Fear of the Dark

Why do we fear the dark?

The fear of the dark is the fear of the unknown. Although we think of it as a primitive–even primal–fear, the true culprit isn’t the monkey-mind, it’s the rational mind.

Weird Tales September 1942
Where do we learn to fear the night?

As humans, we mostly use language to understand the world around us. Using words as tools, we look at situations and match them up to preexisting schemas. Thus, the mind maintains some semblance of control, at least over itself.

But sometimes we’re confronted with darkness. Suddenly, our rational minds lack the contextual clues we normally use to order our thoughts and perceptions. The part of our minds that “keeps it together” finds itself at a loss, beyond its comfort zone.

The mind, confronted with a sudden lack of data, starts to tell us wild stories based on two things: small clues in the environment, and also all the other “myths” (learned–and sometimes fanciful–cultural schemas) of what can happen in the dark.

“What was that noise?” we ask. The “I don’t know” we get back forces us to rely on our instincts–instincts that are often unfamiliar, rusty, and awkward. We feel fear and a loss of control. That fear then drives our thinking. With a lack of external data, the internal state of fear causes our rational self to come up with explanations for the fear. These dangers, though imagined, increase our fear in a feedback loop.

Two Kinds of Fear

There are two kinds of fear: the fear of the known and the fear of the unknown.

Military dog barking
Sometimes, we have good reasons to be afraid

When we are confronted with a big, angry dog that is snarling, barking, and working itself up to attack us, then that is a known fear. Yes, the dog is scary, but there is something that we can at least try to do about it. We can run. We can fight. We can call for help.

But what if we are confronted by darkness, by nothing? In that case, the rational mind, lacking necessary cues to figure out what the heck is going on, fails us. It spins out of control, looking for ways to explain the feelings of fear. Maybe, it whispers of screams, there is an angry dog, or a monster, or a predatory human…pretty much anything scary. Our schemas fail from lack of data. We are forced to rely on the instinctive parts of the mind.

Cave mouth on a sunny day

When confronted by nothing, which is really what the fear of the dark is, the confounded rational mind dumps us down to the instinctive mind. The rational mind casts about for possible data,  but finds little. That’s why we get irrational when confronted by the darkness. We’re suddenly reliant on a part of ourselves that is unfamiliar–that primate that we carry around, but mostly ignore.

Our fear of the dark reminds us that we’re not just a rational mind riding around in a body. We are a combination of mind and body, rational man and instinctive primate, each influencing the other. We might not like it, but that doesn’t make it less true.


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