The Power of Darkness: How Night Skies Inspire Creative Thoughts

In the summer of 1957, Daphne du Maurier was riding high. Her latest book, The Scapegoat, had been lapped up by the critics she most respected, and a film adaptation was under way. Even better, her favorite actor (the legendary Alec Guinness) had been cast in the lead role, and the script was being penned by the rising star Gore Vidal.

But on Monday, July 1, a few weeks after her fiftieth birthday and two weeks before her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary party, Daphne received a phone call. Her husband, Tommy, had collapsed in London and was in the hospital. She rushed to his bedside, horrified to find him sobbing and “emaciated and exhausted, his body all skin and bone, looking suddenly ten years older.” More shock was to follow: when Daphne returned to the pair’s London flat, the phone rang, the caller introducing herself as Tommy’s lover. The woman accused a speechless Daphne of causing her husband’s breakdown, forcing him to live a double life, making him turn to alcohol of necessity.

Devastated, Daphne took a double dose of sleeping pills, but to no avail. She didn’t sleep that night, her mind whirring frenetically. Instead she wrote a long letter to Tommy. The next morning she put the letter into his hand, then fled back to her country house, Menabilly, in Devon. Here, she told friends that only swimming and visiting her increasingly frail mother could soothe her broken nerves. As for writing (her customary means of catharsis), there was no chance: “I have no writing plans at the moment—can’t,” she wrote to a friend.

A wariness of the dark combined with low light alters how we think and write.

To add to the disruption, Tommy arrived at Menabilly—a place he’d previously inhabited only on weekends—to recuperate. Here he sat in front of the television surreptitiously drinking. His doctor made it clear that Tommy could no longer be alone. Suddenly Daphne was cast in the role of caregiver, grimly watching the deterioration of both her husband and her mother, while her own much-needed independence and solitude vanished. Friends—frightened by Daphne’s incoherent, whispered phone calls—thought she was on the verge of a breakdown.

But something prompted Daphne to regain control of herself. Something gave her the impetus to write again.

During this emotionally turbulent summer Daphne decided to make a bed in her garden. For months she’d suffered from dreams of near drowning while swimming at high tide. Every morning she awoke with her stomach in painful knots. Her bedroom had ceased to be a place of calm.

Little is known about Daphne’s nights of wild sleeping. Was she escaping a house now made oppressive by the presence of her adulterous invalid husband? Or had she felt the tantalizing, healing lure of the stars? Around the same time, she described feeling “a sort of longing…for what is beyond.” And shortly afterward, she began writing again—short stories that were later published in a collection tellingly called The Breaking Point. But these stories were different. They were imbued with ideas of the supernatural, each containing a mystical thread and hinting at a new fascination Daphne had for the unconscious and the unfathomable. As it happens, we know that one of her nights sleeping out left her both thrilled and distressed. She awoke in the middle of the black, dewy night “with a conviction that someone was there, not a real person, but not a ghost. She sensed all around her another time and another world.”

This episode—which she considered psychic, prompted by sleeping beneath the night sky—inspired her short story “The Pool,” in which a sleepless girl ventures into the garden at night and makes a bed beneath the stars, an experience that becomes a strange, numinous “introduction to life, like being confirmed.”

Daphne once confessed that each of her books represented a part of her: in “The Pool” she gives us a glimpse of her Night Self: “Dusk was everywhere, the sky a deepening black…the deepening sky lost the veil that covered it, the haze disintegrated, and the stars broke through. Where there had been nothing was life, dusty and bright, and the waiting earth gave off a scent of knowledge.”

Daphne may have been impelled to sleep out by jealousy, guilt, sadness, confusion (and who knows what else), but her subsequent writing, with its “dreamlike fancy and pitiless introspection,” was forged in the revelations of her strange outdoor nights. Beneath the twisted trees of Menabilly and a thick scattering of silver stars, Daphne found her voice again. Her personal “breaking point” had been averted, in the nick of time.

So how does darkness alter the way we write?

In 2018, two Hungarian researchers decided to investigate this very topic. They recruited seventy-eight participants, then ranked their level of night fear, before asking them to write two stories—one in full light and one in semidarkness. Participants who claimed to have no fear of darkness or night wrote similar stories, regardless of whether they were seated in a brightly lit room or a darkened room. Not so the other participants. Those who confessed to being fearful of the dark produced much longer stories, but only when they wrote in semidarkness. More interestingly, their stories contained very different language.

The researchers then analyzed the changes using a computer program table to distinguish “primary and secondary content and language.” Primary thinking is described as irrational, free-associative, creative, unconcerned with purpose or problem-solving, dominated by concrete images and characterized by defocused attention. Fairy tales, myths, and folk stories typically show high levels of primary content. Secondary thinking is described as rational, restrained, oriented toward reality and problem-solving, with a narrowly focused attention. Academic papers and research studies typically show high levels of secondary content.

In this experiment, the stories produced in near darkness by participants fearful of night used significantly more primary vocabulary and significantly less secondary vocabulary. It was as if their tendency to fear had unlocked yet another layer of their imagination. The researchers put it like this: “We speculate that in individuals who fear the dark, semidarkness might intensely activate unconscious processes that they are unable to control.” In primary language, this might translate as “for people scared of darkness, dwindling light can spark wild, inventive fantasies.” You get the idea.

