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Why Some People Never Grow Out of a Fear of the Dark

Photo: Heath Korvola/Getty Images
Photo: Heath Korvola/Getty Images

Why Some People Never Grow Out of a Fear of the Dark

Kids, generally speaking, have a lot of strange and very specific fears. If you can’t think of a kid in your own life to back this up, look no further than Laura June’s essay on the Cut about her otherwise fearless daughter’s fear of sharks. As June notes, the reasons why someone will develop a fear during childhood are diverse and complicated — any number of things can influence whether a kid gets freaked out by dogs or cries at the sound of thunder. But there’s one fear that most people will experience at one point or another: the fear of the dark. And unlike most childhood fears, it’s one that plenty of people never grow out of.

Some fears are acquired based on specific life experiences; others are more universal and innate. Fear of darkness, which in extreme forms is known as nyctophobia or achluophobia, falls into that latter category. The reason: It’s not the darkness itself that’s frightening. It’s the fear of what the darkness masks. The dark leaves us vulnerable and exposed, unable to spot any threats that may be lurking nearby. For much of human history, dark meant danger, and fearing it meant taking precautions to stay safe. Evolutionarily, it was an advantage.

That’s not really the case anymore — there’s not much to fear when we spend the darkest hours of the day tucked safely in our beds — but darkness has nevertheless held on to its place in our psyche as a manifestation of the terrifying unknown. Psychologist Thomas Ollendick, the director of the Child Study Center at Virginia Tech University, told Live Science that childhood fears of the dark come from a fear of “the unexpected”: “Kids believe everything imaginable,” he said. “That in the dark, robbers might come or they could get kidnapped, or someone might come and take their toys away.” Our brains, in other words, equate darkness with the frightening side of unlimited possibility.

But it’s a shockingly common fear among adults, too …

As they age, people typically learn to disregard that link in everyday life. Darkness can up the spook factor of a novel situation, but most of us eventually become comfortable enough to ditch the night-light in their own homes. Not all, though: In one 2012 U.K. survey, nearly 40 percent of respondents said they were afraid to walk around the house with the lights off. In fact, 10 percent said that they wouldn’t even get out of bed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. And in one small study, around half of the participants who characterized themselves as “poor sleepers” also admitted to being afraid of the dark, compared to just a quarter of self-described “good sleepers,” suggesting that in some cases, the fear can be powerful to enough cause chronic insomnia.

And maybe even more common than we think, because it’s so hard to diagnose …

But the connection to poor sleeping habits also makes it easy to mistake fear of the dark for other fears, or for more general anxiety. “An individual may not be able to fall asleep once it’s dark and their mind starts to wander,” study author Colleen Carney, a psychology professor at Ryerson University, told Time. “They think, ‘What if someone breaks into my house?’ Instead of realizing these associations may indicate a fear of the dark, they skip a step and assume they have a fear of burglars.” Like other phobias, Carney added, an intense fear of the dark can be treated through exposure therapy; the key is just recognizing it first.

Problem is, the trigger’s so incredibly common — and unlike dogs, or llamas, or people looming in close proximity, it’s a fear that’s nearly impossible to contain: Once the lights go out, it builds and spreads, manifesting as a fear of what’s in the room to whatever your imagination can conjure.

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