Sometimes we needn’t look further than our own history for some inspiration.
For nearly my entire life, I’ve found myself drawn towards media with a darker tone, though “dark” is an inadequate term for describing all of the varieties and technicalities of what I’m talking about. “Dark” can be the story of Coraline, where an unhappy young girl escapes into a world dominated by deception and a horrific creature donning the name “The Other Mother.” It may also be used to describe The Hunger Games, in which the will of a corrupt government is superimposed on the country, arbitrarily selecting youth to butcher each other in the name of their respective homelands. “Dark” is also The Last of Us, where a jaded father must resurrect his protective instincts in order to guide a girl with the infected cure through desolation and adversity as they travel cross-country. “Dark” is The Binding of Isaac where a religiously fanatic mother is directed by God to murder her son, forcing him to retreat to their hell-inspired basement. Let’s not forget all of the darkness in our own history and how that can be portrayed in media, such as in the movie Schindler’s List, where we see the systematic annihilation of Jews during the Holocaust.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m happy.”
I like dark media; I like media with a bleak (though, not hopeless) approach in narrative and artistic direction. My interest in such media can be reverse-engineered into a number of different appeals in which the subject matter provides. For starters, there’s a wealth of variety, as seen above. None of what I named are similar in their tones, themes, or execution. Each of them illustrate a different take on “dark,” yet few people would deny that word signifies them. You certainly would never mistake Resident Evil as a “joyful” video game, or Attack on Titan for being an anime that promotes smiles and laughter. Yet, in spite of this, they are both incredibly popular franchises. Why?
For the record, don’t just Google “Creepy Pictures.” This was easily the most tame thing that popped up.
First, dark media is engaging. Let’s take horror for instance. I’m not particularly inclined towards this caveat of “dark,” but I don’t have any real aversion to it, either. Horror gives me a certain sick thrill which no other genre can provide. The storytelling is proficient in pulling you from one event to the next, making a pyramid of anticipation and twisted imaginings to drive you into hysteria long after you have finished exposing yourself to the material. Horror makes your blood rush and your mind churn. It forces you to reconcile your imagination with reality, and properly distinguish the two when necessary.
But the rules of engagement extend beyond horror. Daredevil is considered a dark superhero within the Marvel universe, shouldering both a horrific origin story and brutal code of conduct in his crime-fighting capacity. But Daredevil does not represent a horror story, at least not as far as standard tropes and storytelling mechanics are concerned. Instead, it’s those very things—his crippling past and moral compromise in terms of justice— that make him so interesting. It’s the clash of his goodness versus his darkness that enraptures readers and viewers, and how he projects that conflict onto the outside world.
Second, dark media most intimately captures the battle of good versus evil. This is following in the coattails of my Daredevil explanation. Our world—the reality in which we reside—is rampant with both supreme goodness and staggering darkness, and the existence of each helps us to measure the other. The amount of goodness we see in dark media is limited only by the creators of that media, and what sort of tone they wish to set for their story. Consequently, the setting and conveyance of that darkness can evolve in different ways, depending on the human influence.
For example, Invader Zim is a weird sort of dark, which casts the world in a gross, stupefied state of intellectual decay. This is complimented by the artistic direction and ultimately gives very little sense of progression towards some form of moral advancement for any of the characters, at least with any permanence. In short, there isn’t any light in that series, outside of its hair-brained humor. Darkness is the predominant characteristic of Invader Zim, even if it’s not in any overtly violent or sinister way. Contrast this to Fullmetal Alchemist, which doesn’t try to shy away from feeding its audience an atmosphere of deceit, sorrow, corruption, and hatred. I mean, just the mention of the word “chimera” makes any fan of that series recoil in dread. Yet, despite its rampant despair and danger, Fullmetal Alchemist uses those attributes as a tool to emphasize moments of joy and overcoming. The good things that happen are made infinitely more fulfilling and meaningful, because the characters understand suffering and loss. They’ve witnessed the face of darkness and it helps them to better appreciate the light.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of context.
