As a kid, I remember “watching” a series of scary movies with my hands covering my eyes. I was never a fan of horror and thrillers mainly because they trigger my fear of the dark. But it seemed like I was the only one in my class who hasn’t seen any of the scary movies the “cool” kids were talking about, so I put on my grownup pants and set myself up for a movie marathon… alone. Naturally, the whole thing felt like torture, so just imagine my relief every time the reflection of the screen on the floor was neutral and the screaming would stop. I took it as a sign that the scary parts were finally over and that it was okay to look. Clearly, I didn’t know any better, and I caught the climax of the movie sans my hands covering my eyes. I stopped myself from voluntarily watching anything scary ever since.
Sometimes, those scenes still play in my head when triggered. I won’t go as far as saying I was traumatized; other people have fears of the dark way worse than I do. But when I do get into the familiar situation of darkness, stillness, and mostly silence, I feel the same anxiety as if I knew what’s going to happen next. Add a couple more accidental pop culture encounters like that, and you can understand why I’m so damn paranoid in the dark all the time.
There are many reasons why we’re afraid of the things we’re afraid of. For most people, fears are based on memories and information that tell our brains “if this, then that.” It won’t always make any sense, and some would even argue that there’s a little bit of exaggeration, overthinking, and a whole lot of imagination.
When I was five, being afraid of the dark meant anticipating the Boogeyman that I was told would get me if I stayed up past my bedtime. High school was the peak — stories about Bloody Mary, Sadako, and Paranormal Activity were all I would hear about and I freaked out a lot. While self-awareness helps me keep my supernatural fears at bay, the darkness holds a lot of surprises that still keep me on my toes. Recently, my fear of the dark is often associated with to walking in the streets all alone at night and the looming existential crisis at 3 a.m. when I’m cramming and feeling like a total failure.
I admit, I have a hard time explaining my fear of the dark to other people. I’m very aware that my fear exists, but I haven’t completely figured it out yet. The thing about being in the dark (literally and figuratively) is that there are just so many things that can happen that you have no way of preparing yourself for. One day, it can be triggered by paranormal fears, the next it can be about what I see on the news. It’s this idea of not being in control that makes us feel vulnerable. But being afraid of something even as abstract as the dark doesn’t make us weak; it only makes us human. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s still true.
But I also learned that there’s some kind of value that comes from being wrapped up in your own darkness. When everything else is stripped away, you’re left with no choice but to honestly deal with your own thoughts. That, I think, is scary too. But it is also an opportunity to know ourselves better, figure out what we can and can’t control, and actually deal with it, one small practical step at a time.
One particular scene in the movie Inside Out taught me a very important lesson that I, a grown, 23-year-old woman, still remind myself every day: fear, much like joy, sadness, anger and disgust, plays an important role in our emotional well-being. When there’s a sign of threat or danger, our body responds if only to try to make ourselves feel more secure. As much as we genuinely want to be happy and feel “put together,” that’s just not the case all the time, and perpetuating the stigma that other emotions are “undesirable” isn’t helping anybody. We might not be able to explain why we’re afraid of certain things, but there’s already some kind of peace that comes with acknowledging our fears without judgment, if only to ourselves.
Fear comes in different forms and degrees; it is relative, after all. But if there’s one thing my fear of the dark taught me, it’s the value of listening to myself and slowly learning to differentiate the things I’m made to think, what my gut tells me, and what I tell myself. I still “watch” scary movies with my hands covering my eyes on the days I’m feeling curious and, okay, a little brave, but I’m still not a fan of anything scary. Dealing with my fear of the dark might be taking me quite a while, but at least I know I’ll be okay.