• Editorial: What Makes A Story Dark?


    Last week featured the release of Nightmare Knights, a series that has some much more mature ideas. At the same time, I experienced a convergence of controversy and entertainment all revolving around "dark" themes.

    But what does it mean for a story to be dark? Is it a quota of violence or a sense of depression?

    Check out the full editorial after the break!

    Though timely, this is not in honor of Halloween. Rather, a strange convergence of events made me ask this question. The first was the aforementioned Nightmare Knights, which implies that the Pony of Shadows from another dimension succeeded in capturing and breaking Celestia while murdering Luna. Pretty heavy stuff for a "kids comic".

    It's comically over-sized, but that's still
    a means of stripping Celestia of free will.

    The next event was online posts about a new manga called Goblin Slayer. Its anime adaptation had recently debuted and caused a stir due to very graphic violence, especially against women. Anime fans have both condemned and defended the work.

    No one in this series has a name.
    Only job titles.

    Last but not least is seeing Bad Times at the El Royale. At first it seems like a comedy or a least very absurdist. Yet as the story deepens a more tragic set of stories takes shape. It was a movie much in the spirit of The Hateful Eight and I left the theater feeling a bit down. All this taken together made me wonder about the idea of a dark story. Starting with identifying what is not really "dark".

    Violence vs Darkness
    One of the main ideas we often mix up is that a violent movie is the same as a dark movie. This is especially true in the Halloween season when slasher and horror films are at their peak. However, how long did the violence stay with you? Though frightening in the moment I imagine most people can laugh it off and enjoy the rest of their day without much reflection. This is because a vast majority are able to tell the difference between fiction and reality. No matter how graphic, a part of us knows that this is false.

    Imagination is often the greatest tool for fear.

    I do remember one movie that blurred that line. Saving Private Ryan was so graphic that both my father and I had trouble sleeping after viewing it. Yes, that rational part of me still acknowledged that all the deaths on the screen were faked, but they reflected a real-life event. The historical connection transformed the interpretation. Yet I would not call Saving Private Ryan a dark movie. Tragic. Shocking. Yet not dark. Not like Bad Times at the El Royale, in which I knew the violence was false and the tragedy fictional.

    Chris Hemsworth's character steals the show.
    But I think many will miss this whilst staring at his pecks.

    Goblin Slayer features very graphic violence both with the goblin's violating women and the titular hero dispatching the creatures. While the violence is stark and has earned the title free publicity, I don't view it as dark. This is because much of the violence is committed by a species designed to be hated. There are no redeeming features to the goblin race. Their slayer even says the only good goblin would be one who remains hidden.

    Our... hero?

    There's a disassociation when the antagonist is something other than human. I don't just mean physically. We Bronies do identify with these pony characters because their personalities are crafted to be very human. The goblins are not. They are a vague, evil force that must be slain by humans and their allies. Thus while the actions they commit are grotesque, and their ends deserved, there's not a sense that these creatures mean anything more than a manufactured menace.

    Can Dungeons and Dragons sue for using a Beholder?

    Even the implied wrongs by the Pony of Shadows feel strangely distant. When named after the shadows, it implies that this is no longer a mortal individual. Even when we learned about Stygian's history, he mentioned that the darkness–a similar undefined force–tempted him and took control. Though Stygian's fall might strike a chord, his actions afterwards become the domain of something outside the relatable realm.

    Fear vs Darkness
    This is also the season for a good scare. Yet as Pinkie Pie pointed out, sometimes we enjoy fear. A movie or haunted house might supply some startles and jumps, but again I ask how long that fear stayed. Perhaps for one night you watched the shadows more closely, but I don't think anything held true staying power.

    I think Mage Meadowbrook needed some counseling
    after seeing this sight.

    Much like the fictional violence that might entertain, fear is meant to take place in a controlled environment. We can be startled and panicked in an instant, but laugh it off later when we realize we were in no real danger. In fact, if a roller coaster or haunted house genuinely did put you in danger, it would face closure.

    Next class: Lawsuits 101!

