Reflections on Themes in Film: Nyctophobia

Nyctophobia: Pathological fear of the dark, an abnormal and persistent dread of the dark. Sufferers experience anxiety even though they may rationally realize that the dark does not pose a threat commensurate with their fear.

Formed from the Greek “nyx” (night) and the Greek “phobos” (fear). “Nyx” has also contributed to other medical terms such as “nyctalopia” (night blindness) and “nyctanopia” (impaired vision in dim light and in the dark). Another term for fear of the dark is scotophobia.

Last week, while my daughter and I browsed “Watch Instantly” movies on Netflix, I teased her about watching Darkness Falls (2003). She said she couldn’t remember which movie that was, so I gave her a brief summary, and she promptly refused to watch it. Amused, I reminded her how she used to request it back in the day and I didn’t understand how it scared her more at (almost) 11 years old than when she was 8. From a logical viewpoint, I’d think the opposite would be true — the older she gets, the easier it’ll be to watch “scary” movies. But she’s squashed that theory on more than one occasion.

And, since my mind tends to fly from thought to thought at the speed at which my synapses fire, I was soon pondering why everyone is, to one degree or another, afraid of the dark. So that got me thinking about the couple of years I worked as a video store manager.

Working at the video store was a great way to watch a ton of movies because I didn’t suffer from buyer’s remorse when I ran across a dud – all of my rentals were free except for the pornos – so I would take bigger risks and sometimes discovered hidden gems I might’ve never given the light of day had the unlimited freebies not been a perk of the job.

Thinking about my days at the video store led my mind to the movies on the “New Release” wall in 2003 that featured the “dark is bad” theme. The three which came to mind immediately were: Darkness Falls (2003), They (2002), and Fear of the Dark (2002). I do own the first two and maybe that’s why they were so fresh in my memory as examples of this theme because the majority of moviegoers wouldn’t classify any of them as perfect horror films.

Nonetheless, there was something about each one that dug its nails into my skin and held tight the duration of the movie’s run time. Yes, I had a bona fide case of the creeps and checked under my bed or in my closet after all three. There, you got it out of me: sometimes I’m a wuss.

The success of the three films relied almost entirely on my inherent fear of the dark and the night as demonstrated by the tagline of each film:

Stay In The Light!

Are you afraid of the dark? You should be.

Don’t close your eyes.

Why am I such a wimp when it comes to the dark? What is it exactly that scares me so much about being alone, in a room or outdoors, with the absence of light?

Here are my top three guesses:

Reason #3: Humans Aren’t Invincible

People like to hold onto the illusion that we are at the top of the food chain. We’re smarter, we have weapons, and we outnumber almost everything on Earth. So when a film questions human superiority, it pings a nerve deep down inside us that maybe our egos are not exactly realistic.

When we’re abandoned in a dark forest, surrounded by the unknown with no way to identify the approach of a predator, nyctophobia goes into overdrive. The realization of just how vulnerable we are, and how yummy we might taste to the local wildlife, could probably drive a lot of people crazy and would most definitely cause the inability to sleep. Because, after all, we are not immortal, and we are most certainly not at the top of the food chain.

If you doubt either of those facts, go for a swim in shark infested waters and let me know how superior or invincible you feel afterward.

Reason #2: Monsters Under the Bed

This one’s courtesy of our childhood and the belief in worlds other than our own. During the day, we’d enjoy playing with our siblings and friends, eating dinner with our family and watching a little TV, then, as daylight would fade, we’d start to dread the inevitable: bedtime. That time of night, when our parents would cut off the lights, close the door, and leave us alone with nothing but our imaginations…and the monsters under the bed or in the closet.

I used to be a little OCD about bedtime. I would make sure my closet doors were closed, the curtains were overlapped, and my feet were tucked tight under the covers. The sheer terror of waking up with a bare foot hanging over the edge of the bed was enough to cover my entire body in sweat. Why? My naked appendage left unprotected for whatever moved amongst the darkness in the middle of the night was a prime example of the human vulnerability to which I already referred. I wouldn’t have been able to see it grab my foot, just feel whatever it was yanking me down into the darkness.

Yes, my imagination and a love of horror movies added to my fear of what lurked under my bed or in the closet when the lights went out. But my inability to 100% deny the existence of a parallel universe filled with boogeymen and creatures unimagined was more to blame. Plus, kids know they’re alone in their fear because no one would ever believe them if they said they saw something under their bed.

They (2002) preyed on all of those fears. Our worst nightmares coming to fruition – especially night terrors about being kidnapped by creatures from those dark places in our room – is a major cause of nyctophobia.

Reason #1: What We Can’t See Could Hurt Us

Humans have poor eyesight in comparison to many of the other animals in the world. If we’re in the dark, there’s a pretty good possibility that while we can’t see anything around us, something out there can see us. This ties into the whole vulnerability reasoning as well. In contrast, humans have above average intelligence.

But the power of our minds is a double-edged sword. We are able to see so many possibilities, come up with some amazing ideas and inventions, and think our way out of major crises. However, our mind is the culprit behind many of the phobias that exist. Fear is a product we produce in-house and export to anyone who will listen.

Really, think about it: If I’m scared of heights, would I walk across a tightrope between two skyscrapers? Nope, probably not. However, if I wasn’t aware that I was walking across a tightrope hundreds of feet in the air, I would probably just walk from point A to point B without hesitation. Why? My mind wouldn’t have the necessary ammunition to shoot down the walls of my rational thought.

So I find myself in the basement, hunting around for the elusive item that sent me down there to begin with, when the door slams shut and the lights go out. Total silence. Palpable darkness. Just my heartbeat, my breathing, and my thoughts. What was that noise? Did I hear something shuffle behind me? Did something just brush against my cheek? On and on my mind will churn out the endless possibilities of what could be in the dark that wasn’t there a moment before. And that’s scary because my inability to see something does not mean its inability to snack on me.

What is it about the dark that scares you the most?

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7 comments

  1. “…my inability to see something does not mean its inability to snack on me.” Love it!

    You pretty much nail what I think are the main reasons. For me, fear of the dark was (and still is, somewhat) about the inability to see in the dark and an imagination overload. What you can’t see, the imagination certainly does fill in for you. Also, fear of the dark goes back to childhood and, let’s face it, children know they aren’t high on the foodchain!

  2. Hey – I just saw under your Recent Tweets that you hurt your back. I’m so sorry to hear that and hope that you’re feeling better soon!

  3. Thanks, Eileen! I am feeling much better compared to last week when I could hardly move or sit up.

    On a side note: Last night I read a great quote from World War Z by Max Brooks that applies to the above post.

    “I think that most people would rather face the light of a real enemy than the darkness of their imagined fears” (p. 249).

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