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George Mitchell: Why does the dark still scare us?

Despite the human race evolving, many of us are still scared of the dark.
Despite the human race evolving, many of us are still scared of the dark.

Why are we scared of the dark?

According to some psychologists and researchers, our fear of the dark is actually an evolutionary thing. It’s in us all and goes right back to our ancestors.

Think of the guy living in a cave – for once darkness descends, that was when creatures came out, and to them we were dinner.

A fear of the dark in those times was essential, for it kept you on your toes and your wit sharp. Fear of the dark in those days was healthy. It kept you safe from predators. It kept you alive basically.

Being scared of the dark in Prehistoric times kept us alive. 

Maybe being scared of the dark is simply hardwired into our DNA. Our brain equates the dark with something to fear.

However, the days of being savaged by a wild beast are long gone, so therefore we have no reason to be worried about the dark anymore. You’d think that, but then why as a species are we still afraid of the dark in the 21st Century? Is it just instinct, or is something else going on here?

Apparently, it’s not the actual dark we are scared of, it’s the unknown it brings. The brain goes into overdrive, and all of a sudden, we perceive hidden dangers, that until it got dark were never there. In a nutshell, it’s the unknown that darkness creates that we are scared of. Not darkness itself.

And we haven’t helped to be honest. After all, we came up with the bogeyman! What were we thinking? Conjuring up a hideous mythical creature simply in order to frighten children into practicing good behaviour.

“You’d better be good, or the bogeyman will come and get you…”

Not exactly comforting, is it?

And as for the phrase, “things that go bump in the night”, I’d be incredibly careful of using that in front of young children.

Things that go bump in the night…

As a kid, I used to think the bogeyman was covered in bogies. Yuck. But more about scary characters in next week’s column…

Most children do grow out of their fear of the dark, but sadly not all. And of course, it’s not just young children who are scared of the dark, but adults also.

I’d say there are probably more adults out there who are still scared of the dark, even though we’d never admit it. Are you scared of the dark?

At the extreme end, some adults suffer a severe fear of the dark. It’s called nyctophobia, and it can trigger panic attacks and anxiety.

Let’s take Hitchcock’s classic Psycho and that iconic shot of the Bates Motel. In daytime, it’s just another old house, but when Hitch turns it into a night shot with dark brooding sky and maybe adds in a bit of lightening, it’s terrifying.

Same house, nothing has changed, apart from it’s now nighttime.

Once again, it’s not the actual dark that scares us, it’s what the darkness seems to “bring”.

The Bates Motel doesn’t look as scary in daylight.

The street we live on, a nearby river, a local forest, up a mountain even. All splendid, calm and peaceful during the day, but what happens come nightfall? Well, nothing of course, nothing outside changes. But in our minds, it all changes.

If during the day you were to walk thorough a forest near to where you live, I’d guess you’d have no fear. No reason to.

However, make that very same trip at night, and all manner of things can happen, but only in your mind of course. Your rational brain knows that there are no monsters planning to gobble you up, nor is there a bogeyman waiting to pounce.

Yet, rationality flies out the window, you start to imagine all manner of threats and can become scared. Even though you “know” all is well out there. I find this fascinating.

Why is it that we can sit in a forest, for example, and enjoy its beauty with no scary thoughts, yet the moment it gets dark, we get scared?

There’s no logic in that. The forest hasn’t changed, nothing has changed, it’s all in our minds.

Personally, I’d be more scared of walking through a UK city centre at pub throwing-out time, rather than being in a forest in the dark. Far more real threats in a city than in a forest.

But that, of course, is me thinking logically, and as we all know, we humans don’t always think logically or behave rationally. Especially when it’s dark.

Fear of the dark though is not confined to forests or streets, it can, and often does, take place inside the sanctity of our own homes. Yes, the very home you walk around all day and never give scary things a second thought. But come darkness, many feel differently.

According to a British survey in 2017, a staggering 64% of adults said they were afraid of the dark.

And believe it or not, another survey informed me that 10% of adults did not even get out of bed to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, due to it being dark.

I also read elsewhere, that 22% said they didn’t like having their feet hanging out of the covers at night, in case “something” grabs them.

Some people don’t like having their feet hanging out of bed for fear of something grabbing them.

I’m certainly not laughing at these people, far from it. But it’s just not rational, is it? Then again, nighttime and the “dark” seems to be another world entirely. An irrational world. I must admit, I’ve at times as an adult been scared in a perfectly normal house at nighttime. Of course, in the morning I always chastise myself for being stupid.

Do you have children or grandchildren? Are they afraid of the dark? What options are there to help overcome this often deeply worrying fear. At least as adult we can, if we focus, rationalise, and then remove our dark fears, but for, say, a seven-year-old, it’s not so easy.

I did come across one interesting piece of advice. Someone recommended putting water in a small spray bottle, giving it to the child and getting them to place it by their bed. Explain to them that it’s a special pray that scares off monsters. So, if they wake up in the night and feel scared, they simply spray the water into the darkness and hey presto, the monster vanishes.

I’d never heard this before and initially thought it was a brilliant idea. However, on researching this more, it’s recommended by many experts to be actually counterproductive. Some say that if you do what I’ve mentioned above, you are admitting to the child that monsters do in fact exist. And long-term, that is not good.

Best advice seems to be, don’t use this spray idea and talk to them instead.

I remember as a kid shouting through and asking for my parents to “leave the light on!”. Not easy back in my day, for it was either a blazing 60-watt bulb or pitch black. Now, of course, children have these soft night lights. I imagine they can and do bring much comfort from night fears, be they rational or irrational ones.

As a child, I was scared of two movies. First up, The Planet of the Apes. I loved it but was terrified of the gorillas on horseback who chased the humans and caught them in nets. It was scary enough just watching it, but then when going to bed and in the dark, it all seemed way more real.

Secondly, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. A stunning movie that I adore. However, the Child Catcher, played by the magnificent ballet dancer Robert Helpmann, scared the life out of me.

The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang still scares George. 

I never worried about him when out at school during the day, but occasionally at night in bed, I worried he would come in with his net and try to take me away.

I have to confess that he still scares me to this day. But what a wonderful character and what a performance.

Are you afraid of the “bogeyman”?

I’m not.

OK, maybe sometimes.

And now, if you’ll indulge me, here is my very clever link to next week’s column.

Next week – The dark side of fairytales…