    Queen Chrysalis won over the fandom in a single episode, becoming the stand-out character of the season 2 finale. Much of that had to do with the fact that her design and entrance were pretty scary. There's something about a eyes in a dark shape, devoid of features, that demands a response. We know what we see is alive because of the eyes, but the lack of features is wholly unnatural. Yet for all that, she is not a character with which we empathize. Even the staff have said Chrysalis is not a character. She's a monster.

    Eyes and teeth. Images that trigger a very primal response.

    Yet there are characters who scare us, even when we know they don't exist outside the story. Characters who have become iconic within culture, and their acts are infamous. This hints at the real factor for a dark story.

    The Dark Mirror
    All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. 
    That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.
    - The Joker (Batman: The Killing Joke)

    Exploring the difference between violence and darkness led me to think on some of the stories I would consider truly dark, including the quoted Batman story and others. I thought about why the Goblin's violence could disgust me without leaving a lasting impact. It made me wonder why the wrongs done against a protagonist in El Royale made me more uncomfortable. I wondered why I knew that the Daybreaker in Nightmare Knights was the result of torture and loss, but I didn't feel as great an impact as the story's characters.
    Daybreaker. Master of dramatic flourish!

    Violence and fear often accompany a dark story, but they are not its core. They are tools of something that strikes at our sense of self. I think the real mark of a dark story is that you look at the source of this misfortune and think, "Yeah, that could be me."
    Shadow Lock feared he'd become like the Pony of Shadows.
    Not because of personality, but genetics. Bit of a flawed philosophy.

    Maybe we do see a bit of ourselves in the serial killer, or the cult leader, or the manipulator. Perhaps this depiction strikes just close enough to force us to admit our own shadow side. Or perhaps it calls us to attention of our own deficiencies.

    Rainbow's deficiency: knowing prank limits!

    Goblin Slayer does feature a dark idea, though it's unassuming. It takes the classic "Adventure Job Board" idea and shows everyone the implications. While adventurers line up to claim quests and slay dragons or ghouls and claim great rewards, they have no motive or interest in "lesser" quests like goblin hunting. They suffer no consequence but the people who fall victim–both villagers and inexperienced adventurers–are sacrificed to this system. While this might be fantasy, I look at this situation and realize that real-life reward systems do feature a heavy cost and it is all too easy to dismiss tragedy when it doesn't impact us directly.
    Feel like the job board guild owes the dragons life insurance.

    We may also identify with a hopeless message. Once again looking to the Goblin Slayer job board, it may speak to the fear that we don't matter. That the larger world cares nothing for our misfortune. A dark story can make you feel small and isolated. However, Goblin Slayer does not pursue this idea far. It is a concept, but by its very nature the lead character counteracts this idea. There are other stories that emphasize our irrelevance in the cosmic scale, though I wouldn't read them for "fun".
    You never feel so vulnerable as when facing the unknown.

    A really good, "dark" story doesn't instill a sense of darkness within us. It's already there. The story, through a balance of action, characterization, and consequence forces us to acknowledge our own faults. For a moment, it might ask that we assume that our own condition is irredeemable. We might not feel entertained, but we are changed. That's what art does. 

    Entertainment from Darkness
    Despite the fact I've tried to separate violence and fear from the idea of a "dark" story, it does beg a question. Isn't the audience's enjoyment of such things dark in and of itself?

    I wonder if anyone didn't enjoy Chrysalis' reveal?

    We are entertained by concepts that should be appalling. And yet we'll watch a killer stalk his victims and end their lives. We'll laugh at bloody and violent scenes, giddy at the fate befalling characters. These stories might not be dark in and of themselves, but our reactions can speak to an inner darkness. After all, someone thought it would be fun or at least interesting to create such stories.
    Someone wanted to create this scenario.
    Have fun trying to sleep, kids!

    But these are my thoughts and your experiences may differ. What, to you, creates a "dark" story? What were some of the most stand out characters of such tales? Let us know in the comments!

    I'm Silver Quill. Thanks for reading!

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