In the first Dune trailer, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) whispers the iconic line “Fear is the mind-killer,” but what does this quote mean and what’s the story behind it? Based on the 1965’s sci-fi novel of the same name, Dune tells the story of Paul, a young nobleman and the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), the man in charge of the planet Arrakis. Arrakis is the source of spice, the fuel that keeps the empire going: it allows space travel, extends human lifespans, and unlocks superhuman abilities in certain users.
One religious group, in particular, is able to use spice to gain incredible power and influence. The Bene Gesserit are a sisterhood of powerful women who trained their bodies and minds over the years to achieve abilities that could be seen as magic but, in reality, is due to their manipulation of spice and the melange drug. A few of these powers are genetic memory passed down by the female line of a Bene Gesserit, the ability to influence and control others by voice, total control over their bodies, and the capacity to discern lies from truth via careful observation.
Due to their powers, Bene Gesserit are highly influential and their members often marry into noble houses. Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), is a Bene Gesserit. Every woman accepted into their sisterhood goes through dangerous and extensive training. One of the things they learn is how to control their emotions. When faced with danger, they recite the litany against fear to focus their minds and remain calm. Lady Jessica teaches Paul these words so he can withstand pain during a Bene Gesserit test. The line “Fear is the mind-killer” is only part of the incantation, the rest can be found in the original Dune novel and goes like this:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” - Frank Herbert
The goal of the litany against fear is to help the mind overcome the primal instinct to recoil or flee when facing pain or fear. By controlling their emotional reactions and conquering fear, a person can remain logical, aware, and ready to strike at the real threat, making long-term plans. According to the Bene Gesserit, humans incapable of surpassing their most basic emotions are doomed to be controlled by them, frozen and paralyzed by fear and unable to ascend to a higher level of consciousness. Fear blinds animals and stops them from evolving.
In the trailer, Reverend Mother Mohiam is seen testing Paul. She asks him: “An animal caught in a trap would gnaw on his own leg to escape. What will you do?” This is similar to her line in the original Dune novel, and it exemplifies the Bene Gesserit philosophy behind the “Fear is the mind-killer” line. Is Paul capable of training his mind and body to surpass fear, or he is doomed to succumb to it?