“Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.” Yoda, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
The underlying foundation of the Star Wars saga is defined by one single yet enormously important word: hope. Yet it’s often fear that propels the struggle to cling to hope, a hope running throughout almost every moment of Star Wars no matter how big or small.
It’s fear that pushes Luke into self-imposed exile on Ahch-To, cutting himself off from the Force, after his failure to help Ben Solo, now Kylo Ren.
It’s the fear of losing his mother that nudges Anakin Skywalker down his path of self-destruction, fear that stokes his desire for Padmé and, in the end, fear of losing Padmé that costs him the love of his life, unleashing a plague of darkness on an unsuspecting galaxy.
It’s fear of discovery that drives Caleb Dume to abandon his identity and adopt a new life and name, Kanan Jarrus, in the aftermath of Order 66.
“I think fear is both an overt and underlying current in a lot of Star Wars storytelling,” says Charles Soule, author of several Marvel Star Wars comics, including the second volume of Darth Vader. “Even from the earliest days of the prequel trilogy, you hear Yoda talking about what fear leads to.”
Darth Vader, the living embodiment of fear for his enemies, is not so much guided by the emotion, but cursed by it. “Certainly his journey from Anakin to Darth Vader is about fear of losing control of himself, control of his life, losing Padmé– which obviously happens — and then after all that happens, it’s fear of facing up to what he’s done,” Soule says. “Vader … is strongly governed by fear and he’s supposed to be the cautionary tale of what fear will do to you if you give into it.”
No matter how you define fear — be it the modern definition of an unpleasant emotional response to a perceived danger or the ancient and archaic mix of dread and reverence — it’s a living, breathing part of Star Wars, paramount to all other emotions within the saga save, perhaps, for hope.
Fear, in the real world and the Star Wars universe, too, is immutable and immortal, a natural reaction in almost all living things to something they can’t understand, and an ever-present part of the Force, too. You can’t have Star Wars without fear. You can’t have tales of courage and valor or despair and dishonor, either.
Owen Lars feared for Luke Skywalker were he to discover his true history and lineage. Beru Lars feared for Luke’s hopes for the future. Old Ben Kenobi, he wasn’t to be trusted, always getting in the way, putting the Lars family at risk with his scattered involvement.
For Obi-Wan Kenobi, his greatest fear was losing Luke, failing in his mandate to keep him safely ensconced away from prying eyes, loose lips and the omnipresent malevolence of not just Darth Vader but Darth Sidious. That fear drove Kenobi to endure years of a solitary life, punctuated by brief yet startling confrontations with Tusken Raiders and, of course, a final showdown with Darth Maul.
Fear is one of the strongest factors which propel the stories in Star Wars, no matter the era or the medium.
In A New Hope, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin and the Empire embrace fear while wielding what is believed to be the ultimate threat and power. “Fear will keep the local systems in line,” he tells his officers. “Fear of this battle station.”
Delilah S. Dawson, author of Star Wars: Phasma, showed how the fierce warrior made her way into the embrace of the First Order. Was it fear of losing that prestige and power and position that kept her motivated?
“Whether we fear dying, suffering, losing someone we love, or becoming something we dread, every character’s motivation is rooted in fear,” Dawson says. “For Phasma, she wouldn’t personally consider her primary motivation to be fear, and yet her life is dedicated to survival, which is basically the flip side of the coin of death. Outside of not wanting to die, she doesn’t want to go without again, to be hungry again, to have to make the tough choices that come with life on Parnassos. Of course the First Order and their promises of order and plenty would appeal to her.”
In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Jyn Erso beats back her apathy and fear of involvement to join with Cassian Andor and his team to not just find her father, but to steal the Death Star plans.
For those watching the films and television shows, for readers devouring page after page of novels and comics, playing the video games, the fear that our avatars within Star Wars experience is amplified, reflected even, upon us.
Consider Luke’s brush with the dark side in the cave as shown in The Empire Strikes Back. Sitting in a darkened theater, surprised by the sudden appearance of Darth Vader only to see Luke’s face within the cracked-open helmet, the image jarred audiences in 1980 and continues to shock in 2018.
Cavan Scott, author of some of IDW Publishing’s Star Wars Adventures and the recent five-issue miniseries Tales from Vader’s Castle, is using fear to drive the story, jumping from era to era and focusing on how it can affect characters’ motives and determination. Yet fear cannot exist without hope, he says.
“They have to coexist in a story otherwise there is no conflict and therefore no momentum. It’s fear that drives the story forward, fear that if you stop the bad guys will win, that you will lose those who are important to you and, often in Star Wars, that you will lose yourself,” he says. “But, for me, one of the greatest truths in Star Wars is that, no matter how scary a situation or a foe, whether it’s a giant monster or facing down an entire Imperial fleet, you are not helpless if you have each other. We need our heroes to face seemingly insurmountable odds for us to show that they gain strength — and hope — from each other.”
Writing an all-age Star Wars comic that’s focused on scary events has some boundaries, but as Scott notes, “kids love to be scared.”
Still, there is a balance to be maintained, too.
For Scott, it provides a fulcrum on which to use differing levels of fear to tell a story that adults will find creepy and unsettling, yet without sending kids screaming from the room.
“Obviously, you have to be responsible and not push things as far as you would in a tale for adults. Also, with kids you can use humor to counterpoint the scares and ease the tension if need be,” he said. “And, as we’ve seen time and time again, humor and horror go hand-in-hand. Just look around the theater next time you see a horror movie. I can guarantee the audience will jump at a scare and then laugh, some of them nervously, of course, but it’s a laugh all the same.”
Much like Star Wars, where humor and being scared are often present together.
Ultimately, fear can be both an ally and enemy, in our everyday lives and in a galaxy far far away.
“I think fear is one of our most primal and important emotions. I think it drives us to do a lot of things and make a lot of choices, make a lot off decisions,” says Soule. “It keeps us away from things and pushes us toward things.”
Matt Moore is a writer and editor and co-creator/co-host of Comics With Kenobi, a weekly podcast detailing and discussing contemporary Star Wars comics from Marvel and IDW Publishing and their role in advancing the Star Wars saga.