I went for a walk with my faithful dog, Turk, last night. It was late, about 9pm. The heat in Portland has been stifling over the past couple of days, and a walk through the cooling August air was just what I needed to bring my temperature down to semi-normal levels.
As I was walking in the deepening dusk, I started to think about night. Obviously, there is a reason that humans are afraid of the dark. For thousands of years, this particular fear has kept millions and billions of humans alive. The darkness is elemental in our mythology, isn’t it? I mean, in every religion known to man, the first thing in the universe is either the darkness or the light. I guess it is up to the particular person to decide which is more important.
Of course, no one understands the dark like a child. Think back to when you were little, like 5 or 6. I’m sure if you do, you remember a moment where you were in your bed, trapped. Why? You had to go to the bathroom and it was dark outside. For me, I remember looking over to the bathroom, which was only 5 feet from my bedroom door, and feeling like I was going to have to pee myself rather than cross that universal expanse of darkness.
But, really, it wasn’t about crossing the room in the dark (although that was scary). It was about getting out of the bed. There is a thin strip of blackness underneath a bed that conjures up images of demons and monsters, hands that grasp and choke. Even if you did what I did and jumped as far away from the bed as possible, there was always the place behind the door to be afraid of.
Now, as a grown up, I have told my daughter that age-old lie: There are no monsters. “You don’t have to be afraid, Abigail. There are no monsters in your room.” I have also said, “A ghost is not going to eat you,” and “There are no faceless eyeballs that float in the night.” Let me make this clear: These phrases were in response to her fears, I didn’t make these ones up. Her fears are much more concrete than mine ever were.
I say that they are a lie because they are. Even as grown ups, we realize that there are monsters to be afraid of. The monsters change as we get older, but they are still there. I can tell my daughter not to be afraid of them, but there is a reason I still lock her windows at night. I can say that there are no ghosts that will eat her, but I don’t really know enough about ghosts to claim that I’m an expert.
The fact is, there are monsters in the darkness. I thought about this as I was walking through the dark, deserted park last night. Darkness brings a change to all people. When day slips into night, there is a lengthening of shadows, a shifting of perspectives that makes even the people you know and love look different somehow. You still know them, but it is as if each of us has a different, darker side that is reborn when the light fades away.
I like to think that I am unafraid. There are not many things that make me scared, although I do have some. I don’t like heights, and I don’t want to die.
Still, as I walked through the park, the darkness wormed into my brain and started playing ghoul-games with me. What was that noise in the bushes? Are there steps behind me on the path? What if a man in a black coat was sitting on the swings and looking at me? What if he’s a ghost and I am thinking about him because he’s actually there? These are crazy questions to ask yourself in the daytime, but at night the line between sanity and insanity, real and surreal becomes uncomfortably thin.
When I was in high school, I had a report due that I totally (and uncharacteristically, ahem) procrastinated until the night before. So, on a Sunday night in October I asked my dad to drop me off at the local library in my little town of Medford, Oregon. He did, and I walked up to the large, stone edifice to enjoy my 3-hour study session.
To my chagrin, the doors were locked. The library wasn’t open on Sunday.
Now, for all of you who don’t know what it was like before cell phones were invented, this was a problem for me. The pay phone (yes, you put MONEY into it and then it let you TALK to people!) was inside the library, which was locked. My dad wasn’t coming back for at least another 2 hours and 50 minutes. Night was quickly falling and the leaves were rustling ominously.
I tried. I really did.
I sat on the stone bench outside the library, trying to concentrate. I actually tried writing, since I was so creeped out I thought it would make a good story. The problem is, you don’t get LESS scared by writing, “The homeless man brought the hammer down on her unsuspecting head as pools of blood puddled at the bottom of the library steps.”
Needless to say, when I saw a vagrant man walking up the sidewalk towards the library, I decided I would rather brave the darkness than wait for my imminent death.
I walked home in the dark. It was one of the scariest things I have ever done in my whole life. I was 15, I barely knew where I lived, and I was a little bit of a thing. I had 2 carloads of drunk guys try to pull over and pick me up. Fortunately, I just started running and happened to find myself at a market that was right down the street from our house. From there I just put one foot in front of the other and hoped that no one ran me down on the dark back road.
When I did get home, my parents had just invited the police in to look at current pictures of me. I was in a little bit of trouble.
In retrospective, it wasn’t the darkness, the drunken men, the hobo, or the crunching leaves that sounded like corpses that really scared me. The really scary stuff was the stuff that was coming out of my own mind.
I think that is the most frightening darkness of all: the darkness that is inside each of us. As all men have the capacity to become full of light, I believe that all men have the capacity to be full of darkness. I don’t think many of us would choose that path, but the capability is always there. No matter how lovely someone looks in the light of day, it is always possible that they have a basement full of bones.
And so I lock the doors at night. And I try not to walk alone in the park, in the dark. I know that there are monsters out there, just as well as Abigail does. At the same time, I tell her that they don’t exist. I fill her up with as much light and laughter that I can. In this way, I hope I am fighting the darkness as best I can. I know I can’t destroy it, but I don’t have to fear it.
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