Bending over a fresh fire pit, I tuck dryer lint beneath a stack of sagebrush and juniper logs I’ve gathered from the surrounding land. Sometimes I prefer more primitive means: char cloth, steel and a strip of magnesium. But today I’m playing it safe to calm my nerves.
I press a brûlée torch up against the kindling and flick the starter. Click. Nothing. Click. Could it be out of fuel? Click. Sweat trickles down my neck. Click. Whoosh. Finally the lint bursts into a fireball. The sagebrush crackles, the logs blacken. Now I can wait for night to come, with a little comfort.
This trip is an experiment. I chose this spot to confront a fear I only recently discovered: I’m a 27-year-old man who’s afraid of the dark. Few places get less ambient light than an isolated valley in Utah’s west desert. I’m camped about 10 miles from the Dugway Proving Ground, where the Army has stored and tested chemical and biological weapons since 1943. A test went sideways in 1968, killing about 6,000 sheep in nearby Skull Valley. Their remains were buried in an unmarked plot that, as far as I can tell, lies directly below my tent. The only visible cue is the absence of flora, besides the quackgrass that sways in the wind like a metronome.
The fire sizzles and time moves slowly. I keep reaching for an empty pocket, but I’ve left my phone in the console of my Subaru Forester to soften this exact temptation. I don’t want to distract myself or numb my feelings tonight. There’s something resonant, within our deepest human impulses, about facing what makes us afraid. So I survey the land and wait. When the sun falls below the horizon, I pull a pimento cheese sandwich and something to drink out of the cooler. At just the right angle, the wind whistles across the bottle’s open mouth, producing a delicate, sustained hum.
I have feared bedtime since my earliest memories. I slept with a baseball bat. I fixated on the burglar alarm.
How many classic horror movies start with a camping trip? From “Friday the 13th” to “The Evil Dead,” unsuspecting characters leave the safety of civilization seeking solitude and freedom, only to find themselves living a nightmare with nobody around to help. Pop culture frightens us for fun, stimulating our adrenal glands with psychopaths, monsters, aliens, dolls, even a drug-addled bear. We seek out similar feelings at haunted houses and corn mazes, or on dark hikes through the mountains, just as we love to tell ghost stories around campfires. But why?
Aristotle believed in catharsis, the idea that we can purge negative emotions if we experience them by proxy, mainly through characters portrayed in the arts. Centuries later, the German enlightenment thinker Gotthold Lessing expanded on that line of thinking: “In real life, men are sometimes too much addicted to pity or fear, sometimes too little; tragedy brings them back to a virtuous and happy mean.” So rather than purging those feelings, we learn to regulate them. But neither had much to say about confronting these emotions in real life. So instead, I turned to my wife.
Much of her clinical work as a doctoral student of psychology at Brigham Young University involves unrest and helping clients to overcome their fears. Her treatments are rooted in a name I remember from high school: Ivan Pavlov, who discovered classical conditioning. In a familiar experiment, he rang a bell every time he fed his dogs. After a while, the dogs would hear the bell and begin salivating, even if there was no food present. They had learned to associate one stimulus with another.
A few decades later, researchers at Johns Hopkins University sought to prove that conditioning affected humans in the same way. Their “Little Albert experiment” involved a 9-month-old infant. First, they exposed him to a variety of stimuli, including a white rat; he was unafraid. Then they exposed him to the white rat again — but now, whenever Albert touched the rat, the researchers smacked a hammer against a steel bar to produce a loud, sharp sound. Albert began to cry. After a while, Albert began to cry at the sight of almost anything white and fluffy, including a Santa Claus beard.
Mary Cover Jones, eventually known as the mother of behavior therapy, reverse-engineered that experiment, with a twist. Rather than using classical conditioning to pair two stimuli, she used “direct conditioning” to deprogram fear. Her findings led to the development of exposure therapy. Consider, my wife tells me, a child who is pathologically afraid of spiders. In this form of treatment, the child would be exposed to spiders gradually — first through pictures, then videos, seeing a live one, eventually touching a spider and so on.
The undergirding theory of behaviorism is that all fear is learned; that even seemingly innate fears — of loud noises, for example — only take shape after hearing loud noises for the first time. Exposure therapy is meant to help people to “unpair” that fear from the corresponding stimulus by successfully facing it. That makes sense to me, though I do spot one pitfall. “What if you’re exposed to a rattlesnake and it bites you?” I ask. “Exposure works,” she tells me, “only as long as the person is safe.” If not, it has the potential to make the problem worse.
While there’s still enough light to see, I take a little walk. I’ve spotted what looks like a small cave on the side of a rocky hill, and my mind conjures up images of mountain lions. In the spirit of my mission, I stomp that way over tangles of nasty, prickly weeds. The cave, it turns out, is just a dark indentation about the size of a window. All I find there is a rusted can specked with bullet holes. As I trudge back down the hill and stumble toward my campfire, I hear the wind whistle through an open bottle. The sound is haunting.
