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What would a panicky day in the stock market be without a surge in the so-called fear gauge? The Chicago Board Options Exchange volatility index, of VIX, shot up to a record-high of 89.53 on Friday morning, suggesting that investors feared the worst for the S&P 500 at the start of trading.

It has since settled back a bit, falling to 78.93 in mid-morning trading, as investors mop their brows. That's still record territory, though. To put that into perspective, the long-term average is about 19. When the VIX index bubbled above 30 not long ago, observers were concerned by the high level of fear it implied. For contrarian types, it suggested that maybe, just maybe, nervous investors had been washed out of the market, leaving an ideal buying opportunity.

However, even Friday's surge might not compare with panic levels seen during other eras. The VIX data, after all, goes back to just 1990, meaning that the current spike is not particularly meaningful. According to Bill Luby, who writes the VIX and More blog, reverse engineering suggests that an earlier, slightly different version of the VIX index hit a high of 172 on Black Monday, in 1987.

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As far as fear in the stock market goes, we could still see far scarier days.

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