Are You Afraid of the Dark?

On the politics of public lighting

Full-text audio version of this essay.

The adage that under-lit places are less safe than brightly lit ones is so entrenched in the way we move about cities that we don’t question it. The horror industry wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t able to exploit the terror of darkened corners illuminated by the thin beam of a torch, of darkened alleyways, basements with broken bulbs, the mirror-black surface of a window onto the night. All of Hollywood’s favorite monsters are primarily nocturnal (the vampire, the werewolf, the witch, ghoul and ghost), and we grow up in the knowledge that “a dark and stormy night” never bodes well. Taking all this into consideration, it makes sense that nyctophobia (intense fear of the dark) is considered a “normal part of child development” that — for many, including myself — persists well into adulthood.

It’s easy to dismiss the clichés that accompany nighttime in film, books, and TV; but the closer we look at them, the more we realize the extent to which the metaphoric and cultural associations surrounding light and darkness are inseparable from the technologies we have developed to mediate them. Our relationship to night is governed, shaped and policed in ways that escape our attention, because the technology that does this work — the lightbulb, in all its various forms — is so intensely domestic. Like all technologies, light reflects much larger expressions of power, carving up a whole architecture of visibility that shapes the ways our lives are led at night, providing shelter for some and a harmful, even deadly, exposure for others.

To begin to understand the way light operates as an instrument of power today, we need to look back on not just the history of its technical development, but also the ongoing cultural legacy of the Enlightenment, and even, before that, the Medieval ideas it professed to react against. City planning has always taken for granted that exposure to atmospheric darkness entails risk, but the reasons for this have changed over time. In the Middle Ages, many European cities locked their gates at night, and those found in the streets after the curfew — which varied depending on the season — could incur a fine or even face incarceration. There were some practical reasons for a curfew: Light before electricity was expensive to generate, and risky, so having fires lit well into the night maximized the risk of a city-wide blaze. But religious and cultural factors played a role, too, and these factors have been the most enduring.

Like all technologies, light reflects much larger expressions of power

For a human being to be out at night by desire, rather than necessity, was perceived as “unnatural.” Night was peopled by the devil and his party, witches, goblins, and spirits; anyone wandering in the darkness was more vulnerable to supernatural evil or trickery (these concerns perhaps stemmed partly from a Christian symbolism that pitched the holy light of creation against the unholy realm of darkness and chaos, from which the earth was dragged into existence). City-dwellers in the middle ages in particular were suspicious of the peasants’ relationship to nighttime: Historian Piero Camporesi writes in Bread of Dreams that city-folk believed that the peasants “saw in the dark like cats.” Beyond the protection of the city gates or the locked door of the home, it was believed that one could become corrupted by the night’s terrors, and thus become, somehow, less human.

Western fears of the dark therefore date back, at least in part, to a religious moral panic tinged with prejudice. And as long as the darkness of night was believed to be corrupting, those who were already othered were assumed to be more susceptible to such corruption. The notorious witch hunts of Early Modern Europe are a good example of this: A woman, it was thought, could pass for human during the day, and then indulge in unspeakable acts — such as eating her own children and copulating with Satan — under the cover of darkness. Restricting the movements of certain groups of people at night, through the imposition of targeted curfews, for example, often combines a paternalistic will to protect those people from the dangers of the night, and to preemptively punish them for whatever they are suspected to do — who, or what, they might become — away from the bright eye of day. (This paradox is at the heart of Ana Lily Amirpour’s wonderful film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, in which a young vampire stalks her male victims in the fictional Iranian ghost town of Bad City.)

The construction of the unlit night as a realm of terror and chaos — and the idea that some people were more susceptible to its influence than others — underpinned a parallel idea of light as a means to control, order and discipline populations. When the first street lanterns were installed in Paris in the 17th century, the metaphor of light was, in a way, institutionalized, along with technologies of lighting: Streetlights would serve as symbols of the monarch’s omnipresent eye and absolute rule, and by extension, that of God. Wolfgang Shievelbusch notes in Disenchanted Night that the emergence of lampposts coincided with the development of a state weapons monopoly in the army and the police. Public lighting, he argues, was first and foremost “a police institution.”