Exposure therapy is meant to help people to “unpair” their fear from the corresponding stimulus by facing it.
I can’t point to a moment when I learned to associate darkness with fear, but I have feared bedtime since my earliest memories. This is common in children, whose minds run wild with the decline in visibility and the accompanying silence. In evolutionary terms, we’re certainly more vulnerable at night. But behaviorists would argue that the fear only sets in after a child sees something scary or overhears a news story about a murder or kidnapping. Soon they’re imagining scary creatures hiding under their bed or in the closet, like the protagonists of “Monsters, Inc.”
The threat I always feared was from other humans — lurking in the shadows, breaking into our home. My parents recall that I used to invade their room at night because every creak and pop echoing through the house made me panic. For a while, I slept with a baseball bat. I fixated on the burglar alarm. My dad didn’t want me to know that he owned firearms, so he tried to reassure me by saying he kept a bow and arrow under his bed.
I started learning to cope around the third grade, when my parents let me have a TV in my bedroom. At first it was off limits after bedtime except for the Golf Channel — a kind of white noise to drown out night sounds. It worked, and I still fall asleep watching television to this day. On a recent night at a Super 8 motel without TV, I used the Hulu app on my phone, then woke up in the middle of the night to turn it off. The fact that hotel remotes offer sleep mode tells me that I’m not alone in this practice. This system works well enough — except when I go camping.
Out here, the cracks and hums are amplified in the dream-like haze of a poor night’s sleep. On the floor of a tent that’s always too hot or too cold, my imagination spirals. That slithering sound must be a rattlesnake, coming to sneak in and kill me. Those thumping sounds must be footsteps that can only mean a person is snooping around. Eventually, I pass out, but with the inevitable rustling of nylon the process starts over again. By morning, I’m cursing the sun for not rising faster. That’s why my phone is in my car. “Never turn your back on fear,” wrote the journalist Hunter S. Thompson. “It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed.”
My fire is dying down, but I’m in no hurry to climb into my sleeping bag. My dad used to say his favorite part of a campfire was the end, when all that remains are glowing embers. It’s the best setting for ghost stories, dark enough to startle kids with a flashlight beneath a man’s chin, when orange waves of heat seem to flow through the smoldering cinders in coordination with the words. This phenomenon is as ancient as human civilization.
Legends have been passed down orally, from the Navajo tales of skin-walkers to Latin American stories about the chupacabra. Greek mythology abounds with specters and hauntings, divided into subcategories in an attempt to explain them. Roman Emperor Hadrian believed he was haunted by his dead lover, and his accounts inspired artists to depict the experience. Much later, terror joined our modern literary canon in novels and short stories like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” A French filmmaker named Georges Méliès made the first horror movie in 1896, called “The Haunted Castle.” Aristotle would probably relate.
The beauty of horror shows and haunted houses is that no matter how frightening they seem, we still experience them with some degree of separation. The movie is fictional, and so is the guy with the chainsaw. You can feel the terror — but you can also swallow it. Even in real life, much of what we fear is imaginary, including most of what I fear about the dark. And even existential terrors — of disease and war and hardship — require surrender. I can’t control those things. If they ever come my way, I’ll fight. But for now, all I can do is let the fear wash over me — and do nothing.
A rustling sound triggers the instinct that brought me here. Are those footsteps over dry grass? Something is crawling. Something is trying to get inside. Someone is watching.
I’m about to extinguish my coals when I notice a light on the northern horizon. Then a second light. One is orange and twinkles like a star — a fire. The other, perfectly parallel, is white and unflinching like Venus — perhaps a lamp. They stare back like mismatched eyes, disappearing and reappearing every few minutes. I’m not as alone as I thought, and if I can see them, they can probably see me. I toss the rest of the lint on the coals and watch it flare against the night sky. Then I dump what’s left of my drink on the campfire and bury the coals.
Lying on a sleeping pad inside my tent, I stare out through the mesh roof. The clouds have cleared, and the Milky Way shimmers. What a beautiful night. But a rustling sound interrupts my reverie, triggering the instinct that brought me here. Are those footsteps over dry grass? Something is crawling. Something is trying to get inside. Someone is watching. But for some reason, this time, the feeling passes. It’s just the wind flicking the nylon tent, I tell myself. Sitting up, I take one last look at those twin lights. They’re no bother anymore, either.
Within minutes, I’m fast asleep.
The sun is out and it’s past 7 a.m. by the time I wake up. For the first time, I’ve slept through the night while camping. As I pack up, a herd of mule deer clomps through the grass where the sheep are buried. I wonder if they know. I wonder if they realize how easily they could wander onto Dugway and encounter some new form of death juice. I wonder if they worry about mountain lions stalking them from the caves. They turn and stare at me with black eyes, but quickly turn their attention back to the morning forage.