I was, you see, afraid of the dark.
There were creatures in the closet, of course, and at least a couple under the bed. Everyone knows this; it should come as no surprise. Logic and repeated demonstrations to the contrary were no consolation here, not even a consideration. Of course the creatures creep in when the lights go out and the parents go away, even though I had no idea where they came from, or what they looked like. They were made up of darkness and slinky, crincky, slithery noises, of ominous exhalations and shimmering windowshadows. They were the crocodile on the banks of the great gray-green greasy Limpopo River, the swampy ghouls from Creature Double Feature, the headless horseman, the Jabberwocky, and the Glurpy Slurpy Skakagrall all rolled into one. They were amorphous, protean, and all the more terrifying for the fact.
I am reminded of my fears, because my kids are also afraid of the dark. They, just as I once did, demand a night light. Their nighttime door must be open, if only a crack. They panic if the lights suddenly go out. When moving from one part of the house to another, they have to set every single bulb ablaze until the slimmest of shadows has been sent scurrying.
Today I sent our youngest upstairs to our bedroom for something, and he’d made it about half way before he came back down and announced, unselfconsciously, “I can’t go alone because I’m afraid of the dark.” Dark it was not, being mid-afternoon, but it was dimmish, and he was having no part of it.
So what’s with this whole fear of the dark, anyway? Well, in many ways it makes perfect sense. Roughly 80% of the information our brains receive comes from our eyes, and without that input we feel a deep sense of unease. Step into a pitch-black room and you’re likely – even if demons don’t swim before your eyes – at least to bang painfully into the furniture. It’s not so much the darkness you fear, of course, it’s the hidden things that may do you harm. It’s a deep-seated and healthy precaution that prevents you from treading on venomous snakes and stray Legos.
But go back a bit into our evolutionary history and it appears an even more practical adaptation. Until relatively recently in our history humans were only somewhere in the middle of the food chain (and even now crocodiles, big cats, and the occasional shark consider us a menu item), and lots of the predators that sank their teeth into our forebears’s backs did so under cover of darkness. There really were monsters out there.
Imagine this scene. A group of our ancestors is sitting around a fire, the light flaring and warping off the walls of their cave, when Norg stands up and says, “I think I’ll stroll on over and visit Widta.”
“The neanderthal chick?”
“Yeah. So? She’s groovy, and I dig her chest hair.”
“No, no, it’s just that, hey, Norg, it’s dark out there, man. There’s like, saber-toothed cats and bear dogs and whatnot.” There’s a lot of head nodding around the fire.
“Oh man, you guys are such wimps. I’m not afraid of the dark.”
Alas, horny Norg never came back. So whose genes got passed on down to us? Yup, you got it.
Of course most of us outgrow our irrational fears and never suffer full-blown nyctophobia (or achluophobia, scotophobia, lygophobia – apparently we can’t even agree on a term for this most common of fears), but let’s face it, you don’t like wandering around in the dark any more than I do, and the noises you hear when you’re in bed at night seem far more unsettling than they do in the daytime. A scratching downstairs is surely a burglar jiggling the lock, the wind whistling in the chimney is undoubtedly disgruntled ghosts groaning their displeasure from the secret burial ground below your home. Lying awake in a darkened room can be a dismal experience for an overactive imagination.
A quick Google search turns up lots of articles that claim to provide ways to eliminate the fear of darkness, methods that parents can use to soothe their kids’ anxiety. A study that constantly crops up involves 93 students at Toronto’s Ryerson University, the results of which suggest that insomnia is tied more to dread of the obsidian night than the terror of art history exams or the misery not getting laid. In short, about 20 students (average age 22) who identified themselves as poor sleepers also said that they held certain reservations about being in complete darkness. Which proves conclusively that small numbers of Canadian undergraduate students suffer insomnia because they are afraid of the dark. Maybe others do too, I don’t know.
So my kids have issues with blackout conditions, and struggle even with facing a gloomy hallway or the uncertain prospects of dimly-lit closet. So do a lot of adults. People are freaky like that. Is it something to worry about? Nope. Give them a night light and unless the fear is truly debilitating, ignore it completely. They’ll get over it as far as any of us ever get over it, and it provides almost endless opportunities for hiding in murky corners and popping out to scare them witless.