As the 18th century grew to a close, and the idea of the light-giving god-monarch began to fade, a new one was taking its place, in which light was figured as empirical reason, and darkness as ignorance. The mass lantern-smashing events of the French Revolution were therefore not only a practical tactic, in that darkness afforded protection for illegal gatherings from the eye of the state, but also an act of symbolism: The old metaphorical association was being destroyed in order to pave the way for the birth of a new one. The ancien régime pushed back with the equally symbolic act of publicly hanging those who engaged in lantern smashing from the lampposts themselves. At stake in these actions was not only control of the infrastructure of light, but also of its cultural meaning.

While the ideas of the Enlightenment theoretically signaled a departure from absolute rule and the “superstition” of medieval Europe, very little actually changed in terms of how the light/darkness binary was deployed. Most worryingly, that binary was both gendered and mapped onto mechanisms of racialization, forging an equivalence between light and the white, European, male eye. These cultural associations played out in the actual use of light, particularly in the way electric light was used as a “modernizing force” to justify the colonial project — one trading card for the electricity and engineering company Woodhouse and Rawson, produced in the 1890s, reads: “What is wanted in Darkest Africa is the Electric Light.” As Ute Hasenhörl points out, colonial infrastructures, an expression of the racist “civilizing mission” of the Enlightenment, were also a “chequered affair” informed by colonial decisions about who should benefit from “modernity.” The colonial lighting grid reached only a small proportion of people and resulted in increased segregation.

The French Revolution’s mass lantern-smashing was an act of symbolism: The old metaphorical association of the light-giving god-monarch was being destroyed

The Enlightenment — the English term for the French les lumières (literally: the lights, or the enlighteners), the German aufklären (to illuminate, to clear up), the Italian illuminismo (illuminism) and the Spanish ilustración (which translates as “illustration” and contains the verb lustrar, to shine) — was characterized by its increased focus on the individual and (his) claim to “reason.” It touted an empiricism backed by vision, consolidating the idea of light as a proxy for observation, and therefore surveillance. Light is a central element of the panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s prison system that famously formed the basis of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, in which a central observation tower looks out onto a circular arrangement of inward-facing cells. The visual problem posed by night-time, Bentham writes in the original text, would be solved by “small lamps, in the outside of each window of the lodge, backed by a reflector, to throw the light into the corresponding cells,” which would “extend to the night the security of the day.”

Incarcerated people are still subject to light as a disciplinary instrument. “Bright Light” is the code name for the CIA’s network of clandestine interrogation centers, which is perhaps less an ironic subversion of their status as “black sites” than a reference to the central role of light in sleep deprivation, a common torture method (or “enhanced interrogation technique”) employed by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Even in juvenile, minimum, and medium security prisons, prison lights operate for over 18 hours a day, and total darkness is extremely rare. The most common kind of light is by fluorescent bulbs, which emit a harsh white light that routinely leads to headaches, eye strain, depression, sleep disorders, and even, in prisons, suicide. Certain fluorescent bulbs can even leak a kind of radiation that leads to the depletion of melatonin and serotonin. Fluorescent bulbs were first developed to allow workers to remain awake and productive for longer hours, and are still used in offices, factories and warehouses, as well as being positioned outside buildings in cities to deter rough sleepers. Their disruption of sleep patterns is not a design flaw, but an inbuilt function.

The continued use of bright lights as an “interrogation technique” can be traced back to the Enlightenment idea of light as an investigative tool, akin to the scalpel or microscope — a technology for extracting an objective truth from a person, plant, or thing. This association between light, clarity, and empirical knowledge persists in the use of light in scientific and military enterprise; in the fluorescent bulb of the laboratory space or hospital ward, the glare of the search-light or patrol torch. (As I was writing this article, I came across an ad in the paper for reading lamps: “A Serious Light,” it read, “[is] relied upon by surgeons and forensic scientists […] basically anyone who needs to see clearly and accurately.”) For the person in front of the bulb — at the wide end of its glare rather than the pointed, perspectival end — light functions as a tool of intimidation, signaling authority and power, and deterring behavior that questions that power. Shining a torch in someone’s face is a key tactic used by police, and one not often recognized as violence. Often, as sociologist and surveillance theorist Simone Browne points out, police torches also double as impact weapons; physical violence and symbolic violence go hand in hand.

