Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Real life, not the Nickelodeon show.
February 28, 2014 | Fog | March 2014
I woke up in the middle of the night a few days ago and looked around my darkened apartment. My boyfriend was sound asleep next to me and I rolled over hoping to fall back into whatever dream I was having. But when I looked over my shoulder I thought I saw something. It was just light enough in the room that I could make out a dark shape in the corner. I panicked. I quickly turned my back on the thing and pulled the covers over my head, shutting my eyes tightly. I managed to fall back asleep and in the morning I noticed that what scared me was my boyfriend’s guitar case.
Let me be clear, this isn’t the first time this has happened. I’ve been afraid of the dark for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid I had to sleep with the covers pulled tightly over my head with a teeny tiny little space for me to breathe out of. If I became too hot, I would poke my leg out of the covers until I realized that someone could grab my exposed leg and pull me out of bed. I was terrified of the possibilities that swam through my brain as I tried to drift off. Every little creak and moan of the house made me burrow deeper into the covers, as if having an intruder or menacing creature would see my protective layer and think, “Oh, shoot! I better go find someone else.” Though that’s the main fear that clogs my brain as I try to go to sleep, I also am afraid that if I get up in the middle of the night and return to bed, the person sleeping next to me won’t be my boyfriend but some kind of ghoul. Obviously neither of these fears make sense: they’re irrational. But they’ve plagued what’s supposed to be a peaceful time since I was a child. The dark is scary. Sleep is a vulnerable time.
I thought I was the only person whose childhood fears followed them into adulthood until a friend expressed a fear similar to mine: as a single girl, she was concerned that if she got up in the middle of the night, she would return to find someone else in her bed. I asked my friends, my family, acquaintances on Facebook: is anyone currently afraid of something they’ve been afraid of since childhood?
Before I looked at responses, I decided to create two categories in which I would put the fears I collected: irrational and rational. I defined rational fears as more general fears, like bugs or hospitals. I also decided that all rational fears have a common root in that they all end in death or bodily harm. An assailant in the dark is going to kill you. Hospitals are scary because a doctor could mess up and kill you. Fire is terrifying because of its destructive nature. As for irrational fears, these were specific fears like my fear. I was afraid of “the dark”, but more specifically, I was afraid of seeing someone lurking in the dark, staring at me, waiting for something. In addition, these irrational fears had little or nothing to do with death. Although one could argue that all fears have a common root in death, my fear had nothing to do with death. In fact, I was afraid of the opposite. I was afraid of having to live through torture, or being buried alive, or having to live through something traumatic. Dying seems easy compared to that. So with my two categories, I combed through over 50 responses from people of all ages and locations, fears of all different types and levels.
Many of the responses I received described strong fears of abandonment and failure. These were rational fears. Fear of the dark lead the majority of responses with a whopping 10%. Although this seems like it could be grouped until irrational, it’s too general. One entry described fear of being in the dark or what they couldn’t see in the dark. This seems perfectly rational to me. As for the irrational category, I received such responses as, “I’m afraid someone will be peeking at me in the shower when I open my eyes after putting my face in the water” to “I’m afraid of getting lost on the highway and never being able to figure out how to get home.” This was what I was looking for. Specific irrational fears. Unfortunately, neither of these responders reported having these particular fears in both childhood and adulthood. This was a common trend, though 25% of people were afraid of the supernatural in some capacity (ghosts, demons, even Lucifer himself), only 11% reported the fear being present currently and when they were kids. So what was I to do, was I really the only one who carried a fear into adulthood? I checked the numbers, and was surprised to find that 35% of my responder’s fears were “strong” or “very strong” in childhood and “strong” or “very strong” in adulthood, as well. When I took a look at these responses, I could classify 25% as irrational, but they weren’t exactly the fears I was hoping for. From birds, to bugs, to clowns, to feet, to getting lost, these all seemed common and slightly even, dare I say, rational? Feet are pretty gross. I adjusted my categories and took a different approach, the fear had to be supernatural in variety, and rather than a survey, I approached friends and family in person.
