Darkness Awaits: Nyctophobia, Fear of the Dark

The dark is one thing that people won’t admit to being afraid of. After all, the fear is common in children, and outgrowing it is seen as a sign of maturity. But sometimes, it never leaves.

There are no definitive statistics for how many adults suffer from nyctophobia. But research suggests that there are many, and that it can significantly affect their daily lives.

But why is fear of the dark so common?


Signs and Symptoms

nyctophobiaFear of the dark is considered natural during child development. However, this fear is typically outgrown as we age. But in some cases, it develops into an adult phobia, and this is when it can begin causing problems.

Nyctophobia manifests like many other specific phobias. Physical symptoms associated with panic attacks – trouble breathing, racing heart rate, shaking, light-headedness, and sweating – are common. There are also emotional symptoms, such as feeling powerless or detachment from the self.

Nyctophobia can be related to a series of anxiety-related sleep disorders. Studies of college students suffering from insomnia found that nearly half had associated anxiety pertaining to darkness. There are also studies showing that people suffering from nyctophobia are more easily startled by noises in darkness. This can lead to anxiety related to anticipating regular noises during sleeping hours.


Evolutionary Roots

nyctophobiaThere is research to support the idea that fear of the dark is not necessarily trauma-related like other phobias. It’s thought that this is a genetic fear – like heights. Something that is hardwired into our consciousness as infants.

The thing about humans is that we never evolved efficient night vision. Instead, we’ve invented ways to beat back the darkness, such as campfires, lamps, and electric lights. But without these things, we find ourselves unable to use the sense that we most rely on, making us feel vulnerable.

During our evolution, we had a significant number of natural predators that followed nocturnal hunting cycles, such as lions. These creatures have much better night vision than we do, so its understandable that we would be more aware and alert during these hours of vulnerability.

Sleep is another issue. Darkness signals our bodies that we should sleep, but we are intensely vulnerable during this activity. With night-roaming predators about, it’s understandable that the descent into sleep would trigger a bit of evolutionary anxiety.

But is evolution the only reason?


A Bridge Between Waking And Dreams

nyctophobiaBeing in darkness often leads humans to delve into their own subconscious. While lying in bed, it’s easy to begin dredging through thoughts and emotions that are masked during waking hours. Studies suggest that the veil between our daylight conscious and nighttime dream state is thinner during these moments. It allows deeper fears and anxieties to more easily overtake us.

As our subconscious overwhelms us, the world around us seems to shift, making even familiar shapes seem sinister. Everyone knows the feeling. When you glance around your bedroom in the dark, that heap of clothes on the chair morphs into a crouching monster. The hat rack is a masked intruder, the closet is suddenly full of ghosts. This is because our brains are shifting towards a dream state.

These instances are strongest in those who experience sleep paralysis. These experiences are most common when someone is waking up or falling asleep. They find themselves unable to move or speak but may hallucinate as though they are still dreaming. Even though they feel like hours, most episodes only last a few minutes.

Descriptions of these hallucinations are terrifying. Sensations of being dragged from their beds or flying are common. Some reports describe feelings of something suffocating you or seeing a shadowy figure entering the room. Oddly, many people see the same figure. In urban lore, he’s known as The Hat Man. He’s a tall figure, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, that stands at the end of the bed.

After experiences like this, who wouldn’t be scared of the dark?


Nyctophobia In Media

Many horror movies take advantage of darkness for both atmospheric and practical reasons. In the case of movies with supernatural creatures, having the thing obscured by darkness saves money and effort to create it with CGI.

There are very few films that actually use the darkness as a plot point, but we did find one. The movie Darkness in 2002, chronicles the story of a teen girl named Regina. Her family moves into a new house, only to find it haunted by a terrible entity that can only operate in darkness. The film has a 5.5/10 rating on IMDb and appears to have done decently well at the box office.


Are you Afraid of the Dark?

Whether or not the fear is a result of evolution or our own modern anxieties, it remains one of the most common fears in the world. The stigma that comes from it being something that only children experience does nothing to help those whose daily lives are affected by it.

And maybe there is something to it. After all, anything could be lurking in the dark.

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