Live Through This

Are You Afraid of the Dark?

At a slumber party, secrets come out—some that you never meant to share.

Illustration by Emma D.

There was always one girl who left the slumber party early. It would usually happen around 11 o’clock—late enough to seem legit, but not so late that her parents would be asleep and angry that she’d called. She would tell us she had a stomachache, we’d commiserate, noting that our stomachs were a bit sore as well, most likely from collectively eating 900 bags of Fritos and 600 bags of marshmallows in a two-hour time span. A car would pull up, her name would be called, and after a round of shy goodnights, she’d be gone.

“She always gets sick,” someone would say, and we’d all nod yeah. As we got older, we’d follow the yeah with an eye-roll. But that’s as far as we ever went with things; I don’t remember ever breaking down why someone left early, even if we all seemed to believe that “stomachache” wasn’t the complete truth. It was most likely because we were all hiding something; bringing up conspiracy theories only made our own secrets more vulnerable.

Going to a slumber party requires a level of trust, both in your slumber-mates and in yourself. You expect to give away some secrets: crushes, kiss stories, dreams of the future. But there are other secrets that come up when you spend the night with your friends for the first time, things you don’t expect to learn, and things that you hope to keep from others. I remember being surprised when two of my friends immediately put their sleeping bags next to one another, territorially claiming each other in a way that showed a burgeoning best-friendship—a level above the rest of us. I also remember seeing a friend unfurl a somewhat tattered sleeping bag and looking a bit sheepish about it, and recognizing that we’d each brought a bit of our own homes into the basement of our friends’ house, whether we’d wanted to or not.

***

I showed up to my first slumber party with two things: a bag of candy and my raging fear or the dark. I was happy to share the candy, but I kept my fear of the dark to myself, because I wasn’t sure how my friends would take it, and the fear of being considered a “baby” and being laughed at was as strong—if not stronger—than my fear of having to spend a night without the lights on.

I’d always been afraid of the dark. My parents understood; I’d had a night light for as long as I could remember. The idea of sleeping without one made my stomach sick, to the point where I could understand why someone would claim 11 o’clock illness, why someone would want to sneak out of the party early. I realized early on that I needed a plan of some sort in order to make it through the night without having a breakdown in front of everyone. Plan A was to fall asleep before anyone else, when the lights were still on and everyone was still gossiping and watching TV. But party talk about warm water bowls and pee had convinced me to drop Plan A, and I was left with Plan B, which was, in short: whatever you do, don’t start crying.

The lights went off before the television did: we’d gathered around to watch some dumb movie, and some girls had already fallen asleep in their bags, and I remember being both relieved and annoyed that nobody tried to make them pee. The room became quieter as the movie ran out, giggles replaced with pops of air and deep-sleep sighs. Someone—it may have been my friend’s mother—eventually turned off the television, and all of the light was gone from the room. I was terrified.

The things beneath the darkness were what struck me: I remember being afraid of way the walls in my friend’s home looked; all of the photographs covered in shadows, school backgrounds and familiar smiles fading into a blur of generic home décor, as if the house could belong to anyone, to a stranger. The air smelled of dinners I hadn’t eaten, of a perfume or hair spray that wasn’t my mother’s. I tried a trick that my sister had taught me—to close my eyes as hard as I could, and then reopen them, so that they’d adjust to the darkness, but it never seemed to work. I tried it over and over again—close, open, repeat—and eventually I must have exhausted myself, as they just stayed closed and I made it through the night without stumbling upstairs and begging my friend’s parents to call mine and have them bring me home.

In order to avoid being alone in the dark at subsequent sleepovers, I became the insomnia cheerleader. My strategy was to play “Let’s Break the Record.” I’d come up with some completely bogus time, like 5:33 AM, and tell everyone that my sister and her friends had stayed up until then, and that we should try to break the record. I’d keep everyone up by trying to make them laugh, by pushing sugar and caffeine, by noting that if we kept the lights on, it would be harder to sleep. It worked about 70 percent of the time. The rest of the time, I’d end up the awake, alone, chewing Sour Patch Kids and waiting for the sun to come up. By this time I had a few slumber parties under my belt, and I’d tried to move beyond the eye-adjustment trick to other forms of finding a sense of safety in the darkness. I’d do breathing exercises, or I’d close my eyes and try to visualize myself somewhere else, or I’d force myself to stare at the darkest parts of the room until I wasn’t (completely) afraid of them anymore. At some point I realized that the more I stared at the shadows on the wall, the more I could pretend I was in my own house, and something safe and familiar would wash over me and eventually lull me to sleep.

