There is one scenic device, used by film directors and story writers alike, which can be guaranteed to heighten tension and drama – darkness. The dark robs us of the means to orientate, to feel sure of our surroundings and who might be in them. Familiar shapes become threatening, and sounds which cannot be identified become danger signals. Indeed, when the night throws a cloak over everything, even the bravest soul can become anxious. In this more precarious and less certain situation we can more easily be shocked, startled or even terrified by the writer or the film maker.
And yet, few of us ever experience complete and utter darkness for even if the night is starless, there is usually some light source such as distant street lights or a dwelling. Because of this, most people can no longer see the stars which were familiar to their ancestors. In 1994 when an earthquake caused a massive power failure in Los Angeles, emergency centres were inundated with calls from worried residents reporting a strange silvery cloud in the sky. It was the Milky Way which they were seeing for the first time. Apparently, two-thirds of Americans cannot see the Milky Way from their backyards and it is predicted that with the current rate of increase of light pollution, by 2025, no dark skies will exist in the continental United States¹.
It is estimated that in the UK, only 10% of the area of the country “enjoys” darkness. By virtue of the fact that these are truly rural areas, it follows that far fewer than 10% of the population can get a clear view of the night sky.
This was not always so. When I was a boy, just after the Second World War, we experienced total night time darkness. The lights in the semi-rural street where I lived were powered by gas and were switched on and off by a clockwork timer. At 10 pm all the lights in the town and the surrounding roads, were switched off. There was no light pollution at all and it was truly dark. Not only dark, but silent. And for a child it could be frightening. I well remember an event in the street where I had lived all my life and where I knew every nook and cranny. I suppose I was nine or ten years old and was returning home after ten o’clock from singing in a choir concert. I had been dropped by the choir bus just ten minutes’ walk from our house. As I walked, I became conscious of distant footsteps on the pavement. Their increasing volume told me that somewhere in the dark street a person was coming towards me. I gingerly lifted my metal music stand in preparation to defend myself from the unseen presence which was quickly assuming a ghastly proportion. The steps got louder and louder until I sensed that the person was upon me. In my terror I held the music stand over my head ready to deal mighty blow, but I hesitated. The unknown being was obviously aware of me too and I heard a passing gentle voice say, “Good night”. The steps receded in the distance as the anonymous person went on his way.
One place where one can still experience near darkness is at sea. When I have been night sailing, out of sight of land, the unaccustomed darkness can be unnerving and only the occasional flash of a distant lighthouse gives comfort. At such times a clear night sky is spectacular. The sight of the cosmos is overawing and hypnotic.
It was on a dark beach that a university administrator, Richard Scott, the main protagonist in my latest novel, stood looking at a stormy sea which was vaguely illuminated by the glow from the distant street lights behind him. But the flash of light he saw beyond the crashing foam was not that of a lighthouse. It was the light from the torch of a desperate crew member who had realised that his craft was about to be wrecked on a rocky shore. Scotty would witness the event and experience the dreadful consequences. Within 24 hours he would be a fugitive both from the police and from a gang of desperate men. His story is told in “One Decent Thing”.
¹ Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC