Darkness is a symbol of mystery, sadness, and fear. But it can also symbolize protection for people who use “the cover of darkness” to escape detection.
Darkness symbolism pervades literature, film, and television. With greater knowledge of what darkness represents, we can use it to create more forceful and effective storylines.
Symbolism of darkness includes:
- Sadness and Depression
- Mystery and the Unknown
- The Power of Light
Darkness Symbolism (In Literature, Dreams & the Bible)
1. Evil (Darkness in the Bible)
Darkness in the bible symbolizes Evil. There are many quotes from the bible positioning God and Jesus as ‘the light’ and evil and Satan as ‘the darkness’.
Here, a dualisim exists:
- Light is good.
- Darkness is evil.
For example, in John 8:12, Jesus calls himself the light of the world:
John 8:12 – Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘i am the Light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.’
Similarly, in Psalm 84:11, God is referred to as ‘the sun’, which is the brightest thing in the world:
Psalm 84:11 – For the Lord God is a sun and shield.
The message about darkness as evil continues in popular culture today. You will often find that evil people live in the darkness while good people live in the light. The fact you can’t see into darkness adds to this sense that there’s evil lurking in dark spaces, intentionally hiding so you don’t see them.
Go Deeper: Light Symbolism
Where there is nothing, we perceive there to be darkness. Space, for example, is black, because of the lack of anything as far as we can see. There’s nothing for light to bounce off, so we see nothing.
And when we see nothing, we see black.
While this might be perceived as a default color (or, not a color at all!), you’ll notice that often black is used in art to represent nothingness.
We also have the concept of a ‘blackout’ which is a term used to describe loss of electricity, but also the stopping of the flow of information.
Death and darkness are intertwined. We perceive death to be a permanent state of darkness, particularly because death is nothingness.
You see the use of darkness to represent death in Dylan Thomas’s famous poem Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night:
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
This poem reminds people to fight for life for as long as they can. It uses darkness (and night) as a proxy for death. You should fight against darkness, which means, to fight against death.
Similarly, Shakespeare regularly uses darkness as a symbol of death. In MacBeth, Lady MacBeth’s suicide is marked by the phrase:
“Out, out brief candle.”
Here, the snuffing out of the light (and coming of darkness) are metaphors for the ending of life and coming of death.
Go Deeper: Death Symbolism
4. Sadness, Depression and Negativity
Darkness and Light are also structured as polar opposites that represent happiness and sadness:
- Light is happy.
- Dark is sad.
People who are sad and depressed, for example, are considered to be going through a “dark time”.
You might see someone sad as being pictured alone in a dark room. Similarly, they’re often pictured under a cloud, representing the fact they’re shielded from the happiness of the sun.
5. Mystery and the Unknown
Looking into a dark space, we can’t see what’s there. This brings up a sense of mystery.
Based on this sense of mystery, we tend to look at darkness as a place where magical and mystical things can happen. This is the place where witchcraft and wizardry take place.
But we also see magical things occurring in darkness as bad types of magic. They are what we might call “dark magic”.
Our mistrust of the perceived magic that occurs in dark places is also enshrined in our belief that witches and warlocks are evil and need to be purged from society.
But there are some examples of the mystery of darkness as being seen positively.
The most notable example is in the Robert Frost poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, where he says:
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep… .”
Here, he sees the darkness as something beautiful, as if he’s drawn into it in order to explore the magic beneath.
Go Deeper: Shadow Symbolism
6. Ignorance and Lack of Knowledge
People who are ignorant might be told they’re “living in the dark”. This relates to their lack of knowledge about what’s going on in the world. So, it links back to the idea that they don’t have information.
We also often tell people who are ignorant that they’re “living in the Dark Ages”.
The dark ages were a time when, supposedly, people were ignorant. There wasn’t much technological progress occurring, people were generally uneducated, and information was only shared by word-of-mouth.
When we exclude people from something, we’ll often say that we’re “keeping them in the dark”. It’s similar to the idiom that someone is ‘out in the cold’.
If we’re keeping someone in the dark, we can imagine them standing in a dark room unable to see something. Instead of turning the light on, we purposely leave the light off in order to ensure they don’t know the information that you know.
Examples of times when you would use darkness as a symbol of exclusion include: when politicians hide information from the public, and when your boss hides information from his employees.
Things that are taboo are said to be done (and discussed) in darkness.
The most obvious example is sex. This often occurs ‘under the sheets’, and usually at night, so the dirty deed can’t be seen by others.
But it could also be things like plotting the overflow of a government, drinking alcohol, or sneaking out of your house as a teenager to hang out with your friends.
Darkness is regularly used by film directors to create a sense of suspense.
The scariest moments in horror movies take place at night and in dark spaces. This is because the night obscures our ability to see. When we can’t see, our imagination can take over.
There’s the sense that something can jump out of darkness at you at any moment.
Suspenseful moments also tend to have moody music in the background to complement the darkness and even further enhance the notion that something is about to happen.
People who are deceitful will deceive you in the dark.
During the day, they are likely going to tell you what you want to hear. But in the dark where you can’t see what they’re up to, they’re going to do what they truly want to do.
Schemes and ploys that cannot be shared will take place at night.
Similarly, the ‘dark web’ is a section of the internet where information is hidden from search engines. It’s here on the dark web where people make plans and plots that would probably offend you and me!
The flipside of deceit is truthfulness.
And darkness is where we really find the truth. We can’t trust what someone says and does in the light of day.
But if we follow them at night, we’ll hear their whispers and find out exactly what the truth about someone is. We reveal our truths in the dark where we can do them in secret where others can’t see.
For example, people might meet under the cover of darkness to share sensitive and private information. They meet at night so people can’t see them sharing these secrets and hard truths.
When people are ashamed, they retreat into the darkness.
This is because we don’t want to be seen in the light of day. We want to hide our face.
Think, for example, when you embarrass yourself in front of your friends. You’ll want to hide. Maybe you don’t go out with them next time they invite you out because you still feel the shame. Instead, you hide at home.
Similarly, when children do something that is embarrassing, they retreat to corners or bury their head in the couch. They seek dark places to hide.
13. The Power of Light
Lastly, darkness can bring out the power of light.
If we go out into the desert and look up at the night’s sky, the stars sparkle more brightly than ever. Similarly, when you are in a hall that’s incredibly dark, even the flame from a match will be visible throughout the room.
Light has a remarkable ability to pierce through complete darkness.
Read More: Star Symbolism
Throughout this article I have been talking about darkness as a threat. But when we’re being pursued, we can often turn to darkness for protection.
We can hide in the closet from someone who’s trying to find us. And we can hide in the shadows when we’re being pursued. In these instance, darkness is our friend.
Even during children’s games like hide and seek, children will seek out dark spaces where they can be hidden so they can win the games.
Darkness symbolism takes many forms. As a versatile instrument for literature, film and television, it can create suspense, reveal secrets, or show deceit.
In our own lives, it’s something that changes our behavior. We often have a heightened fear response at night due to our genetic disposition to try to protect ourselves from encroaching predators that can come closer at night without detection.
But it can also be something we embrace. It can allow us to share our truths and act as our protector when we are being pursued by an enemy.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.