What makes fiction ‘dark’? Shallows and complexity

A tonal gradient of fictional negativity

‘Darkness’ comprises a thematic tonal panoramic gradient characterised by a preoccupation with negative-impact events and emotion. Along an unfair spectrum of your teacher bitch slapping you for failing mathematics, against Unit-731 – and thus we weigh damage. As an illustration, negativity, itself an abstraction, given the breadth of experience and complexity within the space that darkness—negativity occupies. In the interest of avoiding Socratic granularity of specification, I’ll divide ‘darkness’ as a tone in the context of fiction, into dual pragmatic simplifications: shallow darkness and complex darkness. Discard all further subcategories and nuance.

Shallow darkness is a blood bank turned upside down. Exemplified in demonstrations preoccupied with the visceral immediate-impact response. Archetypal slasher films typify, focused on hyperviolence, gore, titillation, and shock. Shallow darkness has greater impacts in visual and interactive media than in print, where it can maximise its return on investment by trading on high-impact short-term stimuli, emphasising repulsion and the fight or flight response, utilising blood and viscera-fuelled jump scares. Nurses that draw and bag coagulating blood, draw rust-flecked knives across scrotal junctions even as they mechanically fuck patient-prisoners. Violence escorted by titillating elements – nudity, intoxication, semen, and symbols of positive loss of inhibition – provide contrasting mirrors by which to distend an audience between polarised blunt extremes of stimulation and disgust.

Complex darkness sniffs your neck and squats in your kitchen, leveraging the associations, context, and implications of elements like blood and semen, over a reliance on the up-front shock value. Blood’s primary association with death and pain creates reflexive withdrawal via a fear association. While disgust-oriented shallow darkness evokes short-term fear of pain and death, given that these fears encompass the breadth of experience and psychologies, blood can symbolise, and draw links between, more specific and nuanced experiences beyond the fight-or-flight response. 

Psychological positives, like the erotic, create the most fertile ground for darkness. More aware of the negative space surrounding death-adjacent themes, we are preconditioned to brace for impact at the relevant cues but less aware of those around themes with positive cultural associations. Especially true in those places that contain commonly repressed or suppressed experience or response, we find the greatest potential where the most bodies are buried; and as we know, anything repressed or supressed is rife for all manner of projection, insecurity, distortion, and negativity. Consider that you are likely to become uncomfortable if I ask you to tell me about your last orgasm. Objectively a straightforward question with a straightforward answer, a statement of one or more short blunt facts, the personal nature of it creates discomfort if the person or context is dissociated from that which would facilitate the comfortable provision of that answer. The act of leveraging those less immediate, but personal and deeper-seated discomforts is the territory of complex darkness.

Utilising conceptual antitheses, recontextualisation and contrast become effective tools in evoking discomfort. The same screws turn on the concepts of care, parenthood, attachment, etc. Finding the uncomfortable space where an ideal exists as simultaneously recognisable and horrifying. Contrast and flinch: The same dynamic used with ham-fisted juvenility by the inattentive creator – consider the unfortunate implications posed by the ‘rape-as-drama’ trope.

The horror genre is exclusively a circus of the macabre, but the flashbacks and recurring nightmares exist at the bottom of the psychic trench, and those are more often dredged up by people with little interest in carnivals of the obscene and who don’t dive for hagfish or goblin sharks. Nonetheless, those who search in lost spaces find dark things. Does this imply that anything in the tent is primarily shallow? Not necessarily. Collating complexity usually necessitates and excessive investment of all resources: labour, time, and money. Deep-diving negative human experience begins as a nonprofit venture. By contrast, paint-by-numbers zombies and vampires, checklisting blood, semen, adrenaline, and good nights, provides easy-digest mass consumption media and achieving a respectable goal by reasonable means. Horror consumers in post-9-5 mode are appreciably unconcerned with subtext and symbolism. As a genre, horror may not immediately call to mind profound art due to the utility of production, but that doesn’t exclude it from producing complex horror – it has and does – merely follows the obvious weight-distribution to more disposable products.

Darkness as a tonal implication transcends genre. Though horror serves as an effective vector of representation, the totality of human darkness is not confined to the aesthetics of one particular genre. Experiences and objects home their own darkness, which can be noncontingent on self-embodied horror, but the stitching of collective processable elements compounding into a greater horror. These horrors are not genre-defined, but dynamic. The Black Death, The First World War, Virginia Tech, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Unit-731, The Inquisition, Targoviste, The Eastern Front, Syria and on and on and on and on and on. 

Conversely, horror narrative interpretation marks a titanic gateway to representations of socio-political fears. Thus the zombie as mindless mass consumer culture, Crossed an unfettered Freudian id, The Blob analogous to US ideological fears of Communism, conflicts with Russia and South America, and so on. Complexity is not born of itself, but a metastasising assemblage of fractal complication: Simplicity evolved into recursive entropy.

Successful complex horror is a distracting splinter, lodged and rolling in meat.

Frankenstein juxtaposes creator and created in their respective humanity. Shelley installs a standard mirror in the tent for the benefit of each gibbering ghoul. Apples are still bad, when scrapheap-challenging life double check the eyes, hypocrisy abounds, God’s a neglectful parent, and tits solve problems.   

James Sunderland is subjected to neurotic analysis and intricate reframing through all manner of lenses, two decades later, rewarding the repurposing of every facet of the standardised hero’s journey as damaged-psyche house of mirrors. Moreover, in understanding the value of restraint, resisting exposition, accepting that for many the narrative would exist as the tale of one man fleeing another man with a polygon for a face, and little more.

Cosmic horror spread its roots in pulp magazines, but on the back of growing species existential anxiety, is more frequently associated with philosophy-oriented catharsis. Lovecraft wrestled with his old-school New England heritage-based prejudices, pervasive alienation, and broader shifting discomfort with mankind’s insignificance revealed, and textually mirrored, by the lens of inexorably advancing knowledge and change. Amateur horror-philosophy is an author nailing Being and Nothingness to a squid, haunting philosophical horror is Sol against UY Scuti against black holes.

Do we conclude that darkness exists on a ladder? No. It exists on a gradient to employ in the utility of impression. Most essential is knowing what you are creating and to employ the appropriate tools. An assistant clutching a clipboard contributes nothing constructive. Consider that you do not turn up at a Halloween party with the intent of forcing everyone in attendance to relive their personal traumas or descend into chains of existential crises.


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