Afraid of Heights or Afraid of the Fall?

By Tabitha Harris, Opinion Editor

Staring down from a high balcony or from the top of a mountain after an exhilarating hike tends to make me quite dizzy and makes my heart pound ever so slightly. The sensation of standing so far above the ground and solid earth messes with my head. While acrophobia affects many other individuals besides myself, perhaps we have misnamed or misidentified the intense feeling of terror we experience in such situations.

What exactly are we afraid of? Is it the fact that we’re high up in the air? Perhaps, but if one thinks about it, we actually are standing on something solid much of the time. If we’re gazing down at the beautiful creation from a mountain-top, we’re still standing on the mountain itself. If we’re looking over the edge of the Empire State Building, our hands still grip the railing while our feet are firmly planted on the concrete floor. If we’re skydiving, free-fall lasts anywhere from 20 to 90 seconds depending upon which facility you use, and then your parachute holds you steady. Consider an airplane. We’re sitting fully-enclosed, our feet on the carpeted floor and a roof over our heads. True, the heavy metal contraption is suspended in the air but we are relatively quite safe. The sheer altitude itself doesn’t terrify us; it’s not the thousands of feet or the numbers which frighten us. So what is it? I believe it’s the thought of falling or, more accurately, the thought of the final landing…your body against the pavement, the earth, or the forest floor.

We really fear what might happen if we lose our balance on the edge of the mountain, slip over the railing of the Empire State Building, find ourselves in possession of a faulty parachute, or realize that our pilot can no longer control the plane and we are plummeting to earth. We don’t fear the height, we fear the fall and what comes at the end of the fall.

In a similar vein, are we afraid of the dark or of what might be hidden in the dark? In 2015 Chinese scientists postulated that humans aren’t necessarily afraid of the dark so much as we are afraid of the night. Darkness and night are two completely different things. Darkness is merely the absence of light, whereas night isn’t merely the absence of day. Night is something in and of itself; it involves darkness, yes, but it is its own entity just as day is its own entity. Darkness helps us fall asleep because it’s quite the task to drift off if it’s blazingly bright and we’re not especially tired. What’s so unnerving about the dark is that we can’t see what’s about us. We’re left with a feeling of powerlessness which is why we’re quick to turn on the light after a nightmare. In the light, we can see what lies round us, we can get our bearings.

Why is it such a problem that we can’t see what’s about us? The answer is really quite simple and you’ve probably guessed at it already. Evil things hide in the dark because it’s a sight more difficult to rob a bank in broad daylight or commit any other more sinister crime. This is why children tell their parents they’re afraid of the dark. They aren’t really, they’re afraid of the monsters or other such nemeses which may be lurking in the shadows of their room. Think about it. Carrying the trash to the dumpster behind your apartment building isn’t such a big deal in the morning but completing the same action after the sun has set suddenly becomes a journey fraught with danger and terror.

It’s all sort of like seeing that shadow in your room which looks like a person but is merely the outline of your jacket draped over your desk chair.

Many of us have seen that meme floating around the Internet which says “when you turn off the lights downstairs and run upstairs so no kills you” and typically has a picture of Katniss Everdeen beginning the Hunger Games. What makes that so hilarious is that it’s incredibly relatable. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, you friend’s done it, we’ve all done it. Why? For some odd reason, the darkness sends chills up our spines just like looking below from a great height makes our head spin and our heart pound. Or perhaps the reason isn’t so odd after all.


A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, February 7th print edition.

Contact Tabitha at


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