The psychology of black and why we're scared of the dark

The color of darkness
The color of darkness

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Story highlights

  • Black has many dimensions as a color associated with grief but also sophisticated fashion
  • The color makes some people think of darkness and nighttime, leaving them fearful

This feature is part of Colorscope, an award-winning series exploring our perception of color and its use across cultures, one shade at a time. See more here.

(CNN)It can be hard to tell the difference between someone going to a funeral, preparing for the catwalk or simply taking a stroll in a big city. Each category can involve in an all-black ensemble.

Over the past 50 to 100 years, the color black has gone through a major transition, according to Leatrice Eiseman, color specialist and executive director of the Pantone Color Institute.
Black has gradually made its way from being a color associated with grief and morbidity to one known as a fashion staple that radiates sophistication, she said.
    "It has that kind of weight attached to it ... that now brings a sense of power to the color ... beyond just funerals and grief and widows' weeds," Eiseman said.
    Today, people wear black as a mark of expensive clothing, to minimize the appearance of their size and to exude confidence, she said.
    But the color's link to gloom still emanates across cultures, for example in American and European mourning practices as well as in fictional depictions of evil -- like a witch's hat or the cape of the Grim Reaper. The origins of this are part of our evolution.
    Black is "the color of night," Eiseman said, "the color of darkness. The color that conceals all."

    We fear what we cannot see

    You're alone at night, cozied up on the couch and watching a movie, with the room a well-lit enclosure; your safety is not in question. There is a gust of wind outside. The trees rattle and scrape against the window. You hear a loud fizzle, and the power goes out.
    You're now engulfed in pitch darkness, and for most people, fear is probably setting in.
    "Fear is just like pain. Fear is there to protect us from possible harm," said Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of "The Anti-Anxiety Workbook." "So that fear makes us more vigilant for possible danger."
    Prehistorically, people would have been more at risk of being attacked by predators or by enemies when in the dark, he said. Through evolution, humans have therefore developed a tendency to be scared of darkness.
    "In the dark, our visual sense vanishes, and we are unable to detect who or what is around us. We rely on our visual system to help protect us from harm," Antony said. "Being scared of the dark is a prepared fear."
    Eiseman agreed that "the unknown" is an inherent association that humans make with the color black, as It prevents them from seeing distinct shapes and veils potential threats.
    "How we see colors in nature has such an important effect on the human psyche," she said. "And we know that from the beginning of time, black is the color of night, and it's the color that could hide any nefarious deeds that might be perpetrated under the cover of darkness."
    This notion is imprinted on us from the time we're children, she said. However, thanks to modern technology, we're now able to turn on the light and continue to have fun even at night, she said.
    But some never quite shake the fear.

    'Excessive fears'

    Though fear is natural, it may become an issue if it gets excessive, Antony highlighted.
    Many of us may experience a strong fear while alone at night in a dangerous part of town, he said, but it's not as common to feel that way in a dark bedroom.
    Excessive fear of the dark can be caused by a variety of factors. It may come from a negative experience such as getting attacked in a dark place. Or it can be caused by something as simple as watching a horror movie, according to Antony.
    This fear can then become a phobia -- specifically known as nyctophobia -- when it begins interfering with relationships, work or the ability to do things they want to do. If someone is unable to leave their house at night, that would probably be categorized as a phobia, Antony said.
    Aids can include nightlights or leaving a door open to allow in light from elsewhere, partially restoring vision.
    These are called "safety signals," Antony said. Having a small light on or a friend in the room helps us feel protected and more grounded in reality.
    Treatments are also available, including gradual exposure to the feared situation, Antony said. Professionals have their patients rank and order a list of situations they're afraid of and then expose themselves to each fear until they're no longer scared.
    "If right now they're sleeping with a nightlight, for example, we might have them buy a nightlight with a slightly dimmer bulb or one with a switch that's variable," he said.
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    But just as the color black can bring fear to most, it can provide security to others -- particularly in terms of fashion.
    "I think more people think of it as kind of an enveloping kind of color that they can pull around them that gives them a certain degree of security," Eiseman said. "They can kind of fade into the shadows."
    In a way, there's an ambivalence built into black, she added. It is up to the individual to either fear what lurks in the darkness or become one with it.
    When taking a look at many women's closets, most are likely to have embraced it.
    "Every woman knows that having the black dress in the closet, the black shoes, the black coat, the black anything that we put on, it will work in just about any circumstance," she said.
    So one tip could be to beat your fear by stepping over to the dark side.