Reflections on the horrible things our minds can create in the dark
Text: Marie Voerman Image: Islay Kilgannon
The sun settles just below the horizon, light no longer reaching alleys where street lights are lacking. Trams, trains and buses pull into their final terminals. Doors are closed behind backs, brief moments before hallway lights are turned on. Light switches are flicked off, curtains closed, books and reading glasses left to gather dust on nightstands. In a few moments, people’s worlds go from bright to dark; the minds start to wander.
A fear of the unknown is something that comes as natural to people as breathing does at times. This goes for countless aspects of life, such as being diagnosed with an illness or even something as mundane as a first day at a new job. The moment we cannot know or predict what is going to happen with a degree of certainty, a natural sense of anxiety sets in. Yet, there is an aspect of the unknown that we have to face every day: the dark. The dark represents a cumulation of the fears of the unknown. We cannot see enough to find our bearings and are afraid that there might be something lurking in the shadows that we cannot protect ourselves against. So once the darkness comes and the things we know are blanketed by pitch-black nothingness, our minds start to fill in the blanks with the worst-case scenarios, even in places we know like the back of our hands.
Fear creeps up your spine as you narrow your eyes, trying, somehow, to zoom your vision in on what you think you see in the corner. Is that…? Thoughts race through your mind. “It can’t be, right?”. But doubt comes in. You’re safe under the covers. Maybe if you keep them wrapped around your shoulders you can inch closer to your bedside table to turn on the light, get a better look. Don’t look away from the corner, though. Keep your eyes peeled. After some deep breaths, you slowly scoot your butt a little closer to the left, feet dragging behind. A toe manages to slip out from beneath the blankets and your soul momentarily leaves your body as you anticipate the clawed hand grabbing your foot. As quickly as possible, you tuck your toe back under your blanket of safety. But panic settles in when you realise you looked away from the corner. Did it just move? Shit. You scoot towards your bedside table, almost there now. To turn on the light, you’ll have to take your hand out from beneath the covers, so you’ll have to find a way to protect yourself. You could take the book on your bedside table and use it as a weapon, throw it once the light is on, create a distraction; then make a run for it. Yes, that could work! Okay, deep breath, you’re at the bedside table. The air is cold as your shaky hand peeks out of the covers and readies itself next to the light switch. The blanket entirely abandons your upper body when your other hand wraps itself around the spine of the book. No turning back now. Go! Light floods the room and you hurl the book to the corner as hard as you can. The next thing you feel is embarrassment as, with a thud, your book hits the floor. In the light, you see no monster with a lumpy back lurking in the corner, no tilted head regarding you creepily. Just your pile of dirty laundry on a chair, now pathetically falling apart from the damage your book did. A sock drops from the pile and joins your book on the floor. Damn it.
The not-being-able-to-see aspect of the dark is obviously the most threatening feature, sparking the fear of the unknown. But often it is not only pitch-black darkness that creates fear. In his book ‘The Phenomenon of Life’, philosopher Hans Jonas states that sight has become the model of perception. By just seeing, our minds can already assess a situation much better than by any other means of sense. According to Jonas, seeing can make us understand crucial things about life. Conceptions such as existing in the same space as other objects, how we should feel about the things around us and what our relation to things around us is, are essential. We need to be able to visually observe this information and process it in order for us to understand, physically and socially, how to act. Taking away our sight by being plunged into darkness, whether fully or partially, can thus create a sense of distress because the sense we are most dependent on to inform us of our surroundings disappears.
