Audiences Talking ‘Fear’
: A Qualitative Investigation

  • Kerstin Leder

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis presents the processes and outcomes of a cross-national and cross generational audience study of the varying roles of film and television in relation to people’s fearful perceptions of the world. As well as dealing with viewers’ ‘fright’ responses to individual films or programmes, the thesis provides a detailed critique of Gerbner et al.’s Cultivation Analysis and responds to current generalised discourses of a ‘culture of fear’ and the media’s role within it. The study is based on qualitative material gathered from nine three-generational families in Germany and the UK. Research tools included longitudinal viewing diaries, open-ended questionnaires, and semi-structured interviews with participants from 9 to 80 years of age. Interview transcripts were analysed thematically and discursively, with particular attention towards the kinds of ‘fear’ participants made relevant in their talk, as well as the nature and significance of wider socio-cultural processes.
The material discussed in this study suggests that media-related fears are manifold and contain experiential and consequential differences. Importantly, they have to be understood in relation to viewers’ sense of life history, their theories of the media, and their understanding of themselves as emotional beings. Participants in this study inhabited different viewing positions as members of physical and/or ‘imagined’ audiences, which impacted on their interpretive stances towards a range of media material. As a result, ‘fear’ emerged as a fluid and complex concept, and one which contained both personal and social dimensions. These findings directly challenge the assumptions which underlie Cultivation Analysis and related studies on ‘fear cultures’, particularly as regards the centrality of the media text (including its representations of violence), the determinism of socio-demographic variables, and the model of ‘fear’ as singular, negative, cumulative, and intensely privatised.
This study contributes to knowledge in the fields of media and communication studies, film studies, psychology, sociology, and cultural studies audience research.
Date of Award25 Feb 2009
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
Sponsors Arts and Humanities Research Council
SupervisorMartin Barker (Supervisor), Kate Egan (Supervisor) & Ernest Mathijs (Supervisor)

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