The skill set you develop on the slumber party circuit is one that sticks with you. You learn how to adapt in a room full of your peers, how to feel at home in a new place, how to deal with your fears. It is maybe the best way to prepare for a college roommate, in that you’re forced to open yourself up to how other people live around the clock—you see each other when you first wake up, you hear each other if you talk in your sleep. And when you get older you realize that maybe the girl who always left early didn’t have a deep dark secret after all, that maybe she was just afraid to be afraid in front of everyone else. I still think of her every time I sneak out of a party, or find an excuse to avoid some social obligation, or shake my head no whenever someone tries to get me on the dance floor. A little-known lesson of slumber parties is that they can teach you that sometimes all you want is go home, where you can be whomever you please, where you can flip all of the switches to on, sleep in your own bed, and dream under the bright lights. ♦

34 Comments

  • SweetThangVintage January 17th, 2012 7:26 PM

    I slept with a night light till I was about 14. But I wasn’t allowed to go to sleep overs till around that age anyway. I was a sheltered child. XD Now I’m super uncomfortable spending the night anywhere but my own house. ESPECIALLY because I have an insane fear of using other peoples restrooms.

    http://www.etsy.com/shop/SweetThangVintage

  • Cerise January 17th, 2012 7:39 PM

    So very true–even the sleeping bag thing. I’d stayed fairly small even after elementary school, so I didn’t really *need* to buy a new sleeping bag. As a result, I have memories of taking my pink princess sleeping bag to other people’s houses *long* after that particular “stage” was over and feeling super childish about it.
    That’s pretty true about college, too. You kind of have to learn to be yourself in front of a bunch of people you barely know–but it helps to keep in mind that they are in the exact same situation.

  • ravenflamingo January 17th, 2012 7:41 PM

    I never used to be afraid of the dark. But after I saw the movie The Grudge, I started sleeping with a lamp on, and I still do 2 years later. I’m not embarrassed by it or anything, and my friends don’t think it’s weird.

    http://www.ravenflamingo.tumblr.com

    • acesociety January 19th, 2012 9:16 PM

      i used to be fine sleeping how ever, but after the grudge there is no way I can sleep with my wardrobe doors open!

  • FashionHauties January 17th, 2012 8:11 PM

    Ah I did that too! I used to hate staying up past 10 because it would be so dark! I used to think if I kept looking at the dark for so long it would get darker and darker and I would eventually be blind. Awful.
    http://fashionhauties.blogspot.com/

  • Captain Nanna January 17th, 2012 8:14 PM

    I really can’t sleep at other people’s houses, I just can’t (not quite sure why, either) and so I usually pick a buddy and keep them talking all night. I usually have a pal who has the same problem, but when she’s not there I’m left sitting in a room of sleeping people watching the sun come up and debating with myself when is an appropriate time to leave (half past eight is the earliest I feel is polite).

    And at my dad’s house I always sleep with my bedside light on. I have a horrible fear of spiders and a slightly milder fear (although with better reason) of cockroaches getting at me while I sleep, so I have to have the light on. Nobody in the house really knows, but I don’t think they’d care much.

  • othereden January 17th, 2012 8:28 PM

    Very nostalgic kind of mood. Loved it!

  • talia January 17th, 2012 8:37 PM

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. I think the reason I am such a homebody is because I like the feeling of having no scrutiny when I’m at home – I can do whatever I want without that feeling that I am being watched and judged.

  • Emily D January 17th, 2012 8:46 PM

    I was always the girl who left early! I remember someone’s parents gave me crap for it one time….I was not happy. Burned in my memory would be a better way to describe it. My fear of the dark was forced into submission when the chord on the closet light broke, but I still get weirded out sometimes.

  • Adrienne January 17th, 2012 8:48 PM

    I’ve never been afraid of the dark. Part of the reason is because I share a room with my twin sister. We’d always be chattering into the night anyway, and the fact that someone else was in the room was comforting.

