In 2004, I was committed to a mental hospital in Cherry Hill, N.J., in the middle of the night. I couldn’t recall why. The last thing I remembered flittered through my consciousness like static between radio stations.
It was the movie Darkness Falls and three of Montclair’s finest firemen standing over me with plastic tie restraints.
The 2003 horror flick follows the story of Kyle Walsh, a man who never turns the light off at night, never leaves home without a flashlight. All because he met the Tooth Fairy and lived to see another sleepless night.
Yes…the tooth fairy.
The tooth fairy’s name is Matilda, the kind town widow who exchanged coins for children’s teeth until she sustained severe burns during a house fire. After the fire, she’d only leave home in her porcelain mask during the night. A child goes missing; because Matilda is disfigured she is accused, lynched, and left without a proper burial for her spirit to roam the earth, seeking vengeance on the children of Darkness Falls.
It was just days before I was committed to the unit. I was sitting on the carpet at my friend’s house with her two sisters and their cousin. The lights were off. We rented the movie from Blockbuster. They had surround sound and, at one point, I was hiding in the bathroom, the movie being so loud it felt as if Matilda would fly right through the mirror.
“She’s not real,” my friend said later that night when everyone was trying to fall asleep. I wouldn’t let her turn off the light. Whenever she did, I thought I saw something.
“Yeah,” I said, “I know she’s not real.”
But she was real, in a way. I couldn’t explain it. I was old enough to know fiction from reality, but something left an impression on me.
I didn’t sleep in the room with my friends that night. I went to the bathroom and stayed in there until the sun peeked out the next morning. When I got home, I slept the entire day and was wide awake during the night. It took three days before my mother noticed I wasn’t turning the light off. Once, I fell asleep and woke up shrouded in darkness. I screamed like a college student with backstage passes to Coachella. She called my friend’s mother to ask what happened.
“A movie?” My mother said incredulously.
“It scared her, bad. The girls said she wouldn’t sleep.”
After the call, my mother came to my room.
She sat on the edge of my bed, “If you won’t tell me what’s wrong, maybe you’ll be able to talk to a professional.”
My mother decided to take me to the beach to get my mind off the movie. Going to the Jersey Shore after being frightened by a villain terrorizing a coastal town wasn’t the brightest move. In those dark breaks between the shoreline, I lost my mind. I cried so hard in the car, I fell asleep. My mother put me in her bed and with the light on, but when I woke up it was pitch black. I wouldn’t stop hitting her, biting, and fighting. I was sleep deprived and talking in “tongues.” The fire department and an ambulance came, whisking me to the closest mental ward 40 minutes away.
I was diagnosed in under 10 minutes as being severely nyctophobic and no one explained it.
“It’s a fear of the dark,” said intake, handing mom a clipboard. “You’ll need to fill out this release and leave her here tonight.”
They put me in restraints in a room by myself with the lights on the entire night. The next morning, I was introduced to the general population during snack time.
As crazy as everyone else was, they looked at me as if I was the only nut in the bunch.
“Was the movie that scary?” One girl approached me. I walked away from her, she followed me. “If I could tell you why you’re in here, will you give me those Snackwell cookies?”
“I have nyctophobia,” I said.
“No, you have PTSD.”
“I didn’t get PTSD from watching Darkness Falls.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you’re wrong,” I insisted.
“So, you weren’t molested?” she asked flatly. I blinked as if slapped for the first time. She held her hand out for the Snackwell cookies and I saw her butchered wrists. “I’m here for the same reason. I lit my father’s house on fire. So, am I right?”
I wasn’t going to admit to a stranger I’d known less than three minutes that I was molested when I hadn’t even told my mother. I gave her the cookies. I went down the hall to use the restroom and forgot to turn the light on. When I realized what I’d done, it was over.
The next morning, my assigned therapist said, “When we really connect to a narrative, it’s because we can relate. You’re not afraid of this movie,” she said, “you’re afraid of the dark.”
“I’m not afraid of the dark,” I said, I was afraid of all the things that hide in it. The things that hurt children, the monsters who were people and the people who weren’t meant to be monsters.
When most people are referred to as having nyctophobia, it is usually because they have surpassed their youthful fear of the darkness. As an adult, the fear of darkness is considered irrational. But what’s irrational to one is sane to another. I didn’t fear the dark, I was not afraid of the movie Darkness Falls. To prove this, I seek films that deal specifically with darkness such as Dead Silence and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Matilda’s character frightened me because she experienced a traumatic event and tried to mask it. When she was exposed, she died. In many ways, Darkness Falls ruined my life by exposing my greatest fear, that I too could lose my humanity, warped by darkness.
Najah S. Webb lives in Atlanta, has no beef with the Tooth Fairy.