Defining Dark Fantasy

What makes a book or a movie dark fantasy as opposed to some other kind of horror? At 8:30PM Thursday in Westin Peachtree 1 & 2, the Horror track sponsored the “What the %#?! Is Dark Fantasy?” panel to address that question. Panelists included David Boop, Jonathan Maberry, R.R. Virdi, Jessica Ann York, Garon Whited, and moderator Tony Sarrecchia.

Noting that dark fantasy is sometimes a catchall that describes dark stories without calling them horror, Sarrecchia kicked off the panel by asking the group for their definitions of dark fantasy. Boop noted that marketing benefits from such terms because they characterize things not previously characterized. He described darkness as a tone and cited Penny Dreadful as an example, a “fantastical” program but with pervasive horror or threat.

Maberry said that if horror had enjoyed a better reputation in the 1990s and 2000s, what’s called dark fantasy now would instead be labeled horror fantasy. However, torture porn and slasher movies set the genre’s reputation in that era. He contrasted Penny Dreadful and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, noting that while Buffy has a lot of darkness in it, that isn’t the show’s theme, but Penny Dreadful had horror elements in every episode. He mentioned that fantastical characters like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster are fantastical, but definitely dark.

Virdi described Game of Thrones as dark fantasy with humor in it. He considers The Black Company, on the other hand, to be darker. He mentioned these two and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere as good examples of dark fantasy.

York noted that horror has long been associate with slasher fiction and said the definition of dark fantasy is fluid, dependent on it draws upon. For her, it’s fantastical, “what’s in the shadows, what’s not known.” She cited Nightmare on Elm Street, because of dream journey and the suspension of disbelief, and mentioned Sandman as having similar qualities. Maberry interjected that the dreams provide fantasy, so the Elm Street movies are “not just body count,” and York agreed, noting that Freddie “kills creatively” and that characters can fight back.

For Whited, the primary element in dark fantasy is fantasy, with the darkness coming from the tone the author sets. He contrasted the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast with the much darker Brothers Grimm version of the story. He sees horror as drawing nightmares from the psyche rather than just bloody.

The panel then discussed the contrasts between Disney versions of classic stories and the original source material. They agreed the original Pinocchio was much darker than the Disney version, with “lots of horrible stuff happening” and no happy ending. Another difference was in the depiction of fairies. Fairies were originally monsters, and stories featuring them were cautionary tales. Dark fantasy draws on the original sources, not on the brighter adaptations.

Returning to the earlier topic of Nightmare on Elm Street, the panel contrasted that series with the Saw movies. To them, Freddie represents dark fantasy while Saw is nihilistic torture porn. They cited the creativity in the Elm Street dreams, noting that even in those dreams, the victim still has a chance, but said the Saw series is just about how cool pain is, with there being no redeeming elements and no chance to rise above the pain and humiliation to explore the human condition.

Asked about tropes in dark fantasy, Maberry mentioned that there’s seldom a good, heroic choice that solves the problem, that the choices are usually between bad and worse consequences. He cited Michael Moorcock’s Elric books as examples. Virdi noted that in media other than novels, the questions explored often include who is best in this world and what’s the right way to save it. These media feature personal optimism rather than optimistic worlds.

York added that setting affects the reality of the world. Picking up on that theme, Whited noted that even heroic choices sometimes have consequences that force the hero to decide whether the choice made outweighs what will happen after it. Boop cited The City of Lost Children as a good example of setting. As an example of impactful choice, he mentioned The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

The discussion then turned to endings. Boop mentioned The Sixth Sense as having an effective one and asked rhetorically what makes an ending work? Is it being unexpected? Is the hero or villain out of character or just not what we thought they were? Maberry said some endings prevent remakes. As examples, he offered Psycho and The Haunting of Hill House, both of which bring out empathy toward the antagonist via their endings. He said the ending of Hill House left one wondering whether there was really a ghost or was there instead an unreliable narrator revealing psychological deterioration. York mentioned the craft concept of negative capability, leaving things open to interpretation, not giving the reader everything but leaving them discomforted, as an effective ending.

As examples of dark fantasy, they included Interview with The Vampire, Macbeth, and Batman, but eliminated Beowulf on grounds that it was mostly adventure and a “standard Scandinavian tragedy.” Maberry described the Arthurian legends as darker in that the great goal fails at the end but noted that there is hope at the end. The panel debated whether Alice in Wonderland qualified as dark fantasy because the madness in it is dark. They ultimately concluded the dark element wasn’t overarching and so decided it didn’t qualify.

They also discussed dark fantasy characters turning up fantasy that isn’t dark overall, agreeing that Perrin in The Wheel of Time is a good example.

Panelist pointed out that a dark story can become lighter as the lore and background come to light. It’s up to the author to choose what the reader learns.  They concluded that any story in any genre can be edgy but darkness is a writer statement, an effort to get readers to fell that darkness.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.