Fantasy and horror have a natural affinity, one that goes back to the pre-literate times when people sat around the campfire, terrifying each other with stories of ghosts and skin-walkers and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night or that-are-not-quite-dead. Supernatural elements infused these tales with delightful spine-tingling shivers. One might speculate that way back then, the entire world must have seemed a perilous place, filled with phenomena beyond human understanding. I think that does a discredit to peoples who might have a much lower level of technology than we do but were nonetheless extremely sophisticated in their conceptualization and emotional understanding of the world around them. For all our computers and skyscrapers, we are just as enthralled by the uncanny and that jolt of adrenaline.
Of course, as individuals we vary in what is pleasurable to us. One person’s fun may be the trigger that causes months of terrifying nightmares for another person. This is especially true for people who have themselves been the victims of trauma, whether the assault has come in the form of physical violence or from psychological or emotional abuse. Reading horror or dark fantasy is not an approved method of psychotherapy, but encountering these stories mindfully can shift our perspective. Good fiction of any kind does not “stay on the page” but has the power to change the way we see ourselves and our lives. Horror, by its focus on frightening elements, carries a particular emotional punch.
Like so much genre literature today, the distinctions between fantasy and horror are often driven by the requirements of marketing, with blurry overlapping areas like dark fantasy. One might otherwise lump them all together as “literature of the macabre,” today’s incarnation of the 19th Century Gothic novel. I doubt that Edgar Allan Poe would have thought of his work as either fantasy or horror, although he might have been quite delighted with macabre.
Horror, with the exception of purely psychological horror, represents a subset of fantasy. This subset is of course a spectrum, from fantasy with slightly “dark” aspects to horror that includes or relies upon fantastical elements. I would go even further in arguing that shadows –elements that partake of the spookier side of the supernatural, or inversions of everyday expectations – are what give good fantasy much of its appeal. For every Hobbiton, there is a Mordor, and not even Lothlorien with its Mirror of Galadriel is without danger. Shadows give shape to light, and risk heightens the value of the hero’s journey. After all, what is more dangerous and suspenseful than a journey into lands and times when the dead can walk (and wreak revenge), humans can take the form of animals (and vice versa), and malevolence is a real and present force.
Some stories have no point other than to horrify; they are unrelentingly gruesome and bleak. The portrayal of – adulation of — futility against overwhelming evil is not limited to the horror genre. Existentialist despair, as well as depictions of the depth of human pain and the height of human malice, have their place in the canon of literature. Fiction allows us to view and explore frightening events and to grapple with appalling things in the company of trusted companions.
Horror not only delivers a certain emotional palette but a resolution that is satisfying for the neutral reader and can be helpful to the person wrestling with their own experience of fear. Here the overlap with fantasy plays a special role, for fantasy by its very nature alters the rules of ordinary reality. The “contract with the reader” includes the premise that impossible things can and will happen, both horrible and wonderful. Fantasy is also particularly suited to the use of symbol and archetype to deepen emotional resonances.
Good fantasy, including good horror, has a moral compass. Just as mystery stories result in the re-establishment of order through the discovery of the wrong-doer and consequent victory of justice, so other genre forms have as their foundation a world that makes sense. Magic has its rules, price, and limitations. Horrendous things happen, but they do so for a reason and we as readers learn what that reason is. It may be an incomprehensible or superficial reason – because the Elder Gods are so alien that they drive men mad, or because the Duke of Darkness wants to rule the entire world, or simply because Lord Voldemort gets up every morning and chants, Evil, evil rah rah rah – but the reason exists, and if we are willing to go along with the premises in this particular story, we will discover its underlying logical structure.
This is where fiction and real life differ, because in real life, all too often we have no clue as to the motivation of the person who has harmed us, if indeed it is a person and not a force of nature, and if the person is known, or we are left with pieces of evidence and even more conjecture that we cannot assemble into any kind of rationale.
I mentioned “trusted companions.” One of the most crippling things about personal trauma is the sense of isolation. Not only do we feel powerless, but all too often, our experience is that no one else can truly understand what it was like. In fiction, on the other hand, we are never alone. Even if the protagonist is isolated and has no allies, the two of you – reader and hero — are in the adventure together. The hero discovers her own strengths, whether they be determination, courage or ingenuity, particular skills, or anything else. And she is not always cast solely on her own resources. Even if the “trusty sidekick” dies a horrible death before the end, for a time, the journey is shared and the hero can draw on the loyalty and abilities of her mentor, her friends, even the people who depend on her.
We learn by role modeling, and as we journey with the hero through fear and peril, we see how one character manages to endure and even emerge stronger and more self-confident. All too often, trauma survivors feel not only powerless but incompetent, seeing only what they have not been able to prevent and not what has allowed them to survive. It’s easier to see our strengths as well as our failures in another person, or in this case, another character.
Fantasy comes in shades of frightfulness, everything from sweetness-and-light unicorns to the overwhelmingly gruesome. The reader – forearmed with a certain amount of information about any given story – has the ability to control how dark and terrifying the territory they venture into. The lingering effects of a personal experience of trauma or abuse involve the past loss of power and the fear that nothing we can do will prevent it from happening again. Navigating the borders between fantasy and dark fantasy, and dark fantasy and horror, allow us to decide what is pleasurably shocking versus what is beyond our present ability to tolerate, as well as how far and at what pace we want to proceed. What is overwhelming at one time in a person’s recovery may at some later point become the landscape for facing previously unimaginable fears. Depictions of violence (particularly in video games) have often been accused of promoting these very behaviors, although the exact opposite argument might be made. However, in the case of a trauma survivor, horror and dark fantasy can serve as a means of desensitization, of diminishing the paralyzing effects of the real-life event. Because horror and fantasy are part of a spectrum, we have the power to begin within our comfort range and venture forth in incremental stages, only as far and as fast as we choose.
It can be said of both fantasy and horror that they function on different levels of the human psyche. Perhaps the most superficial is their quality as literature, and like any other genre, this varies from superb to abysmal. However, both tap into the imagination and deep emotions – it might be said of horror that this is its purpose – in ways that give them value apart from purely literary considerations. People read both for a variety of reasons – escapism, intellectual stimulation, entertainment, wonder, an emotional joyride – but these genres are also journeys through our own inner landscapes. The crossover borderlands invite us into the territory of our fears
The images: Nightmare by Abildgaard, Nightmare by Gauguin, magazine cover, Dante and Beatrice by Dore.