The word evokes emotion. From an early age, we are taught to fear the dark. “Be home before dark,” “Nothing good happens after dark,” Things that go bump in the night and, don’t forget the children’s prayer which includes, “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord, my soul to take.” Darkness, we are told, is not our friend.
Horror movies use that instilled fear of the dark, telling us that vampires come out at night, werewolves transform in the light of the moon and monsters live in closets and under the beds of misbehaving children. As a kid, I was terrified of the dark. If I had to get up in the middle of the night, I knew the goblins and bloodthirsty creatures prowled the hallways. I heard the squeaks and creaks on the wooden floorboards – They. Were. There.
Childish, irrational fears, right?
Not so fast. There may be an evolutionary factor, imprinted in our genetic material. Think about it, for a moment. If you lived in a shallow cave, a thatched hut in the wild Savannah, or an Ewok themed treehouse, you were part of the food chain. The fear of ending up as a predator’s dinner, would make sound sleep difficult.
That’s all in our prehistoric past!
Sorry to pop your little bubble of bliss, there Buttercup, but there is good reason for fear of what lurks in the dark. We don’t install steel deadbolts in our doors to protect us from saber-tooth cat attacks, but there are evil forces out there. Home invasion robberies, serial rapists and killers are the modern saber-tooth cat. Don’t believe me? The Night Stalker, The Boston Strangler, The Hillside Strangler, The Speed Freak Killers, The Manson Family, all killed at night. The Pillowcase Rapist, The Eastside Rapist, again, preyed on their victims in the dark when they were the most vulnerable. Cover and concealment in the blanket of the night.
Fear of the dark, is an anxiety disorder according to some psychologists. An anxiety of not knowing what happens in the dark and no ability to control what’s swirling around in the black vortex. Some suffer insomnia, in fear of closing their eyes. The flickering shadow in the corner, the black mass of darkness that you catch out of the corner of your eye – it is watching you – waiting. How’s that for anxiety producing.
At some point in my childhood, I overcame my fear of the dark. I’m not sure when it happened, but I remember, as an adult, walking a dark prison cell block one night in a maximum security lockup (where some of the notorious characters listed earlier were housed). These creatures didn’t sleep much, almost as if they feared the night and what waited from them in a dark dreamworld. If it was the ghosts of victims, or fear of some spiritual retribution, I’ll never know. But I knew if they feared the dark, then I didn’t need to worry, because I was part of their dark. Folks I worked with swore there were ghosts haunting the housing units and the old gallows at Folsom Prison. Maybe.
Fear springs from the unknown and once you go into the dark, face what’s really there, you capture its essence and then you are in control. I take comfort in the dark, its sounds, and its calmness. A mystery writer should be able to explore the dark – revel in it. To quote that old Simon and Garfunkel tune, “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend.”