What element unites horror films and stories? Certainly there are creatures, backdrops and even the method of terror — be it psychological or gore. But one reliable element is ubiquitous in all horror: darkness. Yep, a good old fashioned absence of light. But why, when a fear of the dark is regarded as something that all children eventually grow out of, does darkness continuing to evoke foreboding in even the most resolute of adults?
In Warner Bros.'s latest horror film Lights Out, a pair of siblings encounter an entity, known as Diana, who appears to exist only in the dark and whose intentions are clearly murderous. With a story that focuses on the world's most universal fear, let's delve into how that fear evolved, why it may be among the healthiest to have, and how watching spooky stories with beings like Diana might just be useful to our real-life survival.
An Evolutionary Advantage
Being aware that the dark hides potential threats is simply a progression of survival of the fittest. A caveman avoiding nocturnal predators by sticking close to his fire or steering clear of the mouth of a secluded (and possibly occupied) cave are just strategies to ensure another day alive. In many ways, it's fear that has kept humans alive and allowed us to continue evolving. All cognizant creatures exhibit a sense of fear, keeping us alert to deadly threats.
Humans didn't start out at the top of the food chain. Rather, our healthy fear of the unknown and the animals that might seek to eat us in the dark kept us alive long enough to discover new ways to thrive. The evolution of lighting tells the story of humanity and its mastery over its oldest and most constant fear: darkness. From the sun's light to the discovery of fire, from oil lamps to candles, gas lamps to electronic lightbulbs, our continued quest has been to develop the most immutable light.
Is There A Psychological Reason For Why The Dark Scares Us?
How is it then that in an age of ever-present light — light pollution, even — we can still be so scared of the dark? Is it just the hangover from an evolutionary survival tactic? Well, partially. Generations of humans passing on inherited responses and preparation tactics to certain threats (snakes, spiders, poisons, fires, etc.) embedded a healthy anxiety within us. A bug skittering across the floor or a light unexpectedly blinking out can evoke a reaction in us more palpable than seeing a gun or the threat of nuclear war.
One obvious reason for our unease of the unlit is that it removes our ability to see. When our eyes can't make out specifics, our brains fill in the gaps, often morbidly. In the dark, a bathrobe on the back of a door becomes an ominous, leering figure. Taken to its most extreme, this fear manifests as nyctophobia, extreme fear of the dark. This phobia is most often seen in children — psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud attributed it to separation anxiety from our mothers — but also in people with post traumatic stress disorder related to past things that happened to them in the dark.
But there's more to it than that. After all, even a blind person may fear the night. Perhaps it's our innate understanding of evil in the world and the belief that the night is the time that it's most likely to emerge. But this might not actually be true. While the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that crime occurs at all hours of the day, the quiet of the night certainly fuels our fear, and the evolution of night-based threats backs up our instinctual unease of the foreboding. It's never really been the dark we fear, just fear of what lurks within it.
Technology Can't Save Us From Our Fears
It's possible these days to almost eradicate darkness from our lives altogether. Sounds like something a cult leader would say, but what I mean is that, in an evolving age of electronics, there are lightbulbs that last for years and an almost constant glow emitting from the devices, TV and computer screens that surround us. In theory, a person could avoid the dreaded dark forever — that is, given that no apocalyptic scenario destroys our electricity supply.
Alas, like many things in life, the things we may not enjoy are often good for us (veggies, anyone?), and darkness is one of them. Constantly sleeping with the lights on is known to be damaging to our brains over time. We need darkness to produce melatonin, which helps regulate sleep patterns (essential to our health) and literally keeps our brains from aging too quickly or becoming dull. Additionally, light and dark cue our circadian rhythms, telling us when to be awake and when to be asleep. We've manipulated that rhythm with artificial lighting to be able to work later and sleep in if we want, but those of us clinging to our phones in bed at night to stave off the inevitable total darkness shouldn't depend on that for our so-called safety. The light produced by electronics can trick our brains into producing melatonin and affect how deeply we sleep.
Like yin and yang, there is no dark without light. Similarly, that which scares us is also crucial to our health.
Do Scary Stories Condition Our Anxiety?
One has to wonder if our continued fear of the dark in modern times isn't also a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum. Our initial anxiety may be evolutionary, but do scary stories and movies preserve a fear that may no longer need to exist in an age of light? Like the healthy fears we pass on to our children (fingers in light sockets, snakes in the grass, etc.), perhaps the stories of ghosts and creatures that lurk in the shadows are a way of keeping aware of the unseen or unknown. Maybe the lore of vampires is based in enough truth to be worth continuing our fear of them. Or maybe we allow the media to perpetuate unnecessary anxieties.
It's most often parents who pass on anxiety; if your parents fear spiders, you are likely to have inherited that fear. But although stories, movies, television and books can be informational, it's highly likely that what they do is propagate that fear that populates our imaginations — after all, I've often told my friends I'm more than ready for a zombie apocalypse. The dark hides what we can't see, our brains pick through possibilities learned from stories, and thus the shadows hold immeasurable threats.
But just like social anxieties are often treated by placing oneself in the scenarios that make us the most uneasy or via exposure therapy, it could be argued that reading horror stories or seeing scary movies is a way of facing fear, especially the fear of the dark. If I watch the Final Girl defeat the murderous shadow ghost lurking in the dark, then I am better equipped to do it myself. Should the opportunity ever present itself.
A Never Ending Battle
Dark and light may be the world's most common metaphors, and it makes sense why. Nothing else quite describes the opposing forces at work within us all. Our desire to live, our fear of the unknown. It's that intrinsic truth in scary stories that makes us scream rather than laugh when presented with such strange yet sinister scenarios. Diana from Lights Out is just another example of the potential of the dark, a figure that thrives on it. If there are sea creatures that prefer the darkest depths of the ocean and an intangible dark energy (Google dark energy and be amazed) binding and expanding the universe, then nothing is impossible.
As long as there are endless possibilities to fill the dark, humans will fear it. It isn't just that we know our eyes can't be trusted, it's that the literal darkness we see in the world reflects a figurative darkness we inherently feel exists. What form the darkness takes is entirely up to you.