As kids, many of us went through a phase when we were afraid of the dark. It wasn't the darkness itself that scared us: It was what the darkness hid. But most of us outgrew our childish fears and realized monsters were not lurking under the bed or in the closet.
So why do so many grownup Westerners still need nightlights? I'm talking about those outdoor, high-pressure sodium, mercury-vapor and metal-halide nightlights so bright they turn night into day and can probably be seen from outer space. It's understandable that we humans have some fears about darkness, because night deprives us of our keenest sense. But nyctophobia is not sensible at all; it's an irrational fear of the dark that is common out here in the rural West.
I'm lucky because I live in a dark place. Like many in the rural West, I can still see the full splendor of the night sky: The constellations, meteors, the Milky Way and the occasional shimmer of the Northern Lights. Those who have nyctophobic neighbors or who live in brighter parts of the West or the world are not so lucky. Some kids who have grown up under the bright lights of the big cities have never even seen stars firsthand.
Light pollution is far more than an urban problem. As ranches are chopped up into ranchettes, sprawl spills out from small mountain towns and rural areas become exurbs and then suburbs, those thousand points of light coalesce into a murky gray sky. It's ironic, but the night appears much darker to those who choose to leave their bright outdoor lights on for the supposed sake of security. Just as a flashlight narrows our perception to that which is illuminated by a narrow beam of light, those who imprison themselves in floodlit bubbles blind themselves to the greater world. It may seem counterintuitive, but when we turn off the lights, suddenly we can see better and further in the moon and starlight.
It wouldn't be so bad if the neurosis that causes people to light up the night was just a personal thing. But it's not. Everybody suffers when nyctophobes' nightlights pollute the night and trespass upon their neighbors. I'm sure each of us can come up with a long list of local sinners whose nightlights steal our stars and rob us of the beauty of the night sky. For example, I'm convinced God Almighty has reserved a hot seat in hell for whatever misguided soul installed that 20-foot-tall cross of blazing lights on the hillside above our little town in the North Cascades. How dare they blot out the beauty of his creation?
If you live near a nyctophobe, the following are a few suggestions to help solve the problem:
•First and foremost, approach the person in a tactful manner. Tell him or her that you are sorry they are plagued with childish fears of the dark. Suggest a psychotherapist who could help with the condition.
•Suggest alternatives. Encourage your neighbors to rely on other comfort measures besides outdoor nightlights—stuffed animals, for example, or thumb-sucking, or even an old-fashioned blankie.
•Try to reassure with a little joking. Remind them that there is really nothing to fear out there in the dark besides wolves, cougars, rattlesnakes, bears, rabid bats and meth-tweaked burglars.
•Negotiate a win/win situation. Tell your neighbors that if they turn off their bright outdoor lights, you promise not to raise howler monkeys or hyenas on your property.
•Offer helpful solutions. In the nicest way possible, suggest that maybe country living doesn't suit people who are afraid of the dark. Perhaps they should consider moving to someplace else, like Las Vegas.
If diplomatic efforts fail to solve the problem, it might be necessary to rent "The Dominator," the world's most powerful searchlight. Five feet in diameter, this 18,000-watt searchlight is capable of producing 1.2 billion candlepower and illuminating nearby planets. Simply aim The Dominator at your nyctophobic neighbor's house, flip the "on" switch and light up their life!
Let's save our view of the heavens, for heaven's sake.
Patrick Hannigan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. He writes in Twisp, Washington.