ACCORDING TO THIS strange and fascinating book, one of the most important traits which distinguishes human beings from other species is our ability to "experience the macabre and the uncanny." Metaphysical terror, unique to human beings, crawls up from another peculiarly human fear: a dread of family members and the very loved one with whom we surround ourselves for security. In both Eastern and Western societies, "a witch is a neighbor or relative we dislike and distrust . . . A ghost is frequently a dead kinsman for whom we feel resentment or guilt." In an attempt to exorcise America by debunking ancestor-worship, Thomas Jefferson once proclaimed: "The dead have no rights. They are nothing . . . Our creator made the earth for the use of the living, not the dead."

Dread of the living dead is one of the many "landscapes of fear" explored by Yi-fu Tuan, a professor of geography who seems conversant with every conceivable variety and nuance of anxiety. Tuan's "landscapes" defer to both tangible environments and to dark psychological topographies. His method is to evoke "swarms of images" from various periods of history and stages of individual human development -- images of wolves, witches, diseases, famines, childhood nightmares, urban chaos and rural "gallows and gibbets as omnipresent as church towers."

At first glance, this book appears to be a compelling but chaotic collage of odd and unpleasant anecdotes. We learn, for example, that throughout history many societies have casually murdered unwanted newborn children, fearing them as forces of chaos -- or, as the Greek philosopher Aristippus put it, as analogous to "spittle, lice, and such like, as things unprofitable, which nevertheless are engendered and bred out of our own selves." We also learn that evil is so instinctually equated with darkness that a medieval eclipse of the sun caused the panicked people of Essex to flee the Christian church and rebuild ruined pagan temples. Fear of witchcraft, really a fear of human nature, is also universal, a dread so powerful that one Bantu tribe protects itself against poisonous hexes by eating all its meals hurriedly in small neurotic clusters. Relatives are sometimes invited, but the line is drawn at in-laws.

The accumulation of these anecdotes and images, especially those describing disease and natural catastrophe, induces the very anxiety it depicts. In Tuan's seemingly paranoid vision, even landscapes of serenity are implicitly fearful: "The farmstead is a haven, we say, but haven implies threat."

Yet there is a larger, oddly reassuring theme to this book. The total force of these "landscapes" is to undermine currently fashionable doomsday theories by demonstrating that earlier periods of history were far more crowded with unexpected and threatening events than our own. We rather pompously label our century the "age of anxiety," while forgetting that as recently as the 19th century 13 million Chinese perished in a single three-year drought; that before modern medicine, contagious lethal disease was commonplace enough to make panic-stricken people regard the sick as possessed by demons; that the longed-for "nuclear family" was nuclear precisely because "the bonds were clearly forged out of need and fear"; that before our time "divorce was hardly necessary when death so often performed the same service." To function at all, Tuan reminds us, "a modern man or woman must learn to deal with faceless institutions and the help of strangers." Yet there was a time when virtually every stranger, in the country or city, was a potential mugger, murderer or witch.

The same argument applies to the notion that we are peculiarly "decadent" or "jaded" in our attitude toward violence. Some of the most powerful passages in this book depict the casual or even carnival atmosphere at public hangings, decapitations, torturings and live burials. The public appetite for cruelty is similarly revolting in scenes depicting thousands of people poking and laughing at lunatics chained to walls during one of the favorite "Enlightenment" and 19th-century family outings -- the visit to the asylum.

While some of this material has been documented before, it all has a special force and eloquence here because of Yi-fu Tuan's avoidance of academese and his gift for imagery. The strangely affirmative quality of this fear-obsessed book is its conviction that people can adapt to almost anything and that anxiety itself can be a positive force: it can drive us to security but also to adventure; it can signal an openness to the reality that life is change. People have battled this reality "with beliefs and devices that are as pathetic as they are ingenious, ranging from rabbit's foot to astrology." To reject these beliefs is to attain clarity and invite despair: "Yet, such is the human paradox that even the refusal to be consoled by false images can become a source of comfort and peace."