Between horror movies and ghost stories, the dark is often associated with scary things. And for many people, that association can lead to actual fear of the dark — especially in kids.
There is a real reason behind this very common fear, and it goes way beyond the ghost stories and scary movies you’ve heard and seen (although they are part of it, too).
Here, experts share why many adults and children are afraid of the dark.
Being afraid of the dark is known as a “prepared fear.”
“I would see a fear of the dark as what we call a prepared fear,” said Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University and author of “The Anti-Anxiety Program.” “What that means is we’re prepared or predisposed to develop fears of some things more than others.”
These prepared fears stem from what would have been dangerous to our prehistoric ancestors — things like heights, spiders, snakes and the dark.
“We were probably built throughout evolution, through natural selection, to develop this fear, and the dark would be one of those situations that we’re predisposed to fear more easily,” Antony added.
If there are predators in the dark, you probably can’t see them, and this is as true today as it was for our ancestors thousands of years ago.
Being afraid of the dark is also a very common fear.
According to Krystal Lewis, a clinical psychologist at the National Institutes of Mental Health, fear of the dark is quite common, especially among children.
“Fears are a normal part of childhood development,” Lewis said. “We see a fair amount of kids who are afraid of dark, which is developmentally appropriate.” But, Antony added, most kids outgrow this fear with time.
It may also stem from a fear of the unknown.
“Most of the things that make us feel uneasy are things we see as unpredictable and outside of our control,” Antony said. When it comes to the dark, there’s uncertainty — “we don’t know what’s there,” he added.
Whenever we’re faced with a dark room or a pitch-black night sky, images from scary movies may come to mind, and kids may think of monsters.
Someone who is afraid of the dark “does not like the kind of uncertainty that darkness brings with it,” Antony noted.
It could also be a result of certain life events.
Fear of the dark persists into adulthood for many people — roughly 11% of the U.S. population is afraid of the dark, John Mayer, a clinical psychologist, told Glamour Magazine.
Some adults may fear the dark as a result of a negative experience they had at night, Lewis said. Whether that’s a robbery or attack or something else, they could associate that experience with nighttime and the dark, she added.
“Things like that could cause the development of fears,” Lewis said.
Being afraid of the dark could even be a component of post-traumatic stress disorder related to a negative incident, Antony explained. If this is the case, it’s a good idea to seek support from a mental health provider — you can search Psychology Today’s database to find a provider near you or try an online resource like Talkspace.
Fear of the dark can turn into something more.
It’s essential to track this fear and notice if it interferes with your normal activities or well-being, Lewis said. When a fear hinders daily life or impacts relationships, there could be more at play.
It’s important to determine if you need treatment from a mental health professional, she noted.
This could include exposure therapy, which slowly exposes people to their fear to help them become used to it, or cognitive behavioral therapy, which “is a type of intervention that helps people address unhelpful cognitions, behavioral avoidance and accompanying physiological distress,” Lewis said.
For some people, a fear of the dark could actually be a phobia, which means it is intrusive in daily life. For most, though, it’s just a fear that stems from the unknown, from scary movies, or even from our earliest human ancestors.