What is it about the dark that has had most, if not all, of us (yes, including me) in fits of panic at one time or another? You know the symptoms – clammy skin; racing heart; eyes darting this way and that; breathing short and sharp. But why? That darkness may only be your living room in the early hours of the morning, when you’ve nipped downstairs for a glass of water. The answer, dear reader, lies once again in the power of the imagination.
For, it is your imagination that transforms your otherwise benign house, in daylight hours, into a hotbed of evil and malicious activity after dark. There are the wicked downstairs dwelling creatures, which try and get your ankles as you race back upstairs after getting your glass of water; intent on dragging you back down and into their lair. Next, you have to run the gauntlet of the sadistic upstairs dwelling demons, who lie in wait under your bed (whether there is room or not), waiting to grab at you – to wound or maim – as you try and get back into bed. It’s surprising how quickly you can get all your limbs tightly wrapped, and out of sight, in the duvet, isn’t it?
The danger, however, is far from over. For, as you lie there, willing your heart rate to slow down, chastising yourself for being down right ridiculous, you are invariably staring up at the ceiling, where the shadow monsters lurk. As you stare, you feel your breath catch once more, for didn’t that shadow just move? Isn’t it morphing into a shape, its tendrils reaching out towards you? You pull the duvet over your head, scrunching your eyes shut tight, willing it to go away. After a few minutes, breathing becomes an issue, the temperature under the duvet is increasing and you decide that ‘enough is enough’; ‘there is nothing lurking in the shadows’; ‘my eyes are just playing tricks on me’. Yet, you don’t throw the duvet off, gulp in a lungful of air and relish in the coolness, do you? No, you slowly poke the top of your head out, scanning the ceiling for the demon that was trying to grab you. You might be brave and uncover your nose, just so you can get some air in, but you are still scanning – ever watchful. You think it’s gone so you allow the duvet to drop back and you take a big sigh. You lie there, staring once again at the ceiling, your mind elsewhere, when the shadows move again. You stare harder and, sure enough, the ceiling monsters are back, gliding towards you. This can go on for hours, believe me. Eventually though, through sheer exhaustion, you fall asleep.
If the darkness in your own home can do that, then what about the darkness outside?
Picture this. You’re walking home after a night out. There is no one else about. You are exhausted, the heavens have just opened and you have no coat or umbrella. You have two choices – the well-lit street which will take you twice as long OR the short cut; the dark, narrow, unlit short cut. Which do you choose? I’ll bet it’s not the short cut which, by day, you use all the time. What is it that we think resides there after dark? Does a portal open between the worlds, releasing all sorts of foes into the shadows?
It’s not the obvious that you fear (and arguably should) when you stand, impotent, as your mind wrestles with a decision for which there is only one answer. No, it’s not the drunk, the mugger, the rapist or even the murderer that you fear. It’s the creatures of your imagination. Those fiends you mock in books and laugh heartily at on celluloid, but now, in the harshness of reality, it is exactly these manifestations that you envision in the darkness, lying in wait. And it is this fear that sends you the long way home.
Darkness. It is something so basic; something so natural; the opposite of light. Yet, its associations are far from basic; far from natural. All things evil; all things supernatural; and all things mystical have associations with darkness. Nothing cute or fluffy comes from the darkness; not without teeth and claws, anyway. It is this association that, despite knowing that nothing will happen to you, makes you stop and think. How many of you have paused before entering a haunted house or before stepping onto a ghost train at a fair? This may not be a physical pause, but your mind will have registered a pause and your body will have responded – hairs on the back of your neck raised; heart skipping a beat; clammy palms; breath quickened. Whether you believe it or not, it will happen, because no matter how cheesy these things may be in reality, the thought of stepping into darkness will always prompt you to pause and wonder ‘what if’.
Yet, it is the darkness that fascinates, dear reader, for however much you may fear it, a part of you is drawn to it – craving, wondering – after all, how bad can it be?
Let’s go on a trip, a window shopping trip if you will, into the recesses of my mind. It’s not a trip for the faint hearted, so arm yourselves well, for I will not help you against the foes that you will meet. You might want to wrap up warm and wear sturdy shoes, for the deeper we go, the colder it will get and the less certain your footing will be.
