Why some people never grow out of a fear of the dark

Why let creepy clowns get all the attention? From now until Halloween, Science of Us is investigating the psychology behind some of the most common fears.

Kids, generally speaking, have a lot of strange and very specific fears. If you can't think of a kid in your own life to back this up, look no further than Laura June's essay on the Cut about her otherwise fearless daughter's fear of sharks. As June notes, the reasons why someone will develop a fear during childhood are diverse and complicated — any number of things can influence whether a kid gets freaked out by dogs or cries at the sound of thunder. But there's one fear that most people will experience at one point or another: the fear of the dark. And unlike most childhood fears, it's one that plenty of people never grow out of.

Kids are hardwired to be afraid of the dark ...

Some fears are acquired based on specific life experiences; others are more universal and innate. Fear of darkness, which in extreme forms is known as nyctophobia or achluophobia, falls into that latter category. The reason: It's not the darkness itself that's frightening. It's the fear of what the darkness masks. The dark leaves us vulnerable and exposed, unable to spot any threats that may be lurking nearby. For much of human history, dark meant danger, and fearing it meant taking precautions to stay safe. Evolutionarily, it was an advantage.

Young boy having trouble sleeping at night.

That's not really the case anymore — there's not much to fear when we spend the darkest hours of the day tucked safely in our beds — but darkness has nevertheless held on to its place in our psyche as a manifestation of the terrifying unknown. Psychologist Thomas Ollendick, the director of the Child Study Center at Virginia Tech University, told Live Science that childhood fears of the dark come from a fear of "the unexpected": "Kids believe everything imaginable," he said. "That in the dark, robbers might come or they could get kidnapped, or someone might come and take their toys away." Our brains, in other words, equate darkness with the frightening side of unlimited possibility.

But it's a shockingly common fear among adults, too ...

As they age, people typically learn to disregard that link in everyday life. Darkness can up the spook factor of a novel situation, but most of us eventually become comfortable enough to ditch the night-light in their own homes. Not all, though: In one 2012 U.K. survey, nearly 40 percent of respondents said they were afraid to walk around the house with the lights off. In fact, 10 percent said that they wouldn't even get out of bed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. And in one small study, around half of the participants who characterized themselves as "poor sleepers" also admitted to being afraid of the dark, compared to just a quarter of self-described "good sleepers," suggesting that in some cases, the fear can be powerful to enough cause chronic insomnia.

And maybe even more common than we think, because it's so hard to diagnose ...

But the connection to poor sleeping habits also makes it easy to mistake fear of the dark for other fears, or for more general anxiety. "An individual may not be able to fall asleep once it's dark and their mind starts to wander," study author Colleen Carney, a psychology professor at Ryerson University, told Time. "They think, 'What if someone breaks into my house?' Instead of realizing these associations may indicate a fear of the dark, they skip a step and assume they have a fear of burglars." Like other phobias, Carney added, an intense fear of the dark can be treated through exposure therapy; the key is just recognizing it first.

Problem is, the trigger's so incredibly common — and unlike dogs, or llamas, or people looming in close proximity, it's a fear that's nearly impossible to contain: Once the lights go out, it builds and spreads, manifesting as a fear of what's in the room to whatever your imagination can conjure.

RELATED: Still afraid? Then you'll definitely want to stay away from these 15 places:

15 haunted places you can visit for less than $50
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15 haunted places you can visit for less than $50
1. The Dent Schoolhouse

Location: Cincinnati

Ticket Price: General admission costs $20.

The Dent Schoolhouse frequently makes media outlets’ lists of top haunted attractions — probably because the operators have a great location and legend to start their story. Dent was actually a working school until it was shuttered in the 1950s, after a janitor killed several students and buried their bodies in the basement.

2. Netherworld Haunted House

Location: Norcross, Ga.

Ticket Price: Admission to both MONSTERS and MELTDOWN on Sundays through Thursdays during the season costs $28; admission to both MONSTERS and MELTDOWN on all other Fridays and Saturdays and on Halloween will run you $35.

This Metro Atlanta attraction makes haunted house aficionados’ best-of lists because of its unique costumes, sets and animation, according to the Travel Channel. Scenes from the 2009 film “Zombieland,” starring Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg, were even shot on the premises.

3. Eastern State Penitentiary: Terror Behind the Walls

Location: Philadelphia

Ticket Price: Pricing varies by date, with advance-purchase tickets starting at $19 and topping out at $45 for the three Saturdays closest to Halloween.

Eastern State Penitentiary, opened in 1829, features tours year around, but the landmark lockup hosts a special attraction every Halloween season to take advantage of the spooky setting. Revenue from Terror Behind the Walls, which boasts elaborate sets and more than 200 actors, helps fund daily operations at the historic site.

Find Out: 10 Stores With the Cheapest Halloween Costumes

4. The Darkness

Location: St. Louis

Ticket Price: Individual tickets for the haunted houses cost $25 each. However, several combo tickets exist that offer discounts on individual pricing.

Operators of The Darkness run multiple attractions, including three haunted houses: The Darkness, Creepyworld and the Abyss at Lemp Brewery. Additionally, guests can enjoy escape rooms and zombie-themed laser tag, a new feature this year. The Darkness earns points from industry experts for its special effects.

5. McKamey Manor

Location: San Diego

Ticket Price: Tickets are free with a dog food donation to Operation Greyhound.

McKamey Manor is more of a terror takeover than a haunted house. Potential visitors should bear in mind that proprietor Russ McKamey's tactics have been criticized for being too extreme.

