I live in an old house in Connecticut with drafty hallways, creaky floors and more than a few darkened corners. It’s a house well suited for trick-or-treaters and homemade horror flicks. During the day none of this seems especially obvious, but at night the place is transformed in subtle ways. Darkness spills out of closets like black ink. When the wind blows, the house seems to call back through the night, with a chorus of groaning door hinges. I have two children—ages 6 and 8—and they sense it keenly, especially at bedtime. They are often uneasy about sleeping by themselves, in their bedrooms on the third floor of our house.
The other night, I was putting my 6-year-old to sleep and he asked me to lie down with him because he was scared of ghosts. I explained, as matter-of-factly as I could, that ghosts didn’t exist.
“I know that daddy,” he told me, as if he were talking to an especially dimwitted individual. “But the ghosts are in my brain, and I can’t turn off my brain.” I blanched. What do you say to that?
My son then asked whether he could pay me a visit, in the middle of the night, if he got scared. Gently, I said no. This may sound heartless, but whenever I say yes, he ends up making a nocturnal tour of the house in search of my wife and me. I typically awake to the sound of his little feet scampering through the darkness. It’s unsettling. Imagine the sound of a light-footed velociraptor. All of this is ridiculous and beyond irrational. Still, it’s creepy.
It soon became apparent to me that, at age 40, I too was scared of the dark. To make matters worse, I was earning my keep as a novelist, writing a horror story called NIGHTFALL about a group of children who get trapped in 14 years of dark. I eventually turned to my wife for a dose of sanity. She is a scientist—a professor at Yale Medical School—the most levelheaded person I know. “If you want to know the truth,” she told me. “I’m scared of the dark too.”
I was dismayed and told her so. “My fear is completely rational,” she insisted. She then made her case, and it was, I must concede, quite logical. It went like this: Since the dawn of man, night has been a time when we were in danger, when we were vulnerable—to lions, club-toting men and giant chasms into which we could fall. In short, it was evolutionarily advantageous for us to be afraid of the dark.
Those of us who feared the night, and cowered from its dangers, survived. Those who went for strolls in the dark ended up as snacks for lions. This isn’t entirely a joke. Lions were once the most widely distributed mammals in the world. And they struck at night. A recent study from the University of Minnesota’s Lion Research Center revealed that between 1998 and 2009 lions attacked 1,000 people in Tanzania. In two thirds of these incidents, the attacks were fatal and the victims were eaten. Roughly 60% of these victims were attacked just after sundown, between 6 and 9:45 in the evening.
Throughout history, our fear of the dark has been evident. In olden times crimes committed at night often carried stiffer penalties. For example, in 16th century England, if you broke into a house during the day you were guilty of housebreaking. If you did so at night, you committed a burglary—a far more serious offense that could be punishable by death. Crimes at night were considered more sinister in part because they struck terror into our hearts.
Night poses few real dangers to novelists in Connecticut houses, but the evolutionary impulse lingers. So how could I tell my child that he had no reason to fear the dark?
All of this was on my mind not long ago when I awoke around midnight with a start. I had been having a nightmare that I owed $80,000 in back taxes. Upon waking, I found myself alone in bed.
I remembered, rather groggily, that my wife was away at a conference. I blinked my eyes repeatedly. We have blackout curtains in our bedroom. It was dark, very dark. I tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t. Some time later, I heard footsteps, a scurrying through the darkness.
I called out my son’s name in a half-whisper. Moments later, he leapt into my arms. I quickly made room for him in bed, next to me. He lay down, facing me. It was too dark to see his face. Was he staring at me? Did he know? And if he knew, would his sense of comfort and well-being simply vanish?
“You OK?” I asked. But he was already asleep.
Mr. Halpern is the co-author, most recently, of the young adult novel “Nightfall” (Penguin, 2015).
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