The streetlights are not working. You furrow your eyebrows, re-thinking your journey. You usually take this route due to the well-lit path it offers past the subway. But with the streetlights out, the cobblestone path ahead of you suddenly seems daunting. Trees flank one side, a small hill with subway tracks the other. For a moment, your mother’s words of warning cross your mind. Not to walk home alone when it’s dark, to put your keys between your fingers to use like a weapon when needed. You decide to briefly put your mother’s words aside as needless worrying and to keep walking, using your phone flashlight as your safety beacon. It’s only a five-minute walk, after all. Just to be safe, however, you pause your music to hear your surroundings better. Bad decision. The moment your music stops, your flashlight flickers. You frown at your phone, trying to unlock the screen and see what’s wrong, only to find your phone glitching at frozen intervals. At the same moment the panic of possibly losing your one source of light sets in, you hear footsteps behind you. Okay, think. You can try to press your home button ten times, but maybe your phone won’t even work for emergency signals. No-one is near, so screaming “Fire!” won’t help. The footsteps are getting closer, fast. Your heart is pounding in your ears and your flashlight completely abandons you. A good three-hundred metres in the distance, you see a solitary streetlight. Maybe you can make it there. Strapping your backpack tighter around your shoulders, you start running. The person behind you is faster. You feel them close to you and decide to give up, instead squeezing your eyes shut, bracing for impact and mentally preparing yourself for the consequences. But nothing happens. The footsteps pass as quickly as they come. Slowly, you blink away the dazed feeling, re-focussing your vision on your supposed attacker. Instead, all you see is the back of a jogger as they pass under the streetlight and disappear in the darkness behind it. Your phone flickers back on. Safe once again.
It's not illogical that our minds can think up worst-case scenarios when faced with the unknown of the dark. According to Jonas, our sight namely always offers us a full ‘visual field’, which allows us to understand whether we are in a place that is safe, better than we could depending on other senses. Without sight, we are thus unable to assess the safety of our situations. Psychologist Alicia Clark states that when we are suddenly faced with the dark before being able to take precautionary steps such as locking doors, we can go into a panic-mode. For some, this panic goes further than worries when faced with dark rooms or dimly-lit sidewalks. Darkness, created by our own doing and gone in the literal blink of an eye, can be enough to turn the unknown into the horrible. Seeing as we are used to constantly absorbing horrible things, it’s no wonder that these fears fester and bubble up the moment we are left vision-less. The question we are left with then, however, is: what do we do? We know fear of the dark is natural, that it makes sense for us to fill in the blank spaces of the unknown with the worst-case scenario. But do we just deal with this fear forever? There are plenty of adults who just cope with their fear of the dark every day. And as Clark supposes, we could, of course, always take safety precautions so we are prepared for when darkness comes. But, as we have seen in both real life and in the stories throughout this essay, there is usually nothing hiding in the dark other than imaginations we didn’t know we could think up. Rather than going against the fear of the dark, maybe we could lean into it. The dark unknown may seem frightening, but what if we engage with it differently? What if the dark is not a fearful unknown filled with monsters and murderers? What if it were simply made of opportunities?
The electricity has been out for longer than it usually is. Black-outs are not unfamiliar in your building, with your shitty landlord never fulfilling his promises. But this time it has gone on long enough for your electronic devices to be drained from their batteries. It’s been your book and your candle for a while now, but the candle is also dangerously close to taking its last breath. For a moment, you sit and think. Only the faint ringing in your ears and the sound of your defrosting fridge dripping accompany your thoughts. You have no other candles left, but you could always ask your neighbours. Or you could visit a friend, find some light and solace there? But, the more you think of finding a ‘solution’, the less appealing it sounds. You kind of liked the dimming light of the candle, the solitude of the black-out. Maybe you could just let the candle go out and see what happens. You might not be able to continue reading, but the story in your book will be the same tomorrow morning and your fridge will still be defrosted. You could just allow yourself to sit there, alone with your thoughts. And the things that could hide in the shadows once that candle flickers out? Well, you can’t see them, so what’s the harm? The candle huffs out and darkness envelops you. You take a deep breath, allowing your eyes to close. The thoughts racing through your mind die down as you relax. You hear some rustling in the corner of the room. You smile, imagining your pet clumsily navigating the dark. You relax deeper into the couch, rolling back your shoulders and imagining the many things that could be happening around you. After all, when in the dark, everything could be hiding, or nothing at all. How wonderful is that?