The dungeon is cold and dark; the steps slick with water and mould; a smell of decay pervades the air and the constant dripping of water makes you shiver. A lantern hangs on a hook at the bottom of the steps, casting a faint glow into the abyss beyond. You take the lantern and, holding it above your head, you take your first tentative steps into the bowels of my mind.
A door comes into the light and you pause in front of it. Do you dare to open it? Are you brave enough to find out what is behind it? For you know that once that door is opened, it can never be closed again, not really. You hold the lantern up high to see if there are any more, but the pale light goes no further than the one in front of you. You take a deep breath, reach out to grasp the handle and close your eyes as you open the door.
No sound greets you; just silence. You open your eyes. In an antique wooden chair sits a doll; a doll with a porcelain face and hands; a doll with blonde ringlets and a scarlet rosebud mouth; a doll wearing a greying pinafore, smudged with a rusty looking substance. You can feel the hairs rise on the back of your neck. You spin round, casting the dim glow all around you, but no one is there. So, why do you feel like someone is watching you? You shiver and turn back to the doll. Does a hint of a smile now tug at the rosebud mouth? You lean in for a closer look. Its eyes seem to follow you. You hold the light closer and faint rust coloured tracks become visible on the alabaster cheeks. You hold the light up close. Your breath catches. Did the pupils dilate? You step back; away; out of reach. You swing the lantern round in the gloom, for you sense you are not alone. You hear a sob and your heart lurches. You swing the lantern back round, illuminating the doll once more. You step back, away, banging into the wall behind you as you stare, wide eyed, the lamplight shuddering to your beat. In front of you, tears now streak the doll’s face; red tears; blood tears. Your gaze fixed on the doll, you brace yourself against the wall and, stretching your leg out, you kick the door closed.
You stand awhile, supported by the damp walls; steadying your breathing; steadying your mind. You laugh out loud at your reaction. It was only a doll. You think about opening the door again, but as you raise the lantern, you notice another door further down; a door that wasn’t there before. You move towards it, reach out and pause awhile, your hand on the doorknob, before you turn it and open the door, stepping back quickly as you do so.
Mist swirls out of the open doorway, dissipating amongst the air of the corridor. As it clears, light filters through and a scene comes into focus. It must be twilight, for the sky has that bright glow as it passes from day into night. A streetlamp illuminates a bench; its light unseen against the glow of the sky. You shiver as the coldness rolls through the doorway. You can see a shape on the bench and you find yourself squinting, shielding your eyes to get a better look. You gasp and glance back at the other door. It remains shut.
You look back through the doorway, stepping forward now to get a better look. A little girl is sitting on the bench. Her head is bowed, her blonde ringlets falling down around her face. She is wearing a ruby red wool coat, double buttoned down the front; her hands are hidden inside a black fur muffler; her legs are wrapped in black woolly tights; and her feet are clasped in black patent leather Mary Jane’s. There is something so familiar about her; something pulling at your memory. You watch her as she sits, swinging her legs. You step forward, close to the threshold, drawn by her isolation and the growing darkness. She hears you and looks up. You see tears running down her cheeks; her bottom lip quivering. You reach out to her and take a step forward, hovering over the threshold. Something is stopping you, but what? Is it the hint of a smile that you think you’ve just seen on her angelic face? Is it that you’ve remembered where you are and that nothing is as it seems?
You look up and make eye contact with her. Her tears have stopped; her mouth is set in a grim line. You start to withdraw, but in an instant she is in the doorway, holding your wrist in a vice like grip. You scream, but no one can hear you; no one that cares. You try to pull your arm away, but she won’t let go. She opens her mouth and you see her fangs. With all the strength you can muster, you yank your arm backwards. You catch her off guard. She crosses the threshold and you hear a fizzing noise as she screams. She releases you and withdraws back to her bench, her hair and skin charred in places. You kick the door shut and slump down on the floor, massaging your wrist; the bruises visible already.
Once your breathing has returned to normal, you hold the lantern up again. Another door has appeared further down the corridor. You push yourself to your feet and start forward, but then you stop and pause. You look back at the two doors you have already looked behind and you look down at your throbbing, and now swollen, wrist. You look at the stairs leading out of the dungeon; stairs to daylight; stairs to freedom. You look back at the new door that has just appeared.
You make your choice.
To be continued……
May fear protect you when the darkness comes.
Til next time.