The researchers weren’t surprised. Indeed, their findings reflected an earlier study that found people showed greater control and more rational thought processes while in bright light, or as they put it: “brightness triggers more controlled and reflective forms of self-regulation.”

All this is to say that a wariness of the dark combined with low light alters how we think and write—our thoughts are less “self-regulated,” and we switch more readily into fantasy, reaching with greater ease into the crevices of our imagination. And so it’s perhaps no wonder that Daphne’s nighttime-inspired stories changed, becoming—in the words of her biographer Tatiana de Rosnay—“disturbing and troubling…[exploring] the meandering of madness and the unconscious mind…dreamlike.”

When it comes to sleeping out, no one captures its strange sense of profundity better than the Scottish writer and self-proclaimed “night prowler” Nan Shepherd. For Shepherd, sleeping out was a means “of my own discovering,” of fully knowing herself. But it also helped her understand the landscape she loved.

“No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it,” she wrote in her paean to the Scottish Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. “These moments of quiescent perceptiveness before sleep are among the most rewarding of the day.” But it wasn’t only the moments of slipping into “deep and tranquil sleep” that enchanted Shepherd.

The process of waking up outside also came with its own intoxicating flavor. These were the rare occasions when she awoke “with an empty mind,” something she credited to her starry hours of deep and blissful sleep. Waking with a voided mind allowed her to see the world anew: “For one startled moment I have looked at a familiar place as though I had never seen it before.”

Shepherd believed the act of waking up outdoors was “an art” that required the eyes to open and the brain to “come fully awake” while the body remained immobile. Other mornings, “the ear awakens first.” Either way, the body had to remain motionless. Shepherd often woke to discover birds hopping up her leg, owls watching her from tentpoles, and red deer feeding beside her.

I liked Shepherd’s idea of the ear awakening before the eye. On full-moon nights I wore an eye mask, and I’d noticed that when I was unable to see, my ear was inevitably roused first. We respond more quickly to sound than to sight, particularly in the dark. At night, sound waves bend toward the cooling earth, amplifying our hearing—which is already exaggerated by the darkness. So that from my rooftop bed I was often awoken by the papery scrapings of two palm trees caught by the wind, or the flapping of plastic sheeting come loose, or the distant drumming of a snipe, or the warning bark of a fox. With my eye mask on, I woke not to light but to strange, unfamiliar sounds.

Space—it appears—can be subtly transformative.

Like me, and all my outdoor-sleeping night spinners, Shepherd slept differently beneath a diaspora of stars. Outdoor sleep is flimsier, frailer. I thought of it as a sort of light-fingered sleep in which I swam in and out of consciousness, soothed, distracted, comforted, dazzled, bewildered, and delighted. The poet Mary Oliver described a similar slumber in her poem “Sleeping in the Forest,” writing “I slept as never before…/ nothing between me and the white fire of the stars.” Nothing except her thoughts, which “floated light as moths.” She aptly compared the experience to rising and falling “as if in water.”

Although these nights didn’t meet the requirements of today’s sleep experts, they felt supremely satisfying. During the days that followed, I felt neither tired nor grumpy. In an unexpected way, the experience nourished me—as if I had imbibed a restorative cocktail of vitamins. It was a salutary reminder that what we need isn’t always what we are prescribed. And that there are many ways to sleep.

Can sleeping beneath a sequined sky of stars really alter how we behave or the way we think? Quite possibly. Psychologists investigating the effect of architectural space found curious correlations between the space we inhabit and how we feel and think, even the moral decisions we make. Space—it appears—can be subtly transformative.

As one recent study put it, “environmental spaciousness influences emotion… and elicits more positive emotions,” which in turn discreetly shifts how we think. One of the study’s more intriguing discoveries was that additional space made people more tolerant and less inclined to make harsh moral judgments, while cramped spaces had the opposite effect, causing people to feel both isolated and more judgmental. Being in a generously sized space (and what can be more generous than the galaxy?) makes us more generously spirited, more empathetic and compassionate.

This isn’t all. Back in 2007, two researchers published a paper exploring the effect of ceiling height on how we think. Their investigations suggested that high ceilings promoted more abstract and imaginative thought, while low ceilings were better suited to “concrete and detail-oriented thinking.” They called this the cathedral effect. Their experiments also revealed that looking upward nudged the mind into thinking more loosely and freely (“creatively”), while looking down was rather like being beneath a low-slung ceiling—participants began to think in a more meticulously detailed way.

The funny thing is that the cathedral effect becomes manifest only if we’re aware of the space around us. In this study, when participants failed to notice the ceiling height, their modes of thinking didn’t change. And so the perception of space mattered more than its actuality.

The philosopher Gaston Bachelard speculated that when we leave the spatial confines of our “usual sensibilities,” we are challenged by new space—we are “psychically innovated.” We feel the intimacy of immensity, and we recognize that “immensity is within ourselves.” Bachelard doesn’t refer to dark space—only “vast” space, which he calls “the friend of being.” But no space that I inhabit is more “psychically innovating” than my little rooftop, with its view of infinitesimally tiny stars safely suspended in the cosmic immensity of unending blackness.



Excerpted from Sleepless: Unleashing the Subversive Power of the Night Self by Annabel Abbs-Streets with permission from G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Annabel Abbs-Streets.

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