By Claire Fitzpatrick
Originally published in Aurealis Issue #96
It’s a question that stumps a lot of writers, and indeed a lot of readers. What’s the difference between dark fantasy and horror? There has been a lot of debate and discussion on the topic, but why does it really matter? And why is it OK for children and teenagers to read dark fantasy, but not horror?
Horror can be set anywhere, much like dark fantasy, and usually contains a menacing character or presence trying to harm, or change, the main protagonist. Readers can expect a story with the capacity to frighten, disgust, repel, and startle them, which is usually the thrill they are seeking. The menacing aspects of horror are generally metaphorical, inviting the reader to question their own fears and that of society.
Some people prefer gothic horror, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Other prefer more slasher/thriller horror, such as popular film horror franchises American Horror Story (2011-present), Scream (1996-2011), or A Nightmare On Elm Street. (1984-2012). All of these feature iconic characters who appear otherworldly, disfigured, or damaged beyond repair. They are menacingly impure and don’t quite fit within societal norms. However, horror can exist in many forms. A simple definition of horror is that it evokes an intensely strong feeling of fear, dread, and shock; it is the quality of something that causes these feelings; the horrible or shocking quality or character of something. This definition is quite different to that of dark fantasy, in that it describes a fear that exists within oneself or the world around them. Dark fantasy tends to err on the side of the fantastique – the intrusion of the supernatural phenomenon into an otherwise realist narrative.
Horror plays on our fears and phobias. It plays on our qualms of the unknown, the unusual, the dark. Dark fantasy, on the other hand, is speculative. While it has its roots in horror, it is meant to question why things happen. Where horror will tell us there’s a ghost in the attic, dark fantasy will explore the attic, and invite readers to figure out which uncle uses the space for his secret activities in necromancy. Horror wants to scare you, where terror in dark fantasy is optional. This is where the problems with censorship arise. When parents visit a bookstore in search of a birthday present for their child, chances are they’ll ignore the horror section. This is because horror in children’s literature is often suppressed out of fear of evoking trauma in the child. Yet there are some fantastic children’s writers who allow children to dip their toes in horror through dark fantasy.
Exposing your children to dark fantasy is wonderful for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Maurice Sendak (Where The Wild Things Are), fantastically explained that children’s lives are filled with horror – kids live in a world of giant furniture, out-of-reach door handles, and have little power of their own. Secondly, it is a scary time to be a kid. With all the school massacres and genuine fear of death, horror is a cathartic tool of escapism. In scary books, there is always something worse, some monster children have the ability to wrangle with their own imagination. For example, Goosebumps, the series of horror novellas by R. L. Stein, follows the lives of ordinary children who find themselves in scary situations. Stein’s books are influenced by childhood fears, which are exemplified in the forms of monsters and creatures that go bump-in-the-night.
J K Rowling (Harry Potter) writes of childhood loss, parental and childhood death, the idea of an adult violating the trust of a child, murder of friends, and the notion that your parents cannot protect you forever. In this sense, Harry Potter could be described as dark fantasy, for death is a major theme throughout the series. So why is it OK for children to read Harry Potter, yet some parents won’t let their kids read Clive Barker’s ‘The Thief of Always?’ Why was Charlotte’s Web deemed ‘inappropriate subject material’? Why is provocative language and violence in ‘The Lord of Flies’ necessarily bad for children development? Additionally, Sendak’s ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ was banned for its ‘psychoanalytical take on fairy tales’ and the ‘fear evoked in a child being sent to bed without dinner.’ It seems adults often suppress children’s understanding of fear.
It is imperative that everyone, at every stage of their life, is scared, and excited, by literature. Reading dark fantasy is unequivocally vital to childhood and adult development. Richard Adam’s Watership Down, a story about anthropomorphised (in thought and language) rabbits who are forced from their warren, is a brilliant example of a dark fantasy novel both children and adults can enjoy, even though it is filled with themes of horror, bloodshed, and death. While Adams stated the story is just about ‘life,’ its themes of leadership, courage, statesmanship, and loyalty, are often praised by literary scholars. Watership Down is often called a ‘realistic fantasy story,’ making it appropriate for children, yet it could also be classified as dark fantasy because it teaches children to become strong, independent, and not inappropriately fearful through terrifying situations the rabbits become ensnared in.
