An Australian author living in Norway

Darkness versus horror

Dark fiction is gaining momentum as a genre in its own right, but is often mistaken for, and confused with, horror. I, like an increasing number of readers and writers, am fascinated by dark fiction, whereas I almost never read horror or watch horror movies – but what is the difference, really?

The answer is as subjective as any attempt to define a literary genre, but I can at least explain where my personal line is drawn. To me, horror is more graphic, more about describing horrific scenes in great detail so the reader can smell the blood, hear the sound of a knife sliding into flesh, and feel the thrill of revulsion. I have a lot of trouble reading books with scenes such as these, and they cause me terrible nightmares – I don’t personally understand the appeal, if I’m honest. Dark fiction, however, looks more into the minds and intentions of its characters, and in this way can be more disturbing without necessarily being gory at all. It is more subtle, where the threat of what a character is, or might be, capable of is actually more frightening than the deeds themselves. This is often demonstrated by the mere suggestion, or even anticipation, of horrific acts, but it leaves far more to the imagination of the reader.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there is a growing fascination with dark fairy tales, which leads us right back to the works of the Grimms, Perrault and other classic collections. This darkness in fairy tales relates to my description of dark fiction in that these traditional tales there rarely offer any detailed description of horrific acts; in fact they are often dealt with in a singularly matter-of-fact way. Terrible, gruesome things happen in traditional fairy tales, and it is, in part, this element that has always fascinated me. Here are some examples:

  • In early versions of Cinderella (or Ashenputel), the ugly step-sisters were convinced by their mother to cut off parts of their feet to fit into the lost shoe, in order to marry the prince.
  • The queen in Snow White was punished by being forced to dance in hot iron shoes until she fell down and died.
  • Bluebeard is a serial killer who murders his wives and hangs their bodies in a secret room in his chateau.
  • The Big Bad Wolf has his stomach cut open and its contents replaced with heavy stones, which cause him to fall into a well and drown.
  • Rapunzel’s prince falls from her tower and is blinded by the thorns on which he lands.
  • In the Norse Askeladden story of his eating contest with a troll, Askeladden convinces the troll to slit his own belly open, which he does (and dies, of course).

These are just a small sample of the many horrific things that occur in traditional fairy tales, and yet they are not told in a particularly gruesome way, which in my mind has always made them all the more disturbing. Let’s face it, half of this stuff is carried out by the heroes and heroines to punish the wicked, so we are left feeling like these atrocities are just desserts. That’s pretty messed up, when you think about it.


  1. Vanessa McCloud

    i tend to agree Zoe as I feel that some books i have read are more scary by the intent to inflict some kind of eerie feeling on you than describing an act that shows viciousness and blood .
    You would know also that Shakespeare would not have actors perform fights scenes on the stage, rather they would be off stage making the audience use their imagination which intensified the play, not saying that they were dark scenes .

    • Zoë

      Good example, Vanessa. This is also the case in The House of Bernada Alba where one of the most horrific moments (a woman being killed for having a baby out of wedlock) is never shown on-stage, but is all the more disturbing for hearing her anguished screams off-stage.

  2. Julie Sondra Decker

    Interesting thoughts, and I agree. I like disturbing stuff, to some degree, but I am a much bigger fan of moral dilemmas and psychological frustration than I am of blood and gore. I really don’t read horror, but I like some dark fiction, and I like characters who are interesting enough to do things they might not be proud of. And YES, you’re very right that fairy tales are full of Disturbing with a capital D. Some of the stuff that happened to Sleeping Beauty in the oldest versions is horrifying, since it includes rape, murder, and cannibalism all in the same story. Maybe that’s part of why I like fairy tale retellings. We can resurrect those creepy roots and show the underside of happily ever after.

    • Zoë

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Julie. I’m all about the creepy roots. (For any Australians reading this comment, I know you’re giggling. Stop it.)

  3. Annie Neugebauer

    I agree with you that the implication of horror is often scarier than the actual horror itself, and that gore is often misused, but I have to disagree about the classification of it. I think everything you’re describing here *is* horror – just different types of it. The problem with taking the disturbing, complex, and psychological “dark tales” out of the genre of “horror” is that it detracts from the power of the genre as a whole. One of horror’s strengths is in its diversity, and like so many genres, it has a history of being discriminated against. Horror isn’t defined by its gore; that’s just one subgenre that scares off many readers (no pun intended 😉 ). Horror is defined by fear. If it’s scary, disturbing, or unsettling as the root driving emotion of the story, that’s horror! So much of today’s “dark fiction” actually is horror masquerading as something else – perhaps because many readers are uncomfortable with the label. There’s nothing wrong with liking some types of horror and not others, but I think it’s a disservice to the genre to take some types of horror out of the label just because people are uncomfortable with the label itself. Sorry if that sounded ranty! Obviously, this is something I’m very passionate about. 🙂

    • Zoë

      Thanks for your comments, Annie. The problem I have with classifying psychologically disturbing literature alongside graphic gore is that either type may then be passed over by readers who may enjoy the stories of one and not the other. I, personally, cannot stomach gore and avoid getting myself interested in books (or movies, or TV series, for that matter) so that I don’t become compelled to expose myself to images that will give me nightmares when or if I can’t extricate myself from a great plot. If books were only classified as horror, I might miss out on many books that leave more to the imagination because .

      Classification of books into genres is to make reading selection easy for the readers/buyers; surely drilling down can’t be a bad thing?

      However, perhaps you are right that these two types belong under a common “super-genre”, and you are most likely right in calling this super-genre “horror”. Now, how do we go about changing the perception…? 😉

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