Fear of Light
What this recurring theme in myths say about our nature.
The myths we tell and retell are portraits of what is transpiring beneath the veneer of our individual conscious minds. Carl Gustav Jung introduced the idea of the collective unconscious that we all share as a species. I would like to demonstrate how a theme will persist despite the changing times. But we fail to recognize this recurring message because it is dressed under the cultural language of the time it re-emerged. The three stories that I am about to recount demonstrates how this can happen and why it does.
The Dead Roommate
One urban myth that I cannot forget was this story a friend of mine told me about a 20-something woman who came home late drunk from a party. She didn’t turn on the lights or dress up. She went straight to her room and collapsed in bed. She heard the door open and close, assumed it was her roommate leaving and proceeded to sleep. The next morning she woke up. Blood was all over the room. Horrified, she turned to look at her roommate’s bed. There, on the bed about 4 feet away was indeed her roommate, dead and chopped into several pieces. She realized that the only reason she was still alive was she didn’t bother to turn on the light. The door that opened and close as she slept was the killer leaving the apartment after she came in.
Myths like this catch on because they strike at the very core of our primal fears. These stories start off with events very similar to what we normally do on a daily basis. I find the mundaneness of the setting and the circumstances even more macabre than the supernatural country stories I heard growing up. How many of us would have done the exact same thing, after coming home drunk from a party? The chilling thought is that she was sleeping with her dead roommate all night and did not know it. The theme here is, there are some things you are better off not knowing. It is a very urban mindset. In New York, people try to stay out of people’s business. They don’t want to know what’s going on upstairs in the next apartment. Or if they knew, they would usually choose to pretend not to. Urban life is very busy. Other people’s business can take the little time you have left for yourself. It is not quite the same as small towns where other people’s business is of great interest, simply because there is just not enough stimulating things to do. The myth I shared has a clear moral lesson. It warns that sometimes, switching on the light or being aware can be the cause of your demise.
The Witch in the Wood
When I lived in Prague, I had been fortunate to find this intelligent young woman to help me watch my daughter. She was filled with the most interesting Czech tales that she heard from her mother, when they used to line up for bananas before the Czech liberation from communism. The theme of one of the local stories she shared is very similar to the one I heard in New York. Instead of ax murderers, however, the story seemed to have come from medieval times when people used to believe that old ladies living alone in the deep wood are witches.
There was this girl who couldn’t stay out of people’s business. One day, she suddenly got interested in an enigmatic lady everybody called a witch. She asked her mother about it and her mother said, do not ever talk to her or go to her house in the deep part of the wood. That woman is a witch. Not believing her mother, she set out to go there to find out for herself. When the house was at a distance, she saw a strange green man come out the old woman’s gate. She hid behind the tree and let him pass. When he did, instead of turning back home, she proceeded to walk towards the old woman’s house. As she was entering the gate, she saw a burnt man climb out of the chimney, who leapt to the ground and into the woods. The man didn’t see her move closer towards the window of the house. When she looked in through the window, she saw a woman whose hair was on fire. While an ordinary person would have just ran and left, this girl persisted even more and even knocked at the door. The old woman opened looking particularly normal. “Yes” she asked sweetly, “Can I help you?”
“I’m sorry to bother you but I just can’t help but wonder why people think you’re a witch.”
The lady sighed and said, “Oh you know these people they like to gossip. I live alone because my husband has died and my sons are all grown and married. I don’t talk to people much and so not a lot of people know that.” She said patiently.
“But on the way here, I saw a green man walk away from your house.” The girl said.
“Oh that? That was the painter, painting my roof, he had to go home because a can of paint fell on him.” The lady replied.
“I also saw a burnt man climb out of your kitchen.” She persisted.
“That was my brother who came to clean my chimney, he lives across this wood.” The lady said nicely.
“Oh…” the girl said.
“Don’t listen to what folks say, young lady. They’re all just talk.” The lady replied sweetly.
“But…what about the lady I saw through the window. Her hair was on fire.” The young girl persisted. When the lady heard this, her expression changed from the sweet patient look to a sinister smile. “Well…now you know what I am, you may never leave.” The witch then pulled the girl inside her house and she was never seen again.
To understand why that was fascinating for the Czechs, you have to realize that at the time of Communism, it was better not to know things. In fact, intellectuals who are notorious for knowing a substantial amount of things were dogged and spied on. The myths are using fear to discourage the curious mind from turning on the light, for being too aware. In those circumstances, it is better not to know something you can’t change.
Daedalus and his child
I find that the Story of Daedalus and his son Icarus fits right under this category of myths. Dreaming of escaping the imprisonment in the labyrinth, Daedalus fashioned wings using wax and feathers. He warned his son Icarus, who was imprisoned with him not to fly high up to the sun or the wax that holds the feathers together will melt. Neither was he allowed to come too near the surface of the sea below for the feathers might become wet and he would not be able to fly. We all know the choice that Icarus made. The heat of the sun melted the very thing that holds his wings together and he crashed into the sea below and drowned.
The sun in mythology is often a symbol of divine knowledge. The ascent of the son of Daedalus towards the sun seems to share the same theme as the first two stories. It warns the dangers of knowing too much. As Icarus ascended to higher knowing as symbolized by the sun, the very logic that holds his knowing together melted and he crashed into the sea. The sudden descent into the sea, seem to pertain to the return to the unknown—the abyss of the unconscious. Dr. Pinkola Estes, author of women who run with the wolves says that in the consciousness, creative ideas are the same as children. I can never forget how she retold the story of La Loriana. It is a tragic story of a woman who drowned her two children in the river and then killed herself. She haunted those waters as a ghost searching for the souls of the children she drowned.
So the story of Icarus may really be about Daedalus’s creative genius, soaring into such great heights possibility before it unraveled and plunged into madness.
The danger of light is a recurring theme cloaked under different stories from different times. But it is not really just the political climate of the times that inspire these stories. They are themes that are very intimate with the reality of our brains. This avoidance of new light, or new knowledge is hardwired in us. Our propensity for habits is due to a system that our anatomy has acquired as it evolved to enable us to free our minds of what we just learned, so we can learn more.
While we are learning something new, our frontal brains are engaged. During this time, there will be massive synaptic sparks occurring in the brain. It lights up as we discover new connections. It consumes so much glucose in the process. As we learn, we transfer the knowledge to the lower parts of the brain. These are the parts that govern the body, and here new learning becomes mechanized. Once it is mechanized it becomes a habit. And when it becomes habit, lights no longer flash in the frontal brain, the part of the brain that is conscious, that is aware. The frontal brain is now free to learn something new while keeping the old learning in the back of heads. Because of this, we now can do what is necessary without having to be aware of it. It becomes automatic in the subconscious. Now we can focus on other things that we need to attend to while doing a task automatically.
When we unlearn an old habit. Anatomically, the part of our brains that was wired for that habit becomes re-wired. In grows dark and the receptors begin to recede. Neural paths to me are like paths of selves. And if a path dies, a reality of the self does too.
This led me to think that than just the cultural reasons for these myths -- myths that involve the "fear of light" persist because we instinctively see them as true. They reflect an anatomical reality we all share. So while the stories may be products of our imagination, they are not just random fancies of the mind. They are histories of our neural events made known through symbolisms of the stories we tell.