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. Continue reading “Revisiting Nightmares: Fantasy/Horror Crossovers and Trauma Recovery”…