When last we met, we walked into Mordor, because, well, finding a fantasyscape that I can talk about, not mention Professor Tolkien and also not be remiss isn’t something I’ve managed, yet (it’s not happening this time, either). This month, Mordor’s following us home.
After last time’s trip to the wasteland, there was a lot of stuff left on the old conceptual cutting room floor, stuff that looked and felt similar, but walked and crept and stalked, and most important, meant differently. It followed us, hunted us down, and now we are off the path, in a strange place, miles from home. But then, that’s what these excursions are all about. This time we’re going to the Dark World, or, more accurately, it’s coming to us.
The dark world is a reflection of what is; a shadow. It’s often a forbidding and dangerous place, like the wasteland; no one wants to live there, like the wasteland; and what it is probably rates less important than what it means, like the wasteland. The difference is what it means; to oversimplify Jung for a moment, the wasteland is other. It is elsewhere, different, a blasted land and a dark lord on a dark throne.
One doesn’t simply walk into it, but one does walk into it, very deliberately and for a purpose. The dark world is uncanny. It is what you know, after shadowy spirits got into the place while you were away, had a weekend–long shadow party and left the place wrecked. And you do simply walk into it. And almost no one comes here, except by accident.
The dark world spends a lot of its time on the horror shelves, in the black walled inner spaces House of Leaves, or in the apparently abandoned Bangor Airport of a minute behind the timeline, where the langoliers prepare to chow down. The dark world is the shadowy abandoned that leaves you alone and vulnerable. It’s the space between walls where lightless halls house something that you can almost hear growl. It is the other side of the looking-glass, where concepts that are safe enough while contained in your head can become Jabberwocks in a Tulgey Wood. It is the other side of Mirrormask’s paper full of drawings, where a dark queen wears your mother’s face and a dark you tries to steal the life you abandoned out of guilt. It’s also where Spock has a sweet beard.
The dark world is not an accident, but it comes into the lives of those it claims by accident. Like Alice, Coraline or James Sunderland, you’re usually going to find the other side of the looking glass, the world of the button-eyed Other Mother, or Pyramid Head’s neighborhood in Silent Hill by accident. For Alice and Coraline, part of the challenge and danger of the dark world is being stuck there (more challenge for Alice and more danger for Coraline). In these cases, you don’t come to defeat evil or get to be a queen; you have to do those things, once you’re there, just to get out.
Sometimes, though, the world flips on you, as it does for visitors to Silent Hill, where one moment it’s just a foggy abandoned town and the next, it’s a smoky, alarmingly less-abandoned town, trying to kill you like whoa. Sometimes you’re going to know where the entrance is, and sometimes it’s just going to sneak up on you.
That’s the point. If you knew where the Dark World was, why it was there, and what you needed to do about it, it’s more likely to end up being a wasteland, a place of trials. Visitors to the dark world don’t usually know why they are being tried or what for.
The dark world can be a spirit world, like where Carol-Ann ended up in Poltergeist or first-level Twilight in Sergei Lukyanenko’s Watch series.
In the film adaptations, first and second level Twilight are depicted, respectively, a classic abandoned, shadowy Moscow, and a trash-strewn maelstrom filled with killer mosquitoes.
In 90’s tabletop role playing game Wraith: The Oblivion, most of the afterlife is a dark world, full of the structures and detritus of the living. Similar is the afterlife of The Corpse Bride, a funerary sort of place where the dead seem to mostly just hang out while their issues work themselves out and let them pass on. This is a good place to mention the world the ring wraiths inhabit, to which Frodo exposes himself through his disastrous choice in accessories.
The dark world can be your world, only dystopian, like the Terran Empire in mirror universe of Star Trek or the alternate world ruled by Cobra in the 1980’s G.I. Joe 2-part episode “Worlds Without End” (my first two exposures to the concept). You can even argue that the world without George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life counts as a dark world. DC Comics’ Earth 3 and its Crime Society (or the unnamed parallel universe of the Justice Lords), fits this one as well. As a fantasy imperialist, I’m willing to take them all.
The dark world is a concept that gets most of its modern, high-profile play in video games. Two Legend of Zelda Titles, A Link to the Past and Twilight Princess, force you to adventure in a dystopian abandoned dark world and a shadow double dark world, respectively.
Silent Hill’s signature shift from scary foggy to scary ZOMG-skinless-zombie-dogs-and-fire, I’ve already mentioned. There’s also the Castle Dracula’s occasional mirror image shenanigans in the Castlevania series, Dark Aether in Metroid Prime, and a dark world as spirit world in the Dragon Age series. While you can argue that the whole point of dark worlds in video games is often to give designers two levels for every one and a palate-swap, the outcome often transcends the expediency, and, I think, adds something to the storytelling.
Okay, maybe not reverse castle in Symphony of the Night, all that added was a bunch of terrifying boss battles (Beelzebub, I am looking at you. On an empty stomach). That’s not the point, the point is that this fantasyscape is getting a lot of exposure in other story media, and I like it, and like roads-as-location, I want to see it explored more often in our medium.
There is a lot back there, down there, over there, always closer than we think, and not knowing what it is compels me, and I hope you’ll come back again to join me on our next outing.