One particularly notorious example of light as a display of power is Albert Speer’s “Cathedral of Light,” or Lichtdom, a main aesthetic feature of Nazi rallies in Nuremberg, in which 130 anti-aircraft searchlights were positioned 12 meters apart, forming a giant illuminated “room” of pillars (eerily suggestive of prison bars) in which the audience was enclosed. The display was supposedly originally intended as a temporary substitute for an actual cathedral, but Speer was supposedly so impressed by the effect that it was used for many subsequent rallies. The images of the Lichtdom are chilling — not so much for the fact that they evoke a physical structure as for the simultaneous obviousness of its immateriality. A wall of light, here, is more solid than stone, more capable of dividing space and bodies, because its heft is cultural and symbolic as well as material.

The carving up of space by light is never benign. But the fact that lighting as a technology is so widespread, and therefore mundane, means that we often forget to see it with a critical eye. The archetypal symbol of public lighting — the lamppost — is ordinary to the point of being almost domestic, the closest thing to home outside of the home, a cultural marker of “safety” in the broadest sense of the word. In C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, it is the warm glow of a lamppost that signs the way back from the cold, harsh world of Narnia to that of the wardrobe. In Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly sings as he swings joyously from a lamppost: “I’m laughing at clouds / So dark up above / The sun’s in my heart and I’m ready for love!” The lamppost is love, home, warmth and interiority, a beacon against the cold, dark night of the outside world.

Lampposts have gone through many stylistic and technological changes over time. The latest iteration to be rolled out in cities is the “smart” street lamp, which can be dimmed and adjusted remotely, and is often equipped with inbuilt CCTV cameras and other monitoring devices. Currently, the EU Smart Cities marketplace is working on rolling out a project called “Humble Lamppost.” The project aims to “exploit this city-wide infrastructure to deliver new value-added services,” which can include CCTV, environmental monitoring, concealed speakers, and other networked smart-city sensors and functions. Because of its status as a culturally trusted and accepted artifact, the lamppost is ideal for housing and therefore concealing other technologies that might meet more resistance if they were deployed more visibly on their own.

Smart street lights are an increasingly common phenomenon, pitched and sold to city councils on the basis of their efficiency, and therefore their capacity to cut costs and reduce emissions. Most often they are rolled out under private-public partnerships, and restrictions on the use of the data they collect are unclear. In San Diego, smart street lights were installed without the community’s permission, and, according to The Voice of San Diego, have followed a “mission creep” style of deployment, purported to help solve serious crimes, then used to surveil for minor offenses. Once the surveillant function of the street lamps was uncovered, various community groups campaigned for their de-installment, forming a coalition under the name TRUST San Diego: Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology. In September, the Mayor ordered all of the 3,000 cameras to be turned off until an ordinance could be put together for their governance.

One of TRUST’s main concerns was that watchful street lamps would primarily target marginalized communities and religious and ethnic minorities. CCTV cameras extend a function of lighting itself. It is well known that surveillance disproportionately affects Indigenous, Black, brown, queer, trans and working class people; but what is perhaps less well documented is the fact that excessive light does, too. Researchers from the LSE investigating lighting levels in social housing estates in London found that “darkness has become a luxury good in London: only in more affluent neighbourhoods, heritage- or tourism-oriented areas and high-priced ‘designerly’ developments does lighting become part of carefully curated and aesthetically pleasurable nightscapes.” Meanwhile, “London’s social housing estates can be immediately recognised by their lighting: overly bright and cold light from tall masts, calibrated for maximum visibility and minimal atmosphere and implemented to allow for better CCTV surveillance and the prevention of anti-social behaviour and crime.” The unequal distribution of light marks entire spaces and communities as worthy of distrust and suspicion.

In her brilliant book Dark Matters, Simone Browne draws attention to the ways technologies of surveillance (including the Panopticon) were always designed to uphold white supremacy. She describes their combined effect as black luminosity: “a form of boundary maintenance occurring at the site of the black body, whether by candlelight, flaming torch, or the camera flashbulb that documents the ritualized terror of a lynch mob.” Browne writes about the lantern laws in colonial New York City in the early 18th century, which required that any Black or Indigenous person on the street after dark carry a candle lantern with them. In this context, she writes, the lantern can be thought of as “a prosthesis made mandatory after dark, a technology that made it possible for the black body to be constantly illuminated from dusk to dawn, made knowable, locatable, and contained within the city.”

