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fear-of-the-dark

While watching the trailers before The Purge: Election Year, I noticed a powerful similarity among them: darkness. Sure, ghosts, serial killers, and witches are sharing the spotlight, but the theme of darkness dominated. I made a note to follow how these movies landed with the masses, and wow, did they land big: Don’t Breathe, a home invasion story about a blind veteran protecting his home from three thieves, has made its mark on the box office, and other trailers in that batch, like the one for Lights Out, had an equally strong opening for a summertime horror film. And while witches are scary, the real terror of Blair Witch (SO EXCITED!) is that it brings us back to the basics: alone in the woods and in the dark. Sure, the dark is scary, but why is this theme hitting such a strong chord in the US right now?

Let’s start with our bodies. Humans heavily rely on our vision for threat assessment. This seems obvious, but think about bats that don’t even need sight, sharks that can smell a drop of blood a quarter mile away, or a wolf that can hear things as far as six miles away. Our other senses are critical, but it’s our eyes that we’ve come to depend on the most to inform us of our world, and our safety in it. When deprived of a resource we’ve come to depend on so heavily, the human psyche can start to unravel quickly. Critically, total absence of light in an environment is different than just having a blindfold on—while that can still be scary, there is a certain comfort in knowing that eventually the blindfold will come off and all will be revealed. But when you’re thrust against your will into total darkness, your eyes wide open—straining, squinting, searching, but seeing nothing—powerful feelings of vulnerability, helplessness, and disorientation arise.

It doesn’t have to, of course—those who have limited vision or total blindness get around just fine (as Don’t Breathe illustrates so well, and if you haven’t listened to the Invisibilia podcast on the man who uses echolocation, do so right after reading this!). And, when you’re the one choosing darkness, it can even be relaxing or therapeutic, as with float tanks or dark room retreats. But, growing up in this well-illuminated world, we have become far less comfortable and much more terrified of total darkness.

Try right now to find a place where you can experiment on your own what it feels like to be in total darkness. I bet it’s hard, especially if you’re in a city. We take for granted just how illuminated our world is today, and how much we depend on light; this is very different than just two hundred years ago. The Witch highlighted this so brilliantly in the scene where the family is gathered around the light of one small candle. They weren’t “setting the scene” for terror—that was their daily reality (which is why that movie is so disturbing—forget witches, life in the 17th century was horrifying).

But it’s not just street lamps and house lights that help us know about our environment today, it’s the tiny green light from your charger, the glow from your microwave clock, the flashing lights on your wireless router. Even these tiny lights have a powerful influence on our sense of safety and awareness. They might not help you find your keys, but they give our brains something to orient our bodies against so we know how to balance ourselves, which way is up, and where we are in space (this is proprioception). It makes sense that as we have adapted to this well-lit world, the darkness has become ever more threatening—we fear the most the things we have no experience with, and that we’re the most uncertain about. So do yourself a favor and spend some time in the dark, there are lots of benefits.

Now, on to why darkness is hitting a strong chord socially and culturally right now. For most of human history, the things that would kill us were close to home—infection, murder, starvation, or, you know, animal attacks. The threats we face today feel far away and very out of our control (not that we had much control in the case of an animal attack, but at least there was a greater sense of certainty—if you were unlucky enough to confront one of these threats, the chance of survival was pretty nil.) Uncertainty is behind all of our fears, and in a world where we can know so much, so quickly, not knowing has become increasing intolerable.

And right now, I think a lot of us are feeling “in the dark” when it comes to predicting what the future holds for the US. We can’t fight terrorists ourselves, we can’t stop global warming or regulate pollution alone, a lot of us can’t pay for education or healthcare, and many fear losing rights and protections we’ve worked so hard to secure. We need help, that’s what a democracy is all about, but this fall, as numerous polls show, we are casting votes not for a candidate that we trust but rather against the one that scares us the most. Sure, there is always a healthy distrust of politicians, but with approval ratings at rock bottom on both sides of the aisle, we’re feeling particularly vulnerable, powerless, and uncertain of what our future is going to look like.

Here we are, a population born and raised in a world full of light, holding our breath alone in the dark, terrified of what might be coming towards us, but equally scared of what will be revealed when the lights come back on. So, yes, darkness is the perfect monster metaphor for capturing our collective fear.

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