If you still need to leave the door open just a crack, you’re not alone. Stylist investigates why so many grown women are still spooked by darkness.
Do you still jump at things that go bump – or creak, or screech – in the night? Is that shadowy area around the curtains, the open door of a wardrobe, the suggestion of a silhouette in the doorway, enough to make you curl up, with the covers over your head? As adults with savings accounts and sophisticated views on current affairs, we should be far too sensible to still be afraid of the dark. And yet who hasn’t lain rigid with fear after hearing a strange noise they can’t quite explain, or felt their heart leap out of their chest upon seeing a ‘spooky figure’ which turned out to be simply a dress on a hanger? Once spooked in the dark, our out-of control imaginations can run wild.
If you can identify with this, you aren’t alone. A survey of 2,000 adults conducted this year by Go Glow found that 40% of us are scared when walking around the house with the lights off. One in 10 admitted they were too terrified to even get up for a toilet trip in the darkness. It’s something Katie Johns*, 39, a Londoner who works in communications, knows well – she can still vividly recall what prompted her lifelong fear of the dark when she was a girl. “I was half asleep, and I thought I saw someone standing at the top of our stairs, just looking at me and my sister. I lay there in the dark, staring and being scared, not wanting to move. After that I slept with a crucifix for about five years and shared a bedroom with my grandmother. I couldn’t sleep alone.” Now an independent and confident woman, Katie is still not comfortable sleeping in a pitchblack room, and leaves her door open with the landing light on.
Fear is one of the earliest and most universal emotions. A study has shown eight-month-old babies were able to recognise snakes faster than other objects shown to them in pictures, suggesting that we might be hard-wired to recoil from things that have historically threatened our ancestors.
According to child psychologist David Foulkes, young children don’t appear as characters in their own dreams, so if they wake up terrified in the night it’s usually because they’re disoriented, rather than because they’ve had a Wes Craven-worthy nightmare. It’s by associating this confusion and helplessness with the pitch black that we first learn to fear the dark. About 90% of children experience this at some stage. At around the age of seven, when our dreams begin to include emotional responses, this can reinforce the fear. Most grow out of it by puberty, by learning to calm themselves after waking terrified. But for some, the terror follows them into adulthood.
There are also very practical reasons why we are averse to the dark. Firstly we are more likely to injure ourselves in a pitch-black, unnavigable world (in Go Glow’s survey, 45% of those scared of the dark were primarily concerned about something unexpected happening). Plus, although it is actually a fallacy that in the dark, our other senses improve or become heightened, we do rely on them more, which means we are naturally listening out for noises which may indicate danger.
“Nobody can entirely avoid darkness, which makes a phobia of it even more debilitating”
Add this to the silence that night-time brings, and you have a combination that can make you jump out of your skin with every squeak and creak. Even those who don’t always fear the dark are still likely to be subtly conscious of this increased vulnerability, as Amy Grier, Stylist’s feature writer, knows. “I’ve always been afraid to sleep in a house by myself,” she admits. “My mum’s house made endless noises at night. Now I’ve got my own place – even though it’s new on one of the busiest roads in London – I’m hyper-attuned to noise. I’m not a jumpy person but for some reason, the minute the lights go out I jump out of my skin at every squeak.” Scientists have also identified a genetic predisposition related to serotonin delivery, which means that some people are more prone to anxiety, feel more fear, and are less able to calm themselves once they’re afraid.
In the right dose, fear is a good and useful thing. The impulse to flee danger gives us an evolutionary advantage, protecting us from harm. The physiological response triggered by fear – the heart beats faster, cortisol (the stress hormone) is released and we experience a fight or flight response – helps animals survive their predators. But fear can outlive its usefulness. When it routinely interferes with your life to the extent that you avoid any possible situations where fear may arise, it is described as a phobia.
Unfortunately, darkness is something nobody can entirely avoid, which makes a phobia of it all the more debilitating. New research suggests that a marked percentage of insomnia sufferers might actually be afraid of the dark – that the tension and anxiety they feel at night is not because they know they won’t sleep but because they know they will have to turn the light off.
Colleen Carney, a psychologist at Toronto’s Ryerson University, tested this by surveying students about their sleep habits, and then comparing their reactions to a faint, unexpected noise in daylight and in darkness. She was surprised to find that 46% confessed to a fear of the dark, and the poorer sleepers startled a great deal more in the dark, with their fear increasing with each burst of noise. Normal sleepers got used to the noise, or were no more startled in the dark than in the daylight.
Admitting that you are scared of the dark in your adult life can be difficult – but it may be important for your health. Scientists at Ohio State University have discovered that sleeping with the light on, however dim, can be bad for you, affecting the structure of the brain and raising the odds of depression. These effects are caused by the suppression of the hormone melatonin by any night-time light.
In Carney’s experience, exposure therapy can be useful for gradually getting an anxious person accustomed to the source of their fear. “You go into the situation, you take stock of what level of anxiety you have, and then you just wait,” Carney says. “If nothing bad happens, the anxiety will abate. It might take a while, but it eventually does.”
So, the best thing you can do is face up to the dark, rather than turning the light on, which only reinforces the association between light and relief from fear. Having experienced what it feels like to get anxious, but then become calmer, is therapeutic – and repeated enough, it can solve the problem. For those used to quaking in terror at encroaching shadows, darkness can at last be the deeply restful place it ought to be.