The line between these two things can be a bit blurry so for this article I’ll be doing some comparing and contrasting between the two. Beginning with horror, the setting has to be one in which you know you’ll be feeling a lot of dread. It needs to be a location where the characters are practically the monster or monsters’ playthings. This can take many forms, be it the woods with an undead machete-wielding psychopath, a world where making a sound can mean death, on a spaceship to even your own dreams. In short, it has to be one where control has been almost entirely taken away, leaving only a sliver of hope someone could make it out alive.
Fantasy, specifically, dark fantasy is a bit broader in its definition. If something has some form of what can be considered evil magic in it, does it qualify as part of that genre? I don’t think so because that raises another question, what is the difference between fantasy and dark fantasy? To me, there has to be a certain presence with it. Take Lord Of The Rings for example.
Yes, it has villains like Sauron and the entities that come after Frodo when he wears the ring. Not to mention, Aragorn’s ghost army and Mordor would all fit into a dark fantasy setting. However, since the story has a lot of lightheartednesses, I can’t consider it to be part of the genre. I feel the same way about a series like Harry Potter. Both magic of good and evil are heavily present as indicated by the Defense Against The Dark Arts class at Hogwarts.
Even magic in the story that isn’t inherently evil can be used in nefarious ways. Imagine if the memory removal spell was used by the wrong person. If I recall right, I don’t think there is a limit to how many times that spell can be used either. That means someone could remove memories of people you care about or even who you are entirely. I don’t know if it extends only to experiences either.
It’d be a pretty bad time if someone say removed your memory of having proper bladder control. If it happened enough to all of someone’s conscious body functions, they would most likely be left in a vegetative state. Relating to that, we have several creatures within that universe that could fit into an outright horror series like the Dementors. They are capable of literally sucking out someone’s soul, leaving them an empty shell.
Then you have the Merpeople who are not a friendly sight. Apparently, they can be found all throughout the world of that series too. I get the feeling the wrong muggles have occasionally stumbled across them and did not live to tell the tale. Voldemort, formerly known as Tom Riddle is an ever-present threat for the entirety of Harry’s saga. His threat as a villain was demonstrated effectively in the first book by him drinking unicorn blood and what he did to
That’s only scratching the surface with him. Anyone familiar with the stories should know about a little something called Horcruxes. For those who aren’t familiar, they are a way for witches and wizards to become immortal by dividing their soul and putting it into different items, be they inanimate or living. As long as they remain intact, they can’t be killed which by the way, destroying a Horcrux is a difficult task in itself. Oftentimes, things like that come with a price and they are no exception.
The more a magic user divides their soul, the less human they become. Voldermoert did this so much, it guaranteed he could never be human again. I think you could consider what he does to himself through them to be a kind of body horror. It’s chilling to see what lengths people are willing to go ot in order to ensure their survival. The only thing worse is someone like him having immortality.
Once again, though, I would call Harry Potter fantasy before dark fantasy because it tends to stay more upbeat most of the time and evokes a sense of wonder rather than not outright dread but wariness as you would see in a dark fantasy setting. To me, there needs to be an overall dreariness to the tone. Return to Oz is a prime example, especially in contrast to Wizard of Oz.
I can’t speak on the books, but for the films coming off the vibrant singing adventure, save for The Wicked Witch and flying monkeys, to the sequel which not only begins with Dorothy getting shock therapy, it shows that Oz has been decimated. Then you have The Wheelers. Good god, they and Mombi with her switching heads make it feel almost like a horror movie. That’s the key, the tone.
All throughout the film, there is this looming feeling as if all the warm joy from the first movie was sucked out and replaced with cold bleakness. Compare the death of The Wicked Witch in the first movie to what happens to The Nome King. While both fates are horrifying, the way The Nome King’s is presented fits better in the dark fantasy genre. With that in mind, where is the line between it and horror?
You have franchises like Friday The 13th, Nightmare On Elm Street, Evil Dead, and Hellraiser where there is a type of magic, but they are mainly horror movies or horror comedy when you get into some of the sequels. Once again, the tone lends itself to a feeling of dread rather than fantasy or even dark fantasy because these movies are willing to go to more extremes. Another thing that separates them is how vulnerable the characters are. Undead such as the Draaugr in Skyrim are a lot less threatening when you are some badass fighter capable of taking multiple sword strikes and can just shoot lighting out of your hands and turn them into ash. Meanwhile, magic zombies in horror movies, like the Deadites in Army Of Darkness are harder to deal with. The reason why is that the magic in that world would actively be against you, whereas in fantasy you would have a better chance of effectively weaponizing it. That’s another thing, actually.
Dark fantasy and horror can also be set apart depending on the kind of magic, how well it can be controlled, and who is wielding it. Sure, you can have necromancers that reanimate corpses. Once again, though, it isn’t much of an issue when there are multiple ways you can put them back down in the realm of fantasy. On the other hand, someone doing the same thing by reading a passage from the Necronomicon creates a more frightening situation due to the characters being less likely to have the means to deal with them. Speaking of that book, Lovecraft’s stories dealt with this heavily.
There’s magic in the stories, but it’s dangerous because insane or stupid, usually both, people are trying to use it when it is far beyond their comprehension. Plus, it was never meant for humans in the first place. This is present in other horror stories as well. My personal favorite would have to be the Deadlights in The King Universe. You have this type of magic only a couple shapeshifting entities can utilize that would drive you insane if you were exposed to it.
That’s not the only kind in his stories either. You have characters like Walter Paddick aka Randall Flagg who is a prominent villain throughout several novels. Even Roland Deschain used it in some instances. Although, that may have been more a form of hypnosis. The Dark Tower series, which features both of these characters has it heavily. That is another series that blurs the line between dark fantasy, horror, and sometimes even science fiction.
In addition to the characters, there are plenty of magical objects within the story that have harrowing effects. Maerlyn’s Rainbow is probably the most prominent example of this. It’s been a while since I read it, but I recall several of the orbs that make up the rainbow having scary effects on Roland or those he cares about. By the way, If you haven’t read the series I highly recommend it. Wish I could say the same thing about the movie.
Anyway, the orbs in addition to things like The Todash Darkness, a space between worlds inhabited by monsters, can make it hard to categorize the story. Hell, IT is clearly horror, and yet something that you could honestly see in a Disney movie is used to combat the threat. Basically, the magic of friendship is all-powerful. With all this said, how would I distinguish dark fantasy and horror?
Balance. If a story centers mainly around magic and yet stays upbeat most of the time, it’s fantasy. If it centers around magic, but gives you a looming sense of foreboding, it’s dark fantasy. Lastly, if a story, even if it has some form of magic within it, has vulnerable characters and creates a feeling of dread, it’s horror. Some, such as The Dark Tower you could even call both.
Fear and wonder are not mutually exclusive after all. On that note, that’s all I have to say on this subject for now, but If I think of something else, I’ll put it in a future post. Thanks for checking this out and happy reading.