Words by Willow Defebaugh
Is our ancient fear of the dark anything more than a fear of what we do not know or are not yet ready to face?
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
Do you remember the moment when you stopped being afraid of the dark? When the shadows stopped shapeshifting, playing tricks on your mind? When the loss of light stopped leaving you with an accelerated pulse, a thumping behind your chest bone? Maybe you are still afraid of it. Maybe you never were. Though, odds are that many of you were as afraid of it as I was; an estimated half of all children experience a fear of the dark, otherwise known as nyctophobia.
Some researchers suggest that our fear of nightfall is tied to our ancestors whose survival rested in the maws of whatever nocturnal creatures prowled beneath the moon. A twig snapping not far off, eyes glowing in the inky blackness, the howl of the unseen. But what of those beings? What drove them to live by starlight? Did they ever fear the dark, before it became their keepers? The surprising truth is that most of our mammalian relatives were nocturnal—and still are.
The earliest mammals lived under cover of darkness to avoid predators—primarily cold-blooded dinosaurs that relied on the sun’s warmth. Some emerged once these massive reptiles died out, and have since evolved to fill diurnal roles in their ecosystems. Even if we associate them with daytime living today, most still possess features fit for the dark: their vision and other senses. Primates (like humans) are an exception, the only mammals to have evolved eyes as well suited for diurnality as reptiles and birds. Our ancestors were among the first to choose the light of day.
Many mammals decided to stay in the shadows, for nocturnality provides its advantages. Beyond avoiding daylit danger, darkness provides a cover of stealth that allows predators and prey to move about undetected, as well as hunt and forage for nourishment. At night, there’s also less competition for food and other resources. And in hot climates, such as deserts, nocturnal living means cooler temperatures and relief from the scorching sun, as well as a means to conserve water. What we consider scary can also offer safety, nourishment, and vitality.
Nocturnality has spawned many evolutionary marvels. Over eons, night vision has become more and more keen. Certain species, like tarsiers, grew larger eyes to increase visibility. Others, like the ring-tailed lemur, developed reflective surfaces behind their eyes in order to mirror and effectively double the amount of light taken in. Some opted to hone in other senses, such as the fennec fox, which developed oversized ears in order to listen for prey underground at night, and leopards, who can hear five times as well as humans. Even in darkness, it’s possible to adapt.
Most of the shadowy shapes we dream of in the dark are simply animals who have found good reason to be there. Our earliest ancestors evaded the daylight in order to escape fearsome predators; now, we’ve taken their place. A recent study published in Science found that human activity is driving our fellow mammals back or further into the dark. The researchers studied 64 species, including deer, tigers, boars, and bears, and observed that the majority have been pushed into increased nighttime activity. The authors of the study warn these impacts may have cascading effects on predator-prey relationships that have evolved over thousands of years.
I often wonder if nyctophobia is anything more than a fear of what we do not know or are not yet ready to face. I can’t tell you the day I stopped being afraid of the dark, but I can tell you when I started that walk. It was the day I decided to start looking my demons in the eye—all the parts of me I was taught to fear and flee from—and with clear vision, I finally saw that they were far from nightmarish. Ever since, I have been learning to love my shadows and the beauty of the night, for it is there that we find safety to rest and heal, and learn to dream again.