For fearless folks who still want to give McKamey Manor a try, the attraction currently offers a two-person "extreme interactive haunt" titled The Chamber, which could last as long as eight hours. Thrill seekers must make reservations, and The Chamber is only open to adults ages 21 and up who sign waivers.

6. The Whaley House Museum

Location: San Diego

Ticket Price: The Whaley House offers several events on different dates in October, including Past & Presence Ghost Tours for $25, Ghost Hunting Tours for $50 and a special event on Halloween, with daytime and nighttime slots available for $15.

If McKamey Manor sounds too terrifying, San Diego Halloween lovers can opt to visit the Whaley House Museum for a less hardcore haunt. Often named one of the most haunted places in the nation, the Whaley House is reputedly home to several ghosts, including “Yankee Jim” Robinson, who was convicted of attempted grand larceny and hanged in 1852 on the grounds where the house was later built.

7. The Myrtles Plantation

Location: St. Francisville, La.

Ticket Price: The Myrtles Plantation offers guided historic tours for $10 per person and guided group mystery tours for $15. You can also take a free, self-guided tour of the grounds.

Now a bed and breakfast, the Myrtles Plantation dates back to 1796, so it probably has plenty of skeletons in the closet. Legend has it that lawyer and plantation resident William Winter sought the help of a voodoo princess named Chloe when his young daughter became ill. However, the child died, leading Winter to have Chloe hanged from a tree.

Winter himself died a few years later after being shot just outside the home.

8. Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor

Location: Long Beach, Calif.

Ticket Price: General admission from $24 to $39, depending on the day of the week you want to visit. A season pass good for general admission on a dozen select dates is $59. Dark Harbor also offers a limited $20 Happy Haunting Hour admission for early arrivers.

The Queen Mary has a haunting history, and this Halloween attraction plays up several legends with horror mazes set throughout the ship. The haunted attraction also includes a paintball galley and the Voodoo House Tasting Room for visitors who haven’t lost their appetites or simply need a stiff drink.

9. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

Location: Weston, W. Va.

Ticket Price: General admission for Malice is $25. The attraction is open most weeks from Wednesday through Sunday between now and Halloween, but visitors should check the website for specific dates and times.

Historic and ghost tours are available year round at this site, constructed during the second half of the 1800s. For Halloween, it transforms into a haunted house, which bears the name Malice in this incarnation and stars a “demented doctor” who gives life to his patients’ worst nightmares.

In reality, the building was meant to house 250 souls, but it was packed with approximately 2,400 patients who languished in poor, overcrowded conditions in the 1950s. The building operated as a healthcare facility until 1994.

10. Bennett’s Curse

Location: Baltimore

Ticket Price: General admission is $35 and includes entrance to four haunted attractions.

Bennett’s Curse is a perennial favorite because of its impressive special effects, according to the Travel Channel. And operators are always looking for new ways to stir up the scares. This year, Bennett’s Curse features a new haunted house, Ravenbrook Asylum and a bonus show — the Coulrophobia Haunted House, which stars a circus of killer clowns.

11. Hundred Acres Manor

Location: Bethel Park, Pa.

Ticket Price: General admission for this haunted spot’s six attractions is $20.

Cited as one of the “10 Creepiest Halloween Haunts in the U.S.” by the Los Angeles Times in 2015, Hundred Acres Manor is operated by a local nonprofit that donates the proceeds to charities. So, at least you’ll feel good about being scared senseless.

The half-dozen attractions at Hundred Acres Manor span more than a mile outside Pittsburgh and include new features, Hallows' Eve and The Breach, this year.

12. Fear Factory

Location: Salt Lake City

Ticket Price: General admission to the haunted house is $25, and various combo tickets are available for different attractions and offers.

Featured on the Travel Channel program, “Ghost Adventures,” the Fear Factory in Salt Lake City plays up its paranormal past through a collection of historic news clippings on its website. The facility once operated as the Portland Cement Works, where several workers met their maker after being consumed by coal crushers and dying in other gristly industrial accidents.

Today, the site features a zip line, free fall attraction and virtual reality experience, in addition to its haunted house.

13. The Ohio State Reformatory

Location: Mansfield, Ohio

Ticket Price: General admission for the Paranormal Penitentiary is $20.

By day, the Ohio State Reformatory — key setting for the film “The Shawshank Redemption” — features historical and ghost tours. As Halloween approaches, the reformatory is transformed by night into the Paranormal Penitentiary, a fortified monster containment facility where visitors can join the ranks of the “Slayers of the Damned” to battle escaped evil in abandoned cells and shaded stairwells.

14. Blood Manor

Location: New York City

Ticket Price: General admission tickets are $30 each online.

This popular attraction occupies 5,000 square feet in New York’s Hudson Square neighborhood and features themed areas, including Maggot Invasion (“They’ll get under your skin!”) and Hannibal’s Hell (“1,000 Ways to Die!”), according to its website. For visitors who aren’t afraid of the dark, Blood Manor also offers Lights Out Nights on Nov. 4 and 5.

15. Erebus Haunted Attraction

Location: Pontiac, Mich.

Ticket price: General admission starts at $23.

This four-story haunted attraction opened its doors in 2000. Featuring 113,000 square feet of scares, it held the honor of world's largest haunted house for several years in the early 2000s. Erebus owners say the attraction is so large that it’s the equivalent of five typical haunted houses. Last year, the facility hired about 250 actors, with approximately 100 performing each night.


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