Written for MacMedia, McLaughlin College of York University's monthly student-run paper; November 2005.
Are you afraid of the dark? If you’re reading this—don’t be.
Reading this, chances are you’re a university student living in Toronto. And if you live in this amazing city, full of people, of entertainment, over brimming with life, then you haven’t seen the dark in a long time. It’s become an accepted fiction, like the other side of the world.
I went home for Thanksgiving this year. Home is two hours north, in the heart of cottage country. It’s called a city, but it barely counts. The surrounding area is country and wide-open spaces. There are long stretches of highway without streetlights, some without houses. The point being, it’s not hard to find real dark.
I was at home, 3 AM, and decided it was time for bed. Which first requires turning off all the downstairs lights before finding the stairs and then my bedroom. Before I moved out, this was a normal, daily activity. Except this past Thanksgiving, I found myself in a different world. One I had nearly forgotten exists.
I clicked the final switch, and plunged myself into black. Maybe it was my lost familiarity with the rooms, maybe it was the completeness of the dark, maybe it was some bad turkey—regardless, I felt a cold hand creep up my spine. I was afraid; in that creeped out way you get watching The Exorcist by yourself. Needless to say, I bolted for the stairs and into the light of my room.
Afterwards—safe in the light—I got to thinking. I realized the reason for my fear. I hadn’t been in complete dark like that since the end of August, the last night in my hometown. I’d been living in the fake dark of Toronto.
This city has night but not dark. Darkness is a foreign idea. When the sun goes down, streetlights kick in. The ambient glow of a million televisions fill every crevice. On campus, entire building interiors are floodlit with bright lights, morning, noon, and night. Downtown, club signs burn brightly into the wee hours of the morning.
Back home, when I close my currents after sundown, it becomes black. I’ll trip over my white cat it’s so dark. The average time it takes the human eye to adjust to night-vision is ten minutes, with complete night-vision in place after thirty. But within ten seconds of turning off the lights here in the city, I can see.
Some people have trouble adjusting to this constant light. They find it difficult to sleep after moving from the dark country into the hustle of the big city, where a dull glimmer always touches the outside of your eyes. They get restless because the night is no longer a heavy blanket wrapped around them during sleep, but a thin veil, loosely draped about one’s head.
The reverse is true, too. City people, finding themselves hunkered in their cottages, will revert to childhood nightlights in order to fend off the dark and the fear it inspires in them.
Long ago, when humanity was barely more than an ape playing games among the trees, the night was a truly terrifying time. Beasts lurked in deep, inkwell shadows to take advantage of the day creatures’ incapacities. Before we mastered fire, many an early Homo sapiens were taken away by hunting cats and hungry predators without a trace. Night became a time to cower together, fearful of the stalker, wishing for the day to bring back the light so we could see our enemies.
This fear lasted for so long it became a part of us, written in our genetic code, a building block of our instincts. Fight or flight. But how do you fight an intangible absence? How can you run from that which is all about you?
Until the industrial revolution, we couldn’t. Then came the incandescent bulb. Inventors harnessed the electron and made it useful. I doubt they knew the answer they were finding, but the collective being called Humanity did—finally, a way to defeat the dark. Forget the needlessness of doing so—instinct has never listened to reason. In a few short years, the first steps were taken. Decades after that, advances made. Decades again, and we are city-dwellers, drowning in light.
As friend of mine said, “Perhaps that’s why Las Vegas is so famous—why New York is so populated.” It’s people, flocking to the places that destroy their fear.
So what exactly is it that has stolen away our dark?
Televisions glowing long into the night. A constant barrage of LED lights flashing from computers, remotes, watches, and any other form of technology imaginable. Streetlights burn all night long to guide halogen headlights on cars going nowhere. How many hours do you spend in front of your computer monitor? As I write this, it’s the only form of light in my room.
In this grand construct we call civilization we are sacrificing one of the most basic elements that has been our companion for so long. Is there a reason? Did our primal fear of the dark that use to hide predators create a desire in us to wipe it out, so strong that we have?
I fear it’s true. Once upon a time, it might have helped us to have light all through the night. But not anymore. The tigers and wolves are all gone—cement towers and massive deadbolts protect us while we sleep. All that’s left are the bogeymen, which are found more in our heads than in our streets.
I’m not going to suggest we throw out technology (unless there’s a chance everyone will listen to me. No? Never mind then . . .) because I love it to death myself. My computer is my tool, like Beethoven and his piano. But I turn it off at night. When I sleep, my lights are off. I draw my curtains, in hopes of shutting out the ambient glow of the city. I want the night—I love the dark!
The great tragedy in this partial-fiasco is the stars. Toronto does have them, it’s true; they’re giant metal birds cruising down from thirty thousand feet on a runway approach. I saw seven the other night, all circling across the skyline at the same time. I had to shake my head before I realized what they really were.
When did you, my fellow Torontonians, last truly see the stars?
Over the summer break, back home, I was driving around with a friend. I pulled us to the side of the road and we laid out on top of the car, looking up at the sky. We were on the highway that goes to Middle of Nowhere, and there were no streetlights, no houses. There were no cell phones, computers, televisions, or even other cars. There was only the night darkness—and the sky.
I could not only see my hand in front of my face, but I could see the expressions my friend made. I could see the road stretch on before and behind us. I could see the shape of leaves in the trees. And I could see the galaxy. That’s the light we should have at night. Not a thousand bulbs burning energy and resources—just the stars.
It’s time to set aside instinct and irrational fear. The dark is no longer our enemy, despite the occasional creep out it may cause—that’s only to keep us on our toes. The dark is a long misunderstood friend, one we’re finally able to appreciate and embrace. I know it’s completely unreasonable, but imagine if for one night, or even just one hour, every light in Toronto were to be turned off.
Just long enough to see the stars.