Kremlin and the White House as a result.

6. European Witch Hunts

Bildquelle, Getty Images)

If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know that slight sleights or misinterpreted gestures may quickly develop into serious problems once the local gossip mill gets rolling. Rural Europe was no exception in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. On second consideration, there was one significant difference: a scorned neighbor in late Renaissance Europe could accuse you of being a witch.

Consider what that would be like. You bring some food to a neighbor who has recently given birth, and the child becomes ill the next day.

Perhaps you become irritated with someone and make a half-joking remark, wishing him harm. You did not mean it! But before you know it, local officials are dragging you off to a witch trial where rationality is irrelevant and torture is the chosen method for extracting a confession.

Hopefully, you will persuade the superstitious executioner that you are not a witch; if not, you will be hanged, decapitated, or burned at the stake. Yikes!

By the late 1700s, the witch frenzy had largely passed, but not before 40,000 to 100,000 people had been slaughtered in such heinous circumstances as those described above. This fanaticism disproportionately affects women, particularly the elderly. Eighty percent of those ruthlessly killed during this sad period of European history were women.

However, as the examples above demonstrate, these executions were not part of a systematic effort by the Catholic Church to eradicate pre-Christian religions and the women who practiced them.

Unfortunately, the witch trials were primarily about petty, vengeful, and superstitious accusers who were supported by low-level local authorities.

7. Earth passes through the tail of Halley’s Comet.

orlovaillustration, Pixabay

By 1910, the sighting of Halley’s Comet was no surprise. Edmond Halley, an astronomer, determined its orbit in 1705 and projected that it would resurface every 75 to 76 years. He correctly predicted its arrival in 1759, and the comet illuminated the night sky again in 1835.

Although telescopes were not yet powerful enough to trace its distant course, everyone anticipated another encounter in 1910.

That was not the scary part. The startling news that Earth was on pace to pass through the comet’s 15.5-million-mile (25-million-kilometer) tail sparked everyone’s excitement. To make matters worse, scientists employed a newly discovered technology called spectroscopy to investigate the comet’s makeup, and they discovered something unsettling: the tail included cyanogen, a deadly chemical.

While most scientists were unconcerned, a fearful public seized on the assertions of people like French astronomer and author Camille Flammarion, who said the poison would suffocate all life on the globe. It was a recipe for mass panic.

Churches conducted prayer vigils, while savvy scam artists marketed comet medicines to counteract the poison’s effects. Even wilder predictions followed, claiming that the comet’s gravity may disrupt Earth’s tides and lead the Pacific to drain into the Atlantic.

Despite the doomsday forecasts, nothing occurred. Halley’s Comet returned in 1986, and with any luck, we’ll see it again in 2061.

8. Washington, D.C., Sniper Attacks

Bildquelle, Getty Images)

Murder is one of the most horrible crimes a person can commit, and it is regrettably all too common in our culture. Victims usually know who killed them. However, in certain horrific cases, killers choose to kill people at random. That was the horrific reality of the 2002 sniper assaults in Washington, D.C.

On October 2, John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo got into a blue Chevrolet Caprice and drove to an Aspen Hill, Maryland, craft store on a deadly errand. Their first shot smashed the store window, but it nearly missed the cashier’s head.

After failing on their initial try, the couple proceeded to a grocery store, where they killed a man walking across the parking lot. The shootings continued for three weeks, killing people at a gas station, home improvement store, middle school, and other common public areas.

As you could expect, folks were rattled. Children stayed home from school, sporting events were canceled, and people hid while pumping gas. Mercifully, police were able to identify Muhammed and Malvo as suspects and apprehend them at a rest stop, but not before killing 10 people and injuring three more.

Their motivations were unclear. Perhaps it was an intricate ploy to conceal the intended murder of Muhammed’s ex-wife, or it was part of a larger scheme to blackmail the federal government.

Whatever the motivation behind the binge, it remains one of the most terrifying episodes of serial killing in American history.


Scary phenomena, whether genuine (climate change, tsunamis, supervolcanoes) or perceived (Y2K, creepy clowns, Halley’s Comet), have played an important role in our common human past. There are so many things we’ve been afraid of over the years that it’s difficult to narrow down the list.

So, how should we address these situations? I’d like to think we respond with deliberate, beneficial action, but based on past incidents, it appears that mass panic is a more usual reaction. Isn’t that a scary thought?

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