Dark fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literary, artistic, and cinematic works that incorporate disturbing and frightening themes. It often combines fantasy with elements of horror, possessing a dark and gloomy tone or a gothic atmosphere of dread.[1]


A strict definition for dark fantasy is difficult to pin down. Gertrude Barrows Bennett has been called "the woman who invented dark fantasy".[2] Both Charles L. Grant[3] and Karl Edward Wagner[4] are credited with having coined the term "dark fantasy"—although both authors were describing different styles of fiction. Brian Stableford argues "dark fantasy" can be usefully defined as subgenre of stories that attempt to "incorporate elements of horror fiction" into the standard formulae of fantasy stories.[1] Stableford also suggests that supernatural horror set primarily in the real world is a form of "contemporary fantasy", whereas supernatural horror set partly or wholly in "secondary worlds" should be described as "dark fantasy".[1]

Additionally, other authors, critics, and publishers have adopted dark fantasy to describe various other works. However, these stories rarely share universal similarities beyond supernatural occurrences and a dark, often brooding, tone. As a result, dark fantasy cannot be solidly connected to a defining set of tropes. The term itself may refer collectively to tales that are either horror-based or fantasy-based.

Some writers also use "dark fantasy" (or "Gothic fantasy") as an alternative description to "horror", because they feel the latter term is too lurid or vivid.[5]

Concept and history

Charles L. Grant is often cited as having coined the term "dark fantasy". Grant defined his brand of dark fantasy as "a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding".[3] He often used dark fantasy as an alternative to horror, as horror was increasingly associated with more visceral works.

Dark fantasy is sometimes also used to describe stories told from a monster's point of view, or that present a more sympathetic view of supernatural beings usually associated with horror. Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint-Germain,[6] and Neil Gaiman's The Sandman are early examples of this style of dark fantasy. This is in contrast to the traditional horror model, which focuses more on the victims and survivors.

In a more general sense, dark fantasy is occasionally used as a synonym for supernatural horror, to distinguish horror stories that contain elements of the supernatural from those that do not. For example, a story about a werewolf or vampire could be described as dark fantasy, while a story about a serial killer would simply be horror.[7]

Stableford suggests that the type of horror conveyed by fantasy stories such as William Beckford's Vathek and Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death "is more aesthetic than visceral or existential", and that such stories should be considered "dark fantasies" rather than the "supernaturalized thrillers" of conventional horror fiction.[5]

Karl Edward Wagner is often credited for creating the term "dark fantasy" when used in a more fantasy-based context.[4] Wagner used it to describe his fiction about the Gothic warrior Kane. Since then, "dark fantasy" has sometimes been applied to sword and sorcery and high fantasy fiction that features anti-heroic or morally ambiguous protagonists.[1] Another good example under this definition of dark fantasy is Michael Moorcock's saga of the albino swordsman Elric.[6]

The fantasy work of H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and their emulators have been specified as "dark fantasy", since the imaginary worlds they depicted contain many horror elements.[1]

Dark fantasy is occasionally used to describe fantasy works by authors whom the public primarily associates with the horror genre. Examples of these are Stephen King's The Dark Tower series,[6] Peter Straub's Shadowland[8] and Clive Barker's Weaveworld.[6] Alternatively, dark fantasy is sometimes used for "darker" fiction written by authors best known for other styles of fantasy; Raymond Feist's Faerie Tale[8] and Charles de Lint's novels written as Samuel M. Key[9] would fit here.

Roald Dahl's novel The Witches (and its film adaptations) is described as dark fantasy.[10] Dahl's poetic reworking of "Cinderella" (which features in his poetry collection Revolting Rhymes) sees him upend the happy tale.

Other media

Anime and manga

Berserk, a manga and anime franchise by Kentaro Miura that debuted in 1989, is frequently noted as an example of the genre due to its depictions of extreme violence, moral ambiguity, apocalyptic storylines and anti-hero protagonists.[11][12]

Attack on Titan is a dark fantasy for its intense violence and the dystopian world it takes place in.[13]


Ridley Scott's film Legend (1985) has been described as a "dark fairy tale" fantasy film.[14] Guillermo del Toro's fantasy film Pan's Labyrinth (2006) has been described as a "sort of a dark spin on Alice in Wonderland".[15]

Video games

The 2013 fantasy action role-playing game Dragon's Crown contains many elements of dark fantasy, such as werewolves, vampires, zombies, homonculi, and human-monster hybrids.

Modern games from Japanese game development and publishing company FromSoftware are lauded as exceptional representations of the dark fantasy genre, notably the Dark Souls series along with Bloodborne and later Elden Ring.[16]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Stableford, Brian (2005). "Dark Fantasy". The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Plymouth: Scarecrow Press. p. 97. ISBN 0-8108-6829-6.
  2. ^ "The Woman Who Invented Dark Fantasy" by Gary C. Hoppenstand from Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens, University of Nebraska Press, 2004, page x. ISBN 0-8032-9298-8.
  3. ^ a b The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders, Volume 1, edited by Gary Westfahl, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.
  4. ^ a b "Karl Edward Wagner". Darkecho.com. Archived from the original on 2012-04-25. Retrieved 2014-03-21.
  5. ^ a b Stableford, Brian, "Horror", in The A to Z of Fantasy Literature,(p. 204), Scarecrow Press, Plymouth. 2005. ISBN 0-8108-6829-6
  6. ^ a b c d "Dark Fantasy | Williamsburg Regional Library". Wrl.org. Archived from the original on 2017-03-03. Retrieved 2014-03-21.
  7. ^ "Fantasy Subgenres: Dark Fantasy". Nvcc.edu. 2007-06-20. Archived from the original on 2011-11-10. Retrieved 2014-03-21.
  8. ^ a b Clute, John and Grant, John. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (2nd US edition). New York: St Martin's Griffin, 1999.
  9. ^ Craig Clarke. "Charles de Lint (writing as Samuel M. Key), Angel of Darkness". The Green Man Review. Archived from the original on 2012-05-29. Retrieved 2014-03-21.
  10. ^ West, Thomas. "25 best dark fantasy movies and TV series". Yardbarker. Archived from the original on Oct 26, 2023. Retrieved October 25, 2023.
  11. ^ "Over 1.2 Million Copies of Berserk Manga Sold!". Dark Horse Comics. April 10, 2017. Archived from the original on June 25, 2020. Retrieved June 25, 2020.
  12. ^ Vincent, Brittany (June 28, 2016). "Berserk: Past, Present, and Future". Anime News Network. Archived from the original on June 29, 2020. Retrieved June 25, 2020.
  13. ^ Ohara, Atsuhi; Yamane, Yukiko (August 17, 2013). "Boosted by anime version, 'Attack on Titan' manga sales top 22 million". Asahi Shimbun. Archived from the original on August 22, 2013. Retrieved November 1, 2013.
  14. ^ Draven, Derek (1 February 2020). "10 Reasons Why Legend Was So Incredibly Dark". Screen Rant. Archived from the original on 5 June 2022. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  15. ^ Spelling, Ian (25 December 2006). "Guillermo del Toro and Ivana Baquero escape from a civil war into the fairytale land of Pan's Labyrinth". Science Fiction Weekly. Archived from the original on 9 June 2008. Retrieved 27 January 2007.
  16. ^ "How Elden Ring Embraces the Dark Fantasy Genre". Game Rant. 2022-07-15. Archived from the original on 2023-06-05. Retrieved 2023-06-05.