Fear of the Dark

This lecture was presented at The Tate Modern Gallery Turbine Hall in February 2010
The setting was inside a vast steel container by Polish artist Miroslaw Balka. Visitors to the cavernous Turbine Hall were invited to walk up a metal ramp and enter deep into a completely black space. This lecture was delivered to a crowd of several hundred, in complete darkness, apart from a tiny light I used to illuminate my script.

I would like to start with a poem by Rumi called ‘The Vigil’:

Don’t go to sleep one night.
What you most want will come to you then.
Warmed by a sun inside, you’ll see wonders.
Tonight, don’t put your head down.

Be tough, and strength will come.
That which adoration adores
appears at night. Those asleep
may miss it. One night Moses stayed awake
and asked, and saw a light in a tree.

Then he walked at night for ten years,
until finally he saw the whole tree
illuminated. Muhammad rode his horse
through the night sky. The day is for work.
The night for love. Don’t let someone
bewitch you. Some people sleep at night.

But not lovers. They sit in the dark
and talk to God, who told David,
“Those who sleep all night every night
and claim to be connected to us, they lie.”

Lovers can’t sleep when they feel the privacy
of the beloved all around them. Someone
who’s thirsty may sleep for a little while,
but he or she will dream of water, a full jar
beside a creek, or the spiritual water you get
from another person. All night, listen
to the conversation. Stay up.
This moment is all there is.

Death will take it away soon enough.
You’ll be gone, and this earth will be left
without a sweetheart, nothing but weeds
growing inside thorns.

I’m through. Read the rest of this poem
in the dark tonight.
Do I have a head? And feet?

Shams, so loved by Tabrizians, I close my lips.
I wait for you to come and open them.

Think of familiar phrases – “things that go bump in the night” – or “the dead of night” or “under cover of darkness” – the time when sinister threats are more successfully perpetrated – or think of Dracula, who refers to the Wolves who howl their moonlight serenade outside his castle as “children of the night”. And of course Dracula himself, who comes to life as the Sun sets. The nocturnal creatures – real and mythological – that go about their dark business whilst we sleep.

The science of psychology is always interested in the nature-nurture balance. Are we naturally afraid of the dark? Did our ancient ancestors learn to be more fearful when robbed of their dominant sense of vision? Were more of the tribe successfully carried off by predators at night than in the day? Perhaps. We are certainly more vulnerable when we are asleep. Fear makes us hyper vigilant. It puts our nerves on edge. It makes us attend more acutely to our senses. And when our senses are reduced, especially the nerve greedy and large visual cortex, we tend to heighten our attention to the other less dominant senses.
In many ancient cultures it was the Sun that was God, the bringer of life and light, not the dark void. And the devil is referred to in so many different contexts as the prince of darkness.

Some people say that children are naturally afraid of the dark. Yet our life’s journey begins in the total safety of the dark immersion of the womb – which reminds me of a patient who once responded to my proposal of using a flotation tank for a re-experience of the womb for ultimate relaxation, that he would prefer “a womb with a view” – but seriously, any parent here will remember the simple truth that small babies sleep best when their rooms are inky black. Black-out blinds seem to plunge the sleeper into the deepest sleep it is possible for us to experience. If there is light of any source it seems logical that our brain is designed to register it. Yet undoubtedly small children also soon become super sensitive to the presence of their carers. And thus also ultra-sensitive to the absence of the loving and protective other. So perhaps young children do have a Darwinian imperative for closeness of others? And the darkness, especially if we sleep alone, may come to oppress us because it represents aloneness. So perhaps our fear is not of the dark, but of aloneness in the dark?

I recently visited this installation during the daylight, and was fascinated to see so many children, of all ages, but especially the very young ones, running headlong into the darkness, laughing and full of excitement. But their parents were close by.

Were a child to find itself standing on the brink, on this loaded edge, in the middle of the night, silent and utterly alone, they might not feel quite as care–free. So yes, at least in part, I suggest that it is the being alone that is the scary thing rather than the innocent or should I say neutral darkness itself.

There are people, you may be one of them, who find complete silence very challenging. They walk from room to room, endlessly switching on the radio and so on. This behaviour we could call displacement. The interesting question is “what am I keeping at bay by avoiding silence? What thoughts or images might come into my consciousness if I have nothing to distract me from myself? And is this neutral darkness the visual equivalent of silence? And if it is, how much darker does it feel and appear if we meet the darkness in silence?