Since most cameras have night vision sensors, darkness fails to offer sanctuary, and yet suspicion of the latent “chaos” of unlit nighttime spaces is as great as ever

Browne’s analysis reveals that the narrative of “light as sanctuary” only works for those who benefit from the systems that lighting infrastructure was designed to uphold. A similar sentiment seemed to underpin the imposition of curfews in countries across the world after the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, which prevented people from joining the protests after working hours. Until this summer, the last official curfew imposed on New York City was in 1943, to quell protests in Harlem following the shooting of a Black soldier by white police. As in medieval times, darkness remains suspect as a place in which perceived alterity — and, crucially, resistance — can germinate.

The primary justification for abundant street lighting in housing areas and other places deemed to be “problem areas” is the idea that bright lighting is effective at reducing crime. The definition of what counts as a crime, though, remains an expression of racist criminal justice systems. Historian Bryan D. Palmer writes that night has historically been a space of transgression — offering protection to those marginalized by the social and political orders of the day, allowing for congregation that was stigmatized or criminalized, or cover from the watchful eye of the state. Gatherings of peasant dissidents, and later revolutionaries, took place in darkness. During the 18th century, the cover of night afforded protection for those escaping slavery. Today, due to the fact that most cameras have inbuilt night vision sensors, darkness fails to offer “sanctuary” from the surveillant gaze, and yet suspicion of the latent “chaos” of unlit nighttime spaces is as great as ever.

There is a genre of disaster films that can be broadly classed as “blackout films,” in which a power-cut leads to the breakdown of law and order and turns people against one another. Many of these are set during the real New York blackouts of 1965, 1977 and 2003 (one, set in London, takes inspiration from the events of the London riots). Power scholar David Nye, however, paints a very different portrait of the New York blackouts, citing the fact that during the 1965 blackout the crime rate was reported as being lower than normal. Blackouts shouldn’t be trivialized — the wave of blackouts that hit Cuba last year as a result of U.S. sanctions under Trump caused widespread devastation — but it seems worth investigating why the idea of a darkened public space — beyond the failure of electric power — inspires such dread.

Over the past few years, the omnipresence of screens (and growing awareness of the harms of blue light) has made abundant light the subject of more critique. Jonathan Crary, in his book 24/7, describes “a contemporary imaginary in which a state of permanent illumination is inseparable from the non-stop operation of global exchange and circulation.” One example he gives is the Russian-European space consortium’s abandoned project to construct giant satellite mirrors that would reflect sunlight back to earth, providing 24-hour daylight. Crary argues that such fantasies for total illumination correspond to the neoliberal dream of 24/7 time, a framework of relentless productivity. There is actually a measurement called the Night Light Development Index (NLDI), which extracts a proxy measurement for GDP from the brightness of each pixel of the earth’s surface when seen at night from space. Tellingly, the brightest pixels are where oil fields are located.

It is important, however, to be just as wary of romanticizing darkness as romanticizing light. Metaphors are incredibly powerful things, and in exchanging one ideal for the other, we risk upholding the associations by which the old systems retain their power. Across many different cultural contexts, light serves important celebratory and symbolic functions, as well as diverse material purposes, which cannot be flattened into a single system of meaning. A police torch is not the same as a devotional candle.

Similarly, it is wrong to say that the binary of light and darkness is a product of the European Enlightenment alone. It surfaces across many different contexts, influencing and stemming from diverse material histories. It is only when the light/darkness dichotomy is mapped onto other binaries and social hierarchies — and made literal through the mechanisms used to maintain them — that this binary becomes a problem. Light-as-infrastructure escapes critique because of the ways in which it has been domesticated; but it remains one of the most significant determinants of how public space is used. Paying attention to the ways in which our lives are lit, by whom, and for what reasons can teach us a lot about the ways power exerts itself through architectures of visibility, and makes itself visible in the process.

Lauren Collee is a London-based writer and PhD student. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Another Gaze, Uneven Earth, Eyot Magazine and others.