Saturday, 22 October 2016

Phobia File: Darkness

I'm not a fool. I am not superstitious; I walk under ladders, I pet black cats and I don't believe in gods. Also, I'm a bit of a night-owl. I often have trouble sleeping, which leads me to staying up at night, at my computer or watching movies late at night. And I am not immature, I know that it gets dark at nightime, I know this is caused by the turn of the earth and I know that monsters don't burst out when daylight slips away.
However, that doesn't stop the fact that I don't like the darkness. Because whilst I may occasionally stay up during the midnight hours, I must always have a light on, I must always have a source of illumination and a beacon in the dark hallways, otherwise my mind starts playing tricks on me.
The Word of the Day is: 'NYCTOPHOBIA'
Nyctophobia /niktə'fōbeeə/ n. A fear of the night, nighttime or darkness.
I know that it may seem childish, even I think it's childish; after all it's children that fear the dark, they run into their parents' bedrooms because they're scared of the monster under the bed, the monster in the closet - it's always a monster, and it's always in the part of the room that is the darkest because of course the monster isn't real, they're just scared of the dark. Children know that monsters live in the shadows, but adults are smarter than that, we know that monsters don't exist so there's nothing to fear in the dark.
But that knowledge, for me, is not enough.
See, I used to think it was criminals. When I lived in the city, if I walked home at night through the botanical gardens or alongside certain sections of the river, the streetlights would leave me behind and I would walk in the darkness. But when I walked in the dark, I came to realize that it's not criminals that I feared, because criminals are not born with superhuman nightvision, criminals can't see any better than you can, so you're at no greater risk at night than you are during the day.
But see, these are all things that I know. I know criminals aren't special, I know monsters don't exist, I know that the darkness will eventually fade in the face of a bright enough light. I still think it is that unknown that causes the fear. It's a senseless fear; not nonsense, but a fear that you cannot sense. You cannot see, you cannot feel. You are immersed in this dark and you cannot see that the way ahead is safe. And whilst we "know" monsters don't exist, we can't be ultimately certain until we switch on the light . . .

And I believe that everyone has a bit of fear of the dark, even if it's not that serious, because it is a deeply ingrained fear. We are, after all, evolved apes. We are tribal creatures and we used to sleep in groups. Not necessarily on top of one another, but still "together", so in this modern age when we go to our bedrooms alone, we don't have the tribe to protect us, we are exposed like an abandoned exile in the wild, open forest.
So, for us, the darkness is a time to sleep and huddle together, because if we were alone and wandering awake we'd be at risk. But in this modern age when we spend so much time awake at night. People work during the graveyard shift, our cities are lit with streetlights and we often travel and communicate between timezones.
We're not made to be awake at night, in fact if we don't get enough sunlight we can feel depressed and sick. We are made to be awake and alert during the day, but asleep and vulnerable at night.
So, perhaps it's not the presence of danger that makes darkness scare us, but the absence of hope. You're not at a greater disadvantage if you're attacked by a madman in the dark, but if he stabs you and runs away, you're left there, bleeding to death in the darkness. And since we know that everyone else has fled the dark to sleep or find safety, you can't find help, nobody can save you. It's just you and the darkness getting colder and colder. And even if criminals can't see in the dark, there are several animals that can. We're not scared of the intelligent, conniving crook. We're scared of the simple, the wild. The brave and brutal beasts that belong in the belated black.

But as for me? I'm not totally sure why I am so scared of the dark, but I have some theories. When I was a young kid, around four or five, a few times when I was sleeping I couldn't rest, so I'd stare at the roof . . . and then I saw something. Red and green spots, moving around. I was terrified. I thought they were germs or teeny tiny bugs. I freaked out and ran to my parents room. I told them I was covered in bugs, but they told me it was nothing and I went back to bed.
I went back and for two nights in a row, I just stared and watched the moving dots until I fell asleep. Now, as an adult, I understand that this is just because I have an incredibly mild form of visual snow. It's so mild that I can only see it when it is completely dark, but as a kid it was pretty creepy. I got over it when I realized what I was seeing was in my eyes, not on my skin, but I think it started my distrust of the darkness.
And now, in these contemporary years, I have had issues with dark because of my anxiety. As I said, even the knowledge that the darkness is nothing to fear, doesn't change the fact that you feel scared. And when I suffered from anxiety, it was the fear itself that got to me. I was scared that darkness would make my stomach drop, my heart race, my mind go around and around in circles.

I guess what I'm saying is that the "monster" that I fear in the dark, is me. A panicked, flailing animal that sees everything around it as dangerous. I'm the simple beast that stalks the shadows, that in my fear, cannot think.
Or perhaps it is just that psychology. Human beings are not made for the dark. Like deep underwater; high up in the air and in extreme heat or cold, our bodies just aren't made for it. It's understandable that people panic when they choke, suffocate, burn or freeze; so isn't it fair that we avoid those things for which our body isn't suited? No . . . I don't think that explains this fear, because it's not that highly minded. I'm just trying to make it sound more interesting than it really is. All in all, it's just fear of the unknown. That in the dark, something else could be there, and if it is, I don't know where it is, why it is or how it got there; and I especially don't know what it wants from me.
I'm sure you've had that moment when you wake up in the night, turn on the hall light and go to the bathroom. Then, you go to wash your hands (because you're not a dirty cretin, you should wash your hands), and when you go to the sink, you see the mirror and as the dark reflection sees you, the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. You know that it's just you, but it's an instinctual, reflexive response: Who is this stranger in my house?
Because you don't trust the dark. you don't know what secrets it may hold. And so long as you can't see in the dark, there's no way of knowing what the darkness hides.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and until next time, I hope this post has shed some light on the whole idea of fear of the dark. If not, join me in the dark again tomorrow, when I'll be counting down another night leading to Halloween.

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