Please help me out in my effort to better understand the emotion of extreme fear. I will use the example of Ridley Scott’s film “Alien” featuring H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph preying on the crew of the “Nostromo”.

While I believe that the cast and crew of “Alien” did an excellent job in portraying the emotions of the humans during their encounter with an unmentionably vicious and seemingly unstoppable predator in the horrific solitude of space, I keep asking myself:

What are the limits to the fear a human mind can deal with before descending into insanity or causing the individual to enter a stupor? Would a real human being in the shoes of Ellen Ripley be able to survive and preserve her sanity?

Additional questions I don’t seek explicit answers to but which might inform and elucidate my main query are:

  • How long and how far can adrenaline keep the body and mind alert before fatigue compels a human to rest and sleep regardless of the imminence of existential danger?
  • Can a bizarrely strange and tremendously terrifying situation effectively neutralize the survival instinct, e.g. by overwhelming the capacity of the mind to process new information and resulting in the individual being awe-struck and incapable of either fighting or fleeing?
  • Could a certain type of psychopath – because of lack of fear and empathy as well as being out of touch with reality – be significantly better suited to surviving the encounter with such a monster?
  • Could a (nearly) complete lack of imagination (as a non-deviant character trait) mitigate the adverse effects of fear a person would experience in such a situation? Conversely, would a highly impressionable person succumb and collapse more easily?
  • Is there a correlation between a sudden and surprising threat and the will for struggle, on the one hand, and a repetitive, “banal” mortal danger from the point of view of helpless people and inertness and lack of resistance, on the other? To clarify: Am I more likely to be able to muster my strength and fight back an enemy, however terrible, that just attacked for the first time, than somebody or something that I have seen methodically, mercilessly and effortlessly destroy all around me?
  • P.S. As I am inexperienced in neuroscience, I am not completely sure I have used the correct tags.

    • $\begingroup$ I think there are a few avenues for research - there are "psychological horror" kind of games which try to push you to the limits. The second would be first hand solo combat experiences behind enemy lines and such. Third may be the use of lucid dreaming to overcome nightmares. If I remember correctly, the whole point of that movie was that they were fighting the aliens, as opposed to being hunted or trying to hide, etc. $\endgroup$ – Alex Stone May 10 '16 at 18:31
    • $\begingroup$ I think that the movie hinges on people comparing themselves to Ellen and wondering if they would measure up. I don't think anyone believes that her actions and attitude are impossible, just unusual. Basically all Drama and Horror movies work the same way, but in Horror everyone usually gets defeated, and in Drama the good guy wins (else it would be Horror). There are stories of women doing things to protect their children that most people without someone they love to be protective of would not do. It means forgetting yourself to save someone else. War heroes do this: look up Butch O'Hare. $\endgroup$ – user9634 May 11 '16 at 22:26