    However, the summer of 3rd grade (when I was like 8), my family started watching Fear Factor in the night. By bedtime, I was convinced that bugs would eat me up while I sleep!

  • willow January 17th, 2012 9:02 PM

    I’ve always been sad about the fact that my super-super strict parents never let me go to a single slumber party when I was a girl, and reading this made me even sadder. Sure, now that I’m in college I’ve been able to sleep over in friends’ rooms, but I’ve always had the sense that elementary/junior high school slumber parties had some kind of unique, special *thing* about them that I seriously missed out on…

  • Devon Wolf Sings January 17th, 2012 9:10 PM

    I still sleep with the TV in my room on. I started doing it when I was about eleven because it gave me something to focus on that wasn’t all the stuff I was afraid of. I’m not scared of the dark or anything anymore but I just never broke the habit.

  • liza January 17th, 2012 9:13 PM

    This post is so TRUE. I can especially relate to the bit about everyone bringing a bit of their home into the sleepover: there’s definitely a certain kind of intimacy you get from a slumber party/sleepover, which from my experiences thus far can be both exciting and overwhelming.

  • hahabonniee January 17th, 2012 10:00 PM

    lololol psst. i slept with my mommy until i was 12 years old. and I was ALWAYS the girl who left the sleepover early. who isnt afraid of the dark? it’s the unknown? the absence of light..

  • Rachael January 17th, 2012 10:43 PM

    One of my friends used to tell elaborate stories about how her mother was a witch who had killed family pets and would try to kill her if she didn’t use her witch-banishing spray (shut up, we were little).

    I bought every word and would never stay at her house after dark. It wasn’t until years later when I recounted this story that she realized that was why I wouldn’t go to sleepovers at her house. Lol, thanks for terrifying your friends away, kid.

  • cherrycola27 January 17th, 2012 10:55 PM

    This made me miss sleep overs. The days of shared secrets and candy and lame movies.
    I mentioned this the other day: who isn’t afraid of the dark? I don’t mean, like, bedroom darkness (which is OK if you are) but being in a dark, unknown place and not knowing what’s out there. Creepy.
    There was a time when I was younger where I’d wake up in the middle of the night and be CONVINCED that someone was in my house almost every night. I’d drop right back to sleep the moment the sun came up, as if that somehow made things better. The sun rising can be so friendly, though.

  • rachel January 17th, 2012 11:25 PM

    I left every sleepover early because have insomnia and could barely sleep at my own house. Every time I got a sleepover invite I would FREAK. When I got into my teens we would take no doz and try to stay up all night.

  • stellar January 18th, 2012 12:28 AM

    great article!! and yes, it *is* scary in the dark…just makes yr imagination go wild. nice to have a night light…

  • insteadofanelephant January 18th, 2012 3:01 AM

    it took me FOREVER to sleep over at my best friends house…and that was down the street! now i never want to go home. oh how the times have changed…

    instead of an elephant

    • Josefi January 18th, 2012 11:06 AM

      i do the same thing!!!!!!

  • Afiqa January 18th, 2012 6:50 AM

    I’m still afraid of the dark and I’m 16. I can’t sleep alone at night because I was convinced it makes you an easy target for the boogeyman and serial killers. I have the same problems at sleepovers and used to do the same things. And I always have trouble falling asleep. Yet, I can’t sleep with any lights on.

  • Josefi January 18th, 2012 11:03 AM

    Im really afraid of the dark and i dont know what to do… im 17 now, and i just move my bed to another place in my room, and that really works.

  • elizabethmarley January 18th, 2012 12:42 PM

    My best friend had a sleepover every year for her birthday when we were growing up. When we were really young–like 5 through 8 years old–it was really fun, but as we got older and went to different schools, and as she gained a new group of friends, I came to dread the annual sleepover. I even had an anxiety attack at one of the parties (I might have been 14? Maybe 13?). I just hated having to be squished into a room with a ton of girls I didn’t know, and I was convinced they wouldn’t like me.

    Eventually I overcame my fear and actually let myself have FUN. Now that we’re both 25, we often talk about how much we miss the birthday sleepovers.