Children need to be heroes and defeat the monsters and bad guys. Kids are not the best at distinguishing fantasy from reality until around 5 or 6, so it is best to find out exactly what they’re afraid of and allow them to conquer their fears. Dark fantasy allows children to experience fear in a controlled, yet often medieval and grisly environment, often alongside their parents. In a way, dark fantasy is an introduction to horror, with its gloomy atmosphere and sense of dread, which is why most parents prefer their children read stories in this highly controlled genre. Pure horror often taps into your psyche, something children are not old enough to understand. This is also incredibly important for adults. Adults have their own demons to wrangle, their own dragons to slay.
Dark fantasy and horror are often interconnected, which is the exciting – yet unsettling – aspect of genre novels. The reason for all the hullabaloo of these books is often intent. Some parents don’t want their kids to read the Harry Potter series because Voldemort intends to kill Harry. Where The Wilds Are is often off-limits for kids, because Max intends to cause trouble and disobey his mother. This is what dark fantasy is. And these things are not accidental horrors, they are planned. Also, teenagers and adults have the capacity to discern the differences between real and imaginary horror, where kids are susceptible to believe in wild and imaginative notions.
Morality often comes into play, something German philosopher Emmanuel Kant sought to understand. Kant (1724-2804), argued that moral requirements are based on a standard of rationality he labelled the ‘Categorical Imperative’ (CI). Immorality thus involves a violation of the CI and is thereby irrational. Children are inherently irrational, and therefore do not always understand the differences between horror and dark fantasy. To them, it is all the same. However, children often employ Kant’s CI when addressing the question ‘if I were the main character, what ought I to do?’ The answer to this issue requires much more than delivering the fundamental principle of morality.
Sometimes the question does not register in children’s minds at all. This is because they are too young to understand the basic ethical obligations of humankind. To understand ethics, one must comprehend the concepts of ‘good will,’ ‘obligation,’ and ‘duty’ – which children do not have the capacity to understand. This is why exposing dark fantasy to children at a young age is important and in important introduction to horror. They need to learn how to sympathise with characters, and to understand why they make certain choices. They need to know why fire-breathing dragons are scary, why Lord Voldemort is the villain, and why it is so important Max apologises to his mother for his outburst.
Adults need to understand this as well and allow their children to experience excitement and fear. Because fear can be absolutely exciting! Dark fantasy, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (written in stages between 1937 and 1949), is an extraordinary example of an exciting tale that is actually quite frightening. Of course, teenagers would be more inclined to read the trilogy, yet advanced readers might get their hands on it earlier. The story involves wars between good and evil, where people and creatures are killed by swords, knives, bows and arrows, and catapults. Ringwraith’s – the dark, ghostly, armoured hunters who ride large black horses – are menacing and attempt to murder the main character, Frodo Baggins. Samwise Gamgee almost drowns, Frodo and Aragon are stuck on a collapsing bridge, and Frodo has a premonition of The Shire being burnt to the ground. Children with advanced imaginations might feel like their own homes are threatened. However, this is where children and adults can understand and experience fear together.
People often juggle horror and dark fantasy together, but it’s what the story makes you feel that determines what it is. Dark fantasy wants you to feel threatened by the atmosphere, it wants you to come face to face with an out-of-this-world villain, a supernatural fantasy, and take you on a spooky adventure. Horror often has a more fantastical angle and seeks to prey on your primordial fears and expose your deepest, darkest secrets. This is why horror can be a little too intimidating for some, particularly children. Our deepest, darkest secrets are our buried within us for a reason. Horror is a fantastic tool of escapism, yet a little too advanced for children’s minds, which is why Dark Fantasy is a better choice. To reveal our secrets can often be morbidly catastrophic (especially for kids!).