I discovered that people were generally better at being specific if they could talk freely to you in person. At the end of my little verbal ethnography, I’d garnered a little over ten ridiculous fears, four of which I found particularly spooky. One friend reported a constant fear of ghosts when she was a child that had followed her from her rural hometown in Ohio to the Windy City. Even though she lives about twenty miles from the nearest graveyard, she’s convinced that a ghost is haunting her apartment. She described an eerie feeling of someone watching her when she’s all alone, to the point where she’ll have to check behind her every few minutes. Though she reported the fear itself is strong, it isn’t constantly with her. She said every now and then, when she hears a creak or an unexpected sound, the feelings takes over. She claimed it only happens when she’s alone and that she had the exact same feeling when she was a little girl. She lived in an old house and though used to the moaning and groaning of the home, she was always afraid to be alone. She couldn’t place if the fear was of ghosts exactly or just a general entity being present and antagonizing her, or if it was of the quiet or of being alone. She concluded that it was some combination of all three, “When it gets quiet in my apartment and I hear a sound, I immediately go into that mindset and every little sound becomes menacing and I keep thinking I see something out of the corner of my eye.”
Another friend lived on the top floor of her 100 year old home in a rural area of Illinois and would run past the door to her attic on her way to her room at night. She claimed that she had no idea what she was afraid of, but even if a friend was with her, she had to run past the door. Even though she lives on her own in a 300 person apartment building, she said that when she goes back home, she still runs past the attic door. The fear is still with her. I prompted her what she thought was in the attic, she replied, “I’m just afraid I’ll see something, or that the door would open and something would grab me before I could scream.”
Being alone outside was a fear reported in the online survey, but a male friend from rural Pennsylvania reported this fear in a more specific manner. He said when he used to walk his dog at night, he felt as though there was always something lurking just beyond the light his flashlight cast. “I would sense something there, and when I’d move my flashlight obviously there was nothing there. But the mood would set in at that point and I’d start to panic and need to be back inside as soon as possible.” He suggested that it didn’t matter the season, winter or summer, he was always afraid because of how quiet everything was. Fall was especially bad, he described, suggesting that a mixture of warm air rustling leaves and an eerie quiet would really give him the creeps. “The added sound of the leaves crunching and rustling made me feel certain there was something out there just waiting for me to turn off my flashlight.” Still to this day, he says, when he goes home, if it’s late at night, he sometimes runs from his car to the door because he doesn’t have the flashlight to help protect him.
The last person I interviewed had a seemingly common fear, the basement of her old farmhouse in Tennessee. There were three lights, she said, all of which had a pull-string to turn them on and off. If she had to go down to the basement, a feat which she always dreaded, she was terrified of being in a dark spot. She would actually run as fast as she could from pull-string to pull-string jumping out of patches of darkness into patches of light. And she dared not to look back into the darkness, she confessed, “The last pull-string was at the top of a flight of stairs; I would always pull the pull-string and shut the door as fast as I could. But, one time, I looked before pulling the door shut, I never did it again.” At this, I begged her for details, “I was certain I saw something. I can’t really say what. I honestly don’t even remember. Obviously it was really nothing; just my imagination. But I still don’t go down into the basement. I make my sister do it!”
What do my four interviewees have in common? They all came from rural backgrounds, and for some, that’s where their fears stayed, memories of dark basements or creepy attic doors. Only one, my friend with the ghost fear, described her fear following her to Chicago. I, like my friends, grew up in a small rural area, and what I remember most distinctly about my house was how quiet it was. Obviously this made every little sound seem menacing. For my male friend, the silence intensified his fear and for my ghost fearing friend, as soon as it was quiet, the fear set in. Almost all of my friends, and myself, had/have some fear of the dark. For all of us, it’s what we can’t see or what we think we saw or heard. So are the irrational fears that followed us all into adulthood centered around silence, rural areas, darkness, the unknown? I’d like to believe that the fact that we grew up in rural areas has something to do with our fears. Less people, more quiet, lots of spaces for ghosts and ghouls to hide, seems like a recipe for childhood trauma. Naturally, for my friends whose fears remained in their childhood homes, the city was a refuge, a place where fears couldn’t possibly live due to the close quarters and masses of people. But for some, like me and my friend, our fears follow us around today, completely irrational, but somehow not any less terrifying.
Illustration by Laura C.
Margeaux Perkins has made it her life's mission to never be described with the terms "shy", "boring", or "quiet". She tries to find happiness in the little things in life, like making her boyfriend's lunch with the early morning sun peeking through the windows or going pee after holding it in for too long. Writing has been her thing since she wrote her first short story at age 12. It was an 18-page Microsoft Word Document about a 20-something New York gal who falls in love with her male best friend. She's been tickling the backlit Mac ebonies ever since.