Nyctophobia is probably one of our innate primal fears. After all, our species is driven to survive, right? How can we manage our safety efficiently if we can’t see what’s out there?
Ultimately, though, it’s not being alone in the dark that’s so frightening. It’s the possibility that you’re not alone, and that whatever is sharing your suddenly too-small space is approaching with malevolent—or perhaps culinary—intent.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons Halloween is frightening. Not the ersatz ghosts, the movie-slasher-du-jour clones, or Disneyfied zombies patrolling the streets in search of caaaannnnddddyyyy, but the encroaching darkness. The days are shorter. More darkness for unknown creepy things to lurk in. Why do you suppose bonfires are a Halloween tradition? Because they keep the dark at bay, at least for a while.
I live in the hills in rural Oregon. Occasionally, rumors roll around our neighborhood of mountain lion sightings. We hear about evidence: a smeared footprint in the mud of an unpaved driveway; droppings that couldn’t come from a horse or a deer; the call of a pheasant, cut off mid-screech.
During the day, safe inside the house or bumping over the driveway potholes encased in the metal shell of my car, I can ignore those rumors. Scoff, even.
But at night, when I step outside to toss trash into the bin, the porch light illuminating me like the wilds’ tastiest midnight snack, it’s another story. What’s out there beyond the feeble circle of light? Is something moving in the trees? What caused that crunch of gravel? My back twitches with the caterpillar-creep of the flight reflex and I scurry back inside and slam the door, flicking on lights in the modern version of a bonfire.
Then I head upstairs to write another ghost story.