Who's afraid of the dark?


First aired on Fear Itself (27/8/12)

It's a primordial fear that many of us have as children, and some of us never quite shake. Why are we so spooked by darkness? In its final episode, Fear Itself sheds some light on being afraid of the dark.

Shawn Comish was a miner for 12 years,so he's well acquainted with the dark. His last year underground was spent at the Westray coal mine, in Plymouth, Nova Scotia. He was part of the recovery operation after the methane-gas explosion in 1992, in which 26 miners died, and wrote The Westray Tragedy: A Miner's Story about his experiences.

Working in the depths of the earth, "there's just absolute darkness, nothingness," he told host Christy Ann Conlin. He found it hard to explain the sensation of being totally in the dark. "You feel the darkness, you know it's there, because obviously you can't see anything and then you're trying to visualize where you are in relation to the walls, because they're solid and they will hurt if you walk into them," he said. "It's really hard to get your bearings, to know where you're at. "

Comish related one frightening experience of his own. "I lost my light one time, I was right by a hole that went down 1,200 feet. And I landed right beside the hole." The equipment that Comish was working with had a hose -- that was what he latched onto for safety. "I had to find my way back up the hose, away from the hole, to where my partner was drilling. And he cannot hear me because he was drilling. So I had to foot my way along the hose, and every time he stopped drilling, I'd start yelling for him to come get me. It was quite an experience, trying to find my way back to him. If you happen to run into the wrong piece of equipment, or a bar sticking out of the rock, anything, you could really get hurt."

How frightening is it for a brand new miner? "I've seen people come underground, walk around and walk right back out again, say, 'This isn't for me, I'm outta here,'" Comish said.

For his own part, Comish said that the most unnerving aspect of the dark is that "you can't see what's going on all around you. Even with your light, you only see pretty well what's just in front of you."

Vancouver author Ryan Knighton has a different perspective on darkness. His books include Cockeyed, a memoir of growing up and of losing his sight gradually, and C'Mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark. He was afraid of the dark as a child -- but not because of the darkness itself. "It was this idea that anything could be outside the door, or something could be looking in the window, and that the dark actually amplified that feeling that something else was out there. So in a weird way it wasn't being afraid of the dark, it was what the dark implied, you know, that something else was being concealed outside and I wasn't safe unless I had the light on," he explained.

How scary was it to lose his vision? Knighton thinks that to go blind suddenly would be more frightening, because you wouldn't have time to adjust. He went blind over a period of 10 years, so "it wasn't scary in that conventional way you might imagine going blind is scary."

But there's another aspect of darkness that he finds unnerving. He related an incident in which he and his wife were lying in bed at night in their Vancouver apartment, and heard the snap of the mousetrap they'd set under the stove. Knighton got up to deal with it. "It's a horrible feeling to reach into something you can't see," he said. "You reach into the dark, and to feel with your hand for the thing that you're looking for, and you don't know what you'll find. Will it be alive and wriggling, or will it just be a dead mouse?"

It struck Knighton as odd that "even as a blind guy I'm still afraid of reaching into the dark." He went on to muse that " there's something in the reptilian brain that even goes beyond sighted and blind, about just reaching into the unknown and the fear of touching [something]."

For Knighton, going through life in a literal darkness has its challenges -- things are often not where you expect them to be, and you bump into them -- but it isn't frightening. "I was afraid of living that way, but I realized that the power of that fear was mostly due to ideas of social grace," he explained. "So, you know, the cure for blindness for me really was curing embarrassment. Embarrassment was actually holding me much more frightened than blindness was. And boredom. Boredom was terrifying to me. The idea that I didn't know what to do with myself if I couldn't see. "

Knighton's solution was to "turn everything in a story. I'd go out and put myself in situations and turn them into stories, and they were funny. And it doesn't embarrass me any more, and I'm definitely not bored."

He went on to say that "blindness doesn't feel as dark as it used to. It kind of opens up, ironically, a different world."