Fantasy and horror are genres sometimes considered to reside in completely different realms even though they’re both speculative fiction. C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe can hardly be considered even remotely on the same spectrum as say, Stephen King’s The Shining. However, it would be more accurate to view fantasy and horror as branches of the same tree. The quintessential battle between good and evil is a battle fought by both horror and fantasy genres. As writers of every genre know, conflict is at the heart of what drives a story forward and fantasy writers have learned, and will continue to learn, from certain elements of horror.
Here are the three elements of horror that fantasy needs.
A Twist on the Familiar
What makes psychopaths so scary? For one, they don’t stand out. They don’t look any different from you or me. They don’t match the mold of a stereotypical “bad guy.” When a story gives us a deformed character clad in black with a twisted smile and a one-eyed raven for a pet, it is easy for the reader to determine that such a character must be evil and with that realization comes with a host of expectations for how this villain will act. However, when someone or something fits our perspective of what society defines as normal and then acts in direct contrast to it, the results are jarring because such an individual is, in some ways, relatable. Take Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s horror novel, Misery. Seemingly just an average, if a bit eccentric, middle-aged woman with a passion for her favorite books, Annie is, from all appearances, normal. However, her outward facade is chipped away as it becomes apparent that she is all too capable of committing deranged acts of violence.
Fantasy stories, like Annie, often contain elements that appear relatable to the reader. However, because they are obviously supernatural and fantastical in nature, fantasy stories such as can be unpredictable and flip on the reader at any time by defying the rules of its world or ours.
There’s a reason why the intro “It was a dark and stormy night…” has become forever linked to the classic horror story or why Count Dracula must avoid the sunlight. Atmosphere is a key element in not only creating mood, but also in revealing the nature of a story. Horror is especially good at this whether through the use of lighting, music, or detailed descriptions in order to make their audience feel a certain way. In fact, much of what makes horror movies scary isn’t a terrifying villain or even scary jumps; instead, it is the dread and anticipation the viewer feels because of the atmosphere.
When walking home alone in the dark, even the smallest sound ignites a sudden reaction of adrenaline because we are programmed to assume danger in ambiguous situations. The mundane act of walking home is not in itself a scary act; however, the threat of potential danger is what changes the atmosphere. Fantasy novels do not need to be dark and creepy in order to establish a scary mood. Rather, through both vivid descriptions and ambiguity, one can manipulate the emotions of the reader in virtually any scene.
Connection to Reality
Although the primary motivation behind a fantasy novel isn’t to scare its readers, the stakes for both the characters and the readers must be high enough to keep them personally invested in the events of the novel. Horror novels are masterful at connecting with the reader because they not only include scary elements to make the reader afraid, but they also go further to prey on and exploit a reader’s own personal fears and morals. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein demonstrates this well by forcing the reader consider the act of artificially creating life and what the impact of such an act could potentially be. Such a connection may be challenging to make in a fantasy story set in a fictional world vastly different from our own, but when the author can find and establish connections between the worlds, the reader will become personally invested in the story. That is how a high fantasy novel such as The Lord of the Rings can assert its status as one of the best fantasy novels of all time—J.R.R. Tolkien uses fantasy as a platform to make readers question morality and the consequences of choosing good over evil. Thus, by not only increasing the conflict of the novel, but by establishing a connection to the reader’s actual world, an author can raise the stakes and raise the tension.