Dark Whimsy: The Genre of Eternal Autumn
It’s that time of year again — a chill in the air, crisp leaves, pumpkins, cider, and campfire stories. Though we wish that these cozy, spooky feelings lasted all year, what keeps them alive for us are movies and shows that blend dark and quirky ideas together. In pursuit of these stories, we have arrived at dark whimsy (or dark whimsical).
Dark whimsy is a genre characterized by elements that are lighthearted and magical, and also sinister or darkly realistic. The whimsical aspects feature quirky characters, ambiguous settings and lore, and the magical or supernatural — often influenced by mythology, folklore, and fables. The darker aspects can include horror and morbidity, often alluding to or directly addressing real world struggles. Dark whimsy has much in common with magical realism, in that they both explore the intermingling of fantasy and reality, and have elements of mystery and social analysis. The difference is that magical realism is based in reality, with fantastical elements that are considered normal and often used to comment on society. Dark whimsy is set in fantasy worlds or ones that exist within the world as we know it, which include symbolism and critiques about society. In addition, magical realism pieces might have whimsical characters or settings, but that is not always the case.
It is common for dark whimsy plots to be driven by difficult circumstances and/or the desire to uncover secrets. We’ve noticed that we are most drawn to the stories of young and resilient protagonists. Many of these stories seem to be inspired by fairy tales, which push kids to make sense of the world around them, and give them a chance to name and face their fears. So it makes sense that dark whimsy tends to take its young characters more seriously than many other media. Using humor, weirdness, and magic, the genre has an unrivaled ability to make heavier themes and issues more accessible to younger audiences.
We have always felt drawn to this genre for a few reasons. Life is hard, so it can be equally tough to ponder and openly discuss our thoughts and issues. Dark whimsy makes heavy and relatable topics — such as uncertainty, self-esteem, relationships, and mortality — much more approachable. Even though the stories don’t offer a surefire way of finding answers, they do help us feel less alone in finding our paths. It’s also comforting and thrilling to watch something that appears sinister at times, but is actually not. Often the villains or unsettling situations seem worse than they are, and even if they are bad, there is enough lightheartedness to provide balance.
With these recommendations, we hope to transport you to the many worlds of dark whimsy!
Over the Garden Wall (2014)
This animated miniseries by Patrick McHale may be the perfect example of dark whimsy. It is what inspired our interest in the genre in the first place! The story is about brothers Wirt and Greg, who get lost in the Unknown, a strange and supernatural forest. After they rescue a talking bluebird named Beatrice, the three journey to find their way back home. However, the mysterious and sinister Beast lurks in the woods, hoping to trap them there forever. Greg is an easygoing and optimistic child who views this experience as an adventure, often misunderstanding the full extent of what’s going on. His older brother Wirt is an angsty and cynical teenager who is juggling a few things: an unrequited crush, his mixed feelings about Greg, and the responsibility he feels to lead.
We’re not sure when and where this story takes place. The Unknown seems to exist in a time warp and its mystique makes it feel like folklore. The physical setting is old-timey with zero electricity, taverns, quaint language, and schoolhouses. The characters in this world really make the series — each one is lighthearted and offbeat but with grim qualities, from the kind yet vaguely creepy group in the tavern, to the sweet Lorna with a mysterious illness, and even the upbeat Greg, who realizes his faults and is forced to grow up quickly. The talking (or singing and instrument playing) animals add wholesomeness and fantasy, while the sharp and often funny dialogue grounds the story in reality, especially Beatrice’s biting sarcasm and haughtiness.
Ominous and surreal moments build tension, and the end results are always unexpected. The air of mystery surrounding the Beast makes him more intriguing than scary. His motives aren’t fully explained and no one has actually seen him. Plus, it helps that he randomly breaks into opera. Though he has these playful and cartoonish qualities, he also represents real terrors like hopelessness — just one example of how whimsical and dark elements are seamlessly blended to tackle themes like self doubt, belonging, death, family turmoil, and the fact that our problems are sometimes illusions that we create for ourselves.
Like many dark whimsy shows, there are so many moving parts that have significance even if you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. If you look closely, you will always discover something new. No rewatch of this show has been the same as a previous one!
Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)
Hayao Miyazaki is arguably the king of dark whimsy, and this is my favorite of his films. It’s about a young girl named Sophie who is cursed by a vindictive witch to have the appearance of an old woman. She ends up working in the legged castle of the notorious wizard Howl (voiced by Christian Bale in the English dub, which is unexpectedly perfect), along with his child apprentice and a charming, sarcastic fire demon named Calcifer.
The contrast between how Howl is viewed by the outside world, as dangerous and evil, versus his actual bubbly, slightly-immature personality greatly adds to this movie’s whimsy and charm. The incredible ever-changing castle, and the magical creatures like Calcifer and the kind scarecrow Turniphead, also contribute to this. The darker elements come from Sophie’s emotional turmoil dealing with the curse, but also the fact that Howl is fighting in a senseless and seemingly endless war which takes a huge physical toll on him. Miyazaki is known for incorporating real world issues and political activism into his films, and the war that Howl is a part of represents Miyazaki’s condemnation of the 2003 Iraq War. This movie is full of life and has a little bit of everything, making it a must-watch.
Beautiful Creatures (2013)
This movie is a guilty pleasure of mine. Although it has its problems, I can’t help but be drawn to the magical forest setting, the witchcraft, and the romance. The story follows Ethan Wate, a teenager determined to escape from his boring life in Gatlin, SC. He is captivated by the mysterious Lena Duchannes, who is new in town but surrounded by rumors about her family being supernatural. As Ethan and Lena spend more time together, they uncover things about both of their families and themselves that they never knew were possible.
Ethan and Lena’s friendship turned relationship is realistic and compelling, which is one of the best things about this movie. While the humor and magical elements (like volatile furniture reflecting a tense family dinner, and snowfall in a climate that never gets snow) keep things light and fun, there is a darker edge in the exploration of good versus evil magic and questioning whether it is possible to break out of familial patterns to carve your own destiny. Though it’s campy, very YA, and full of bad southern accents, this film is a great example of dark whimsy.
Spirited Away (2001)
No one does dark whimsy quite like Hayao Miyazaki, whose dreamlike and stunning films tackle societal issues and personal struggles. The first one I saw was Spirited Away, centered around ten-year-old Chihiro. On the way to a new home, Chihiro and her parents make a wrong turn and stumble upon an abandoned theme park. They get separated as Chihiro is trapped in a spirit realm that she cannot leave until she works at a job. Spirited Away has one foot in harsh realities, taking on consumerism, class divides, and environmentalism in subtle but omnipresent ways. The other foot is in supernatural elements based on Japanese folklore and mythology. There are witches, animate objects, a medley of spirits — you name it! Each being is interesting and significant to the makeup of the world and Miyazaki’s commentary.
It came as no surprise to me when I learned that an essential part of Miyazaki’s filmmaking is to “follow the path of children’s emotions and feelings.” Spirited Away does its due diligence with Chihiro, who is forced to put her feelings about moving aside in favor of figuring out how to survive in a place that is definitely out of the ordinary. All in all, the end result is pretty magical.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
When I was nine years old, I was introduced to the dark and whimsical world of the Baudelaire siblings. They form a zany and lovable trio — precocious little Sunny bites anything she can get her teeth on, bookish Klaus has a photographic memory, and inventive Violet has many tricks up her sleeve. After the tragic death of their parents, the siblings are put in the care of Count Olaf. He is creepy and unnerving, but also so silly he’s a caricature of himself. A cat-and-mouse game unfolds between Olaf and the Baudelaire children, who do their best to outsmart him. Their world contains eccentric characters and a mysterious time period that is bursting with anachronisms — the aesthetic and environment are steampunk, but there are modern-style streets and cars, convenience stores, mishmashes of technology… and so on (I’d love to hear your observations!).
The bleak situations are made more bearable with fourth wall breaks, absurd humor and wholesome moments between the siblings. The Baudelaires lean on each other to make sense of their grief and their parents’ secrets, discovering more as time passes. The heart of this story lies in their steadfast determination that obstacles can be overcome one way or another. To quote Violet, “there’s always something.”
What are some of your favorite dark whimsy stories? Let us know in the comments!
Originally published on our WordPress website on October 13, 2020.