  • elenamarie January 18th, 2012 2:14 PM

    Loved it!! This is so true.. And besides the sleepover is way more fun when u have a record to break ;)

  • koolkat January 18th, 2012 2:35 PM

    I went through a phase when I was younger where I was terrified of nighttime because it meant that everyone else was asleep and i was all *alone*. One time I was at a sleepover with my much older cousins and I just spent the whole night watching some random show on Nick like ‘The New Prince of Bel-Air’ kind of thing and crying. It was kind of a bad phobia because I’m also a bit of an insomniac… Weirdly, I love nighttime now, and going to sleep as the sun rises gives me the creeps for some reason.

  • poppunkgurrrlx January 19th, 2012 12:47 AM

    I am really afraid of the dark. But at sleepovers I’m not. I guess I’m not scared when I’m around other people. I have Christmas lights in my dorm room that are secretly my nightlight ;)

  • ali January 19th, 2012 6:34 PM

    Oddly enough, here in country Australia, I’ve only ever had one all-girl-with-more-than-1-best-friend sleep over (magical experience, where we watched Mean Girls and Ella Enchanted and TALKED about boys)!

    Since I was very little, boys have been having sleep overs with girls, where I’m from anyway (which is normal, considering there’s 7 kids my own age, and 4 are boys, and we all went to preschool together and we’re still BFFs). Leaving a party early meant you were a wuss, and would be recounted long after the incident. Around when I got my first period, I left a camping trip early because ‘the ground was lumpy’ (aka I was PMS-ing, didn’t know what PMS-ing was, and just wanted to talk to my mum). This is still brought up whenever we’re choosing a place to camp and gossip and tell secrets (all things boys like doing, too).

    Apart from camping out with boys, my best friend and I have every weekend sleepovers, watching period films (Jane Austen remakes, Becoming Jane, Bright Star, and all the rest). These are the places where the deepest, darkest secrets come out.

  • loonylizzy January 19th, 2012 7:25 PM

    i remember at my first sleepover birthday party, i was used to sleeping with a night light and freaked out when my friend’s mom tried to turn out all of the lights. then a friend of the birthday girl who i didn’t know called me a baby, and i started crying. i ended up being the last one asleep and curled up in my friend’s mom’s bed, which was super-humiliating for a 9-year-old convinced that she’s a big girl.

    now, i actually can’t sleep with lights on in my room and i’m a bit of an insomniac. i’m still always the last one asleep though.

  • Miss Iffa January 22nd, 2012 6:55 PM

    Oh how I thought I was the only one!
    http://www.missiffa.tumblr.com

  • starsinyourheart January 23rd, 2012 4:18 PM

    I remember being afraid of way the walls in my friend’s home looked; all of the photographs covered in shadows, school backgrounds and familiar smiles fading into a blur of generic home décor, as if the house could belong to anyone, to a stranger. The air smelled of dinners I hadn’t eaten, of a perfume or hair spray that wasn’t my mother’s. I remember being afraid of way the walls in my friend’s home looked; all of the photographs covered in shadows, school backgrounds and familiar smiles fading into a blur of generic home décor, as if the house could belong to anyone, to a stranger. The air smelled of dinners I hadn’t eaten, of a perfume or hair spray that wasn’t my mother’s. — that is the most PERFECT piece of text i’ve ever read. i so so remember that vulnerable ‘left in the dark’ feeling.

  • Johann7 January 24th, 2012 1:18 PM

    Well-written AND insightful! *Like*

  • Mi February 1st, 2012 9:44 AM

    Such a great article! I’ve always been afraid of the darkness, to be honest – I still am, so I sleep completley covered in order to feel safe. I guess that’s why I never enjoyed sleeping in other people’s houses – I just couldn’t fall asleep. There was always something – a noise, a smell or a strange shadow in the corner, that would make me freak out.

  • Sparkie February 4th, 2012 8:11 PM

    I’m seventeen ( or will be in a month ) and I still sleep with the lights on, you shouldn’t ever be afraid to tell your friends that. if they truly love and care for you they won’t mind to switch the light back on just so you can sleep . :)

  • TheGreatandPowerfulRandini April 24th, 2012 2:06 PM

    I’ve never had a problem with the dark, but I still take forever falling asleep when I’m at home (haven’t done a sleepover in months). I think sharing a room with someone and having older siblings combined with horror movies and crime shows kind of toughens any 8-year old up.