I am going to be frank. I really wanted to write about The Neverending Story (1984). Even though it is a fantasy film, I believe it uniquely contains adult themes of horror which culminate in one of the most horrific monsters of all time…The Nothing. The next few paragraphs are a brief justification of why I feel that some fantasy overlaps with horror, followed by my take on The Neverending Story. To get straight to the point, I firmly believe that many fantasy films include an abject terror shared with the horror genre. The difference between horror and fantasy lies in the setting for these abject horrors. Furthermore, The Nothing overlaps with the formless horror seen in much of natural horror, yet it looms over the real and imagined worlds and stands for something so much more terrifying and powerful than anything in horror film.
Not everyone will agree with me, but I believe that fantasy and horror go hand in glove. I especially believe this when it comes to children’s fantasy. I have stated in previous posts that the fantasy films from my childhood in the 1980s were my gateway to horror. From Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Watership Down, fantasy has used many elements that persist in today’s gothic and horror narratives. In some circles, the term “dark fantasy” has been used interchangeably with gothic fantasy as well as supernatural horror. Many works of notable horror authors like Stephen King and Clive Barker have been categorized as dark fantasy. So closely related are the two that noted horror scholar Noel Carroll felt the need to distinguish his definition of art horror from fantasy.[i]
It is my belief that Carroll splits hairs between horror and fantasy that, as time passes, seem braided rather than separate. Other than Carroll’s claims about the characters’ reception of the monster, another difference he asserts between dark fantasy and horror is that horror primarily focuses on victims and survivors rather than the plight of the monster. Again, I beg to differ, as I think history has given us many horror films and novels with a sympathetic monster. Much closer to an integrative definition, Charles L. Grant is among those credited with coining the term dark fantasy (or quiet horror)—a narrative which focuses on some horrific themes where humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding.[ii] This definition does not actually differ much from how scholars Barbara Creed, Isabel Christina Pinedo, and Robin Wood define horror.
All that being said, one of my larger goals is to justify fantasy’s place on a continuum with horror. It is not horror, yet it includes many of the same tropes, themes, and characteristics. For example, in The Neverending Story we see jump scares, doppelgangers, as well as images of the abject. Where fantasy most clearly differs from horror is in the pacing, evocation of extreme emotion, and dialoguing with other films within the genre (one characteristic that I find quite unique to horror).
Now that all the scholarly distinctions are on the table, it is time to talk specifically about Neverending Story (I hope you are all still with me). Clearly a dark fantasy, this film has themes of suffering, darkness, grief, and loss.[iii] The Nothing is the “monster” of The Neverending Story and is best characterized by Gmork (one of its servants) who explains that while Fantasia represents humanity’s imagination, The Nothing represents adult apathy and cynicism. Gmork goes on to say that The Nothing is the emptiness that is left, a despair destroying the world, when people lose their hopes and forget their dreams. The Nothing straddles worlds as it disrupts normality in both the realms of the real and the imagined. Although visibly represented by images of a storm, the Nothing has no real shape or form. This formlessness and boundary transgression further designates it as a horror monster. In my opinion, The Nothing falls into formation with other shapeless horrors such as The Blob (1958), The Fog (1980), and The Mist (2007).
What demarcates The Nothing from other shapeless horrors is that it is…Nothing. We first learn of The Nothing from a discussion between Atreyu, the rock biter, Teeny Weeny (Roy), and Nighthob (Pruckner) who expound on the vastness of The Nothing: worlds were disappearing, “nothing was there,” and it got bigger. Later, Morla expands on the subject by explaining that The Nothing is not death, as even that would be “something.” Our own complete erasure taps into the most primal fear in human society, which is driven by the desire to survive and thrive. The threat of being nothing is more than being insignificant or a nobody (as both of those are “something”). Since we are social creatures, The Nothing threatens our desire to belong and leave a mark on the world, replacing it with utter non-existence, a state completely devoid of meaning. I would imagine it somewhat more worthy to perish at the hands of The Blob and be remembered and to be important… for something. To succumb to The Nothing is to cease to exist, to have ever existed, a fate worse than death.
The Neverending Story is about the way society quashes imagination, hope, and desire.[iv] In the beginning of the film, Bastian’s father (McRaney) tells Bastian (Oliver) that he is “old enough to get his head out of the clouds,” that he should “keep his feet on the ground” and “stop daydreaming.” The repression of dreams eliminates the powerful potential of the individual. As Gmork puts it, “People who have no hopes are easy to control and whoever has the control, has the power.” In addition to the utter evisceration of society, the process of The Nothing compounds insult with injury by first draining its victim of power and personhood.
Like the slashers of the 1980s and 90s, The Neverending Story sows a cautionary tale. As we learn from Randy in the Scream franchise, you may not survive a horror film if you have sex, drink, or do drugs. As when you break the Holy Commandments, you must atone for such sins. In The Neverending Story, we learn that the whole world could cease to exist if people proved unable to reconcile the fantastic with the real world. I tend to agree that there is no meaning without hope and the embrace of all things wonderful, bizarre, eccentric, and sometimes gory! Without dark fantasy films like The Neverending Story in my early childhood, I never could have so easily fallen in love with horror.
[i] In Chapter 1 “The Nature of Horror” in Noel Carroll’s 1990 book, The Philosophy of Horror he discusses specifically how horror and fairy tales/myths differ from horror specifically involving the monster. Stating that if he determines the monster is crucial to the definition of horror he must distinguish it from other commonly used genres that rely on a monster as well. Specifically, he believes the difference lies in the relationship between the characters and the monsters they encounter. In horror, humans see the monster as abnormal or disrupting natural order. In fantasy, the presence of the monster is an ordinary creature in an extraordinary world.
[ii] How Sharknado is OF human understanding makes me challenge this a little…but there is no perfect definition.
[iii] Notably in the loss of Bastian’s mother, the swallowing of Artax in the swamp of sadness, the quote from Engywook (Bromley) “confronted with their true selves, most men run away screaming”, Urgl (Hayes) “It has to hurt if it’s to heal”, and again in the words of the Empress (Stronach) “in the beginning, it is always dark.
[iv] This is similar to the writings of Robin Wood who argued in the 1970s that horror represses many aspects of society. He takes special time to mention the repression of children, which is clearly paralleled here in The Neverending Story.