Ask a filmmaker, a showrunner, or a book writer what qualifies a work of art as “dark fantasy,” and you’re guaranteed to get wholly different answers.
That’s because the genre — penned first by authors like Gertrude Barrows Bennett, Karl Edward Wagner, and later by modern writers like Neil Gaiman — has been linked, almost inextricably to its more infamous cousin: horror.
Dark fantasy and horror share many of the same elements. They’re often set in bleak, unforgiving worlds, they confront terrifying monsters, and they serve as worthy nightmare fuel, but they do not mirror each other. When we treat them that way, and when we reduce dark fantasy to a simple bridge between genres instead of giving it its due, we miss out on the chance to reach new fandoms and explore more interesting storytelling avenues.
Why? Because in many ways, dark fantasy is free of the baggage that comes with the horror label.
With slasher films, chainsaw massacres, hauntings, possession, and serial killers, horror utilizes the worst of our imaginations as a vehicle to terrorize. Horror films delight in scaring audiences, giving viewers the rush of adrenaline that comes with watching a character try to escape a demonic monster or a ghostly orphanage or an ominous cabin in the woods with their lives intact. The purpose of horror is to horrify — sometimes through grotesque imagery and straightforward survival plots, other times through more subversive means, like Get Out‘s weekend trip to meet a girlfriend’s parents whose agenda is to commandeer black bodies so that their affluent, white friends can achieve mortality.
Horror can make you think, but that’s not its sole purpose, and it must always scare. That’s why people choose to swear off the genre. Sitting in a darkened room waiting to be frightened isn’t the kind of thrill everyone craves, and though dark fantasy isn’t a back-up, an “instead” for the genre, it can serve as an alternative to people wanting a gloomier, foreboding experience without the threat of imminent death or gruesome imagery.
But first, we have to define what dark fantasy is. One way to do this is to look at the directors who’ve managed to bring the genre mainstream. Guillermo del Toro, Tim Burton, Jim Henson – these men pioneered dark fantasy in film by combining fantastical plot devices and supernatural storylines with tones that were eerie, somber, and even sinister. They exploited childhood nightmares, teased monsters under the bed, imagined worlds filled with fairies, elves, and other magical creatures with hidden masks and ulterior motives. They created, in large part, how we view dark fantasy, at least in film, today.
A Dark fantasy film is one with classic tropes, themes of good vs. evil, that are heightened by its fictional setting. For a film or show to be dark fantasy, it must be set in a world where magical elements are commonplace. Characters are thrust into stories about unearthly creatures, they’re transported to realms where witchcraft and sorcery, demons and angels, all things preternatural exist without question. In this world, they’re forced to confront their own dual natures. Unlike straightforward fantasy films where a hero goes on an adventure and ends up saving some mystical world, dark fantasy forces the protagonist to entertain the idea that he or she may be the anti-hero of their own story. It forces the audience to choose who to root for when main characters are just monsters fighting other monsters, flawed leads who may or may not be in the right. Dark fantasy asks us to wrestle with our own morals by having its subjects do the same, just with fairies, elves, mermaids and the like as background noise.
If horror is about people trying to escape monsters (both human and supernatural), dark fantasy is about people accepting that the monster may be within and deciding how to live in a world filled with wonder and peril despite that revelation. Horror can be set in both the real and fantasy world, but dark fantasy uses the more occult elements of storytelling as a vehicle for character growth and world building, not just as a terrifying backdrop meant to earn a few screams. In horror, the focus is on blood, gore, thrills, and chills. In dark fantasy, the adventure comes first, the trek through frightening new worlds, and the scares come second.
And that matters, this difference between horror and dark fantasy, because while one is often pigeonholed by stigma and more stereotypical fare, the other has boundless potential, not just to tell fascinating, singular stories that test the limits of our imaginations, but to also touch upon very real issues through grim yet earnest storytelling that sparks deeper thought and discussion because we’re allowed to marinate in our underlying fear, in the tension created when things seem just off-putting enough to give us pause.
It’s the subtlety of dark fantasy – as ironic as that might seem considering the genre deals in the supernatural – that serves as its strongest storytelling device. Dark fantasies are able to weave invisible threads laced with horror and magic through stories that enchant and terrify at the same time. Horror is more direct, blunter in its approach. It pushes you to confront mortality, to face evil by shoving it in your face. Dark Fantasy uses the familiar, combines it with the otherworldly, and makes you question your reality. Is what you’re seeing awe-inducing and dreamlike, or is there something going on underneath the surface, an inner turmoil in the characters, a rotting at the core of the story?
It’s important we not only recognize the differences between these two genres, both beloved in different ways, but that we highlight those differences, elevate them and draw attention to them. By drawing that line in the sand, we equip future fans of the genre with the tools to recognize its defining characteristics, to analyze their attraction to it, and to delve deeper into the beautifully-detailed world of storytelling dark fantasy lends itself to.
We, quite literally, open up newer, darker worlds.