Third, dark media is easily relatable. Our world is residence to beauty and grace, but it is also saturated in a million different shades of misery to go along with it. That is the essence of a fallen world. We have experienced the dark nature of man and what it can create, though those experiences may differ in type and intensity from person to person. Dark media is more inclined to tackle deeper problems than the story where the only character conflict is that the high-schooler wants to fit in with the crowd or to win a basketball tournament. Not that those cannot be good stories—with the correct writer at the helm, near most any premise can work well,but they aren’t very powerful on general principle. Dark media changes or emphasizes the focus of the narrative. It’s a matter of presentation and who you want as your audience.
Let’s return to the high school dilemma above. There are a few different ways you could approach this scenario. The family-friendly way is for that character to exhibit social awkwardness and an inability to get a date, prompting friendly jabs from well-meaning peers who then take that kid to the bowling alley for a fun night to remedy their (lightly-delivered) adolescent sorrows. But to give it a more serious flavor, all you need to do is add a scene. After the fun and games, that teenager goes home, turns out the lights, and idly sits on their bed in absolute quiet. They sit there and slowly begin to rock back and forth, nighttime thoughts invading their mind. They sway, curl their fingers, examine their hands, cover their face, and eventually realize, despite their good night out with friends, that they are still very much alone. Not many teenagers have come to terms with the fact that it’s okay to be single, and even more of them are on the threshing floor of figuring out who they are and where they belong. If you’re a social wreck and constantly met with failure and an inability to connect with the people you long to know, it becomes easy to fall into destructive behaviors like pushing people away, growing emotionally calloused, or tapping into any number of things that come with suicidal ideation (if we’re going into the really treacherous territory). But even then, you don’t need to go that far. Everybody, to some degree, understands what it’s like to feel alone.
The main cast of Yu Yu Hakusho.
Fourth, dark media allows room for love to have meaningful victories. Does this always happen? No. From recent memory I draw on the movie Nightcrawler, where things do not pan out well for anybody involved. While I loved that movie for its creativity, vision, and willingness to approach uncomfortable psychological territory, not everything we consume is Nightcrawler. There’s a manga/anime called Yu Yu Hakusho, in which the protagonist dies and is reincarnated only under the condition that he hunts down demons. Many of these demons have disturbing appearances, motivations, and abilities, thus making them worthwhile and intimidating opponents. They are also immense obstacles for the protagonist and his merry party of warriors, creating a number of different conflicts. One of those conflicts is that, in order to kill demons, sometimes you must be a demon. Another conflict is finding a way to be paragons of hope and justice without sinking to the level of their enemies. This means not killing out of hatred, forgiving people who have done you wrong, and cherishing those you care about.
Yu Yu Hakusho isn’t even the best example of what I’m talking about; it’s just an easy one. There are so many dimensions and levels to storytelling and artistic direction that I could not possibly define them all. Unfortunately, I still feel my descriptions and points are inadequate in explaining the appeal of dark media, so let me boil it down to something more feasible.
I like dark media because I simply do. I like it because it’s weird, creative, intense, and awesome. Stigma usually plague media of this form and thus turn away many people, especially within Christian circles, where overt violence and sensitive material might be kept at arm’s length. To this I say, you are right. It would be unwise to watch, read, and play everything with questionable content simply because. You would be subjecting yourself to many spiritually unhealthy things if you had no precautions at all. At the same time, there is a reason we’ve been given the ability to discern what is worth consuming and what isn’t. Dark things, while dark, can also be great for learning more about the human condition and our world… \sometimes. You must practice and refine your intuition on these matters, so you don’t need to waste time justifying your decisions after the fact.
Dark media can be good, but approach it with wisdom. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go watch some dark anime, because
This series is amazing.
God bless, seek wisdom, and always remember to smile.
Cooper D Barham
Aspiring author, marriage and family therapist, and active behavioral health technician, Cooper fills his world with God, music, videogames, anime/manga, drawing, reading, writing, and some physical stuff in between. If you ever want to talk about the big or little things of life, fire him a message. Helping others through tough times is both his passion and way of living. 'Got it memorized?'
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