The proper name given to fear of the dark is nyctophobia. Fear of the night. A subtle but important distinction. Imagine you saw a poster for a new movie – “Terrors of the Day” – it doesn’t have much umph to it,does it, compared to “Terrors of the Night”?

Fear of the night……The time for sleep, and thus, dreams, and thus, the unconscious. But more of that in a moment.

First, a bit more about nyctophobia. Patients present in adulthood with classic and chronic symptoms of anxiety. The culprit, with all fear based symptoms, is adrenaline, the rocket fuel of hormones. Sweating, shaking, racing pulse, thirst, dizziness and fainting, nausea, heart palpitations, breathlessness – the usual suspects.

The most common treatment for fear of the night is cognitive behavioural therapy, known as CBT. In my judgement a superficial platitudinous sticking plaster of a therapy, so beloved of the NHS, because it is apparently effective, and better still, is cheap and quick. It is undoubtedly true that CBT relieves symptoms. People learn to manage their thought responses and particularly their interpretation of their fear response. There are several variations on the treatment theme, but all involve to some degree or another, the patient learning to manage their intense feelings of fear, to discover that even ten out of ten panic symptoms are survivable and to alter their accompanying thought patters accordingly. The power of the mind. The potency of our will. Manage the thoughts effectively and the feelings will fall into line obediently.

Except of course managing our thoughts is easier said than done, especially if you believe, as I do, that most of our thoughts are subterranean.

Carl Gustav Jung wrote:

One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.

Jung used the word “shadow” to encompass all aspects of ourselves that our outside our own awareness, both good and bad. Those parts of us that we deny, hide, repress or crucially project. The process by which we unconsciously project parts of our hidden inner selves onto others. They become like mirrors in which we catch glimpses of our unknown selves. The Jungian analyst James Hollis writes thus:

So often the one who receives the Shadow projects of others – be it the witches of Salem, the devils of Loudon, the Jews of Poland, gays or a host of other martyrs to unconsciousness – will be vilified, crucified, marginalized, gassed, burned or ignored. They are the carriers of our secret life, and for this we shall hate them, revile them and destroy them, for they have committed the most heinous of offenses. They remind us of some aspect of ourselves we cannot bear to see.

And I would suggest that utter darkness invites projection as vividly as anything possible to imagine. The imagination. Or Image nation. The nation of images that live inside us. Endlessly creating and developing. We can imagine anything we like. Right here right now. We can be floating in space – joyfully feeling the freedom of weightlessness, or we can be trapped underground – buried alive in an Egyptian pyramid, be dead and in the waiting room to the underworld, or be about to enter Mordor.

I ally myself with the school of psychology that interprets virtually all phobias as a fear of death by any other name. So whether flying or submersion, dirt or disorder, spiders or mice, closed spaces, even feathers – the often crippling symptoms patients experience in the presence of or even at the ‘idea’ of the presence of their nemesis, are for me, all actually a terror of death.

The great psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Irvin Yallom, in his terrific book ‘Love’s executioner’ writes this:

Most of us, most of the time, live comfortably by uneasily avoiding the glance of death, by chuckling and agreeing with Woody Allen when he says, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. But there is another way – a long tradition, applicable to psychotherapy – that teaches us that full awareness of death ripens our wisdom and enriches our life.

James Hollis, mentioned earlier, suggests that the intention of psychotherapy is to “create space to invoke possibility” – I love that phrase. To create space to invoke possibility. Surely this is true of great installation art too. The invitation is to meet ourselves, and perhaps each other, in a new way. And to ask good questions….”What am I if nobody can see me?” “Who am I if I cannot see myself?” “What parts of myself do I project out into the darkness around me?” “What dark secrets inside me would my life be enriched by knowing more consciously?” “Do I dare run open armed towards everything that terrifies me? Even death itself?” As Yeats put it “laughing to the tomb”.

And now, to finish, a poem, by the glorious Persian poet Hafiz, called “All the Hemispheres”:

Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.

Open up to the Roof.
Make a new water-mark on your excitement
And love.

Like a blooming night flower,
Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness
And giving
Upon our intimate assembly.

Change rooms in your mind for a day.

All the hemispheres in existence
Lie beside an equator
In your heart.

Greet Yourself
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
Back home.

All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire

While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of