A study of the Fantasy Genre with Alec Worley’s “Empires of the Imagination” (II)

Fantasy and its ‘sister-genres’

The sister-genres of fantasy could be defined as science fiction and supernatural horror because of their point of accepting seemingly impossible situations as existing and real. Seeing how fantasy differs from these other two genres gives an idea as to where fairy tales could be situated if adapted differently. At the moment, fairy tales are strongly linked to fantasy. However in the past, it seems the supernatural horror genre has already been used as a base in which to set a fairy story; but how does this work?

Therefore understanding what defines these seemingly overlapping genres can give new original ideas to the filmmaker when deciding where and when they want their film to be set, but also the sort of atmosphere they want to convey.



Science-fiction is all about rationality; in some way, the seemingly impossible elements or situations in these films can be explained through scientific logic. Although artificial intelligence, interplanetary travel or clones may seem like an advancement in technology which will not take place in the next few years, there is a sort of logic behind their creation which can be accepted as viable by the audience. “If a fantasy film ever elucidates its magic through scientific reasoning, it ceases to be fantasy” (Alec Worley pg 11). The example of the Highlander movies is used in the critical survey by Alec Worley where he explains that, whereas the first movie is pure fantasy because of its unexplained immortal heroes, the sequel reveals that the immortals are aliens, more advanced in technology than we are. I will not start debating wether or not aliens exist, however this explanation for their ‘immortality’ does not belong to magic but to a form of science – another form of living organism which has developed outside planet earth – and therefore is rationalized. Alec Worley goes further in his definition of the genre when explaining you can then classify science-fiction films into sub-genres categories ranging from ‘plausible science’ to ‘implausible science’ with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) at one end, and films such as Ghostbusters (1984), X-men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) at the other.

I was very curious to see where Worley classified George Lucas’ Star Wars series which, set in another galaxy entirely, also features the seemingly magical ability that is ‘the Force’. He argues that while the films definitely had an air of fantasy about them, this qualification is clearly revoked when in The Phantom Menace (1999), the Force is explained as a science; therefore, ‘cutting the entire series off from fantasy’.


Supernatural Horror

First of all, let’s make it clear that Horror divides itself into two main genres: the rational horror films and the supernatural horror films. In this case, what may be seen as overlapping the fantasy genre is that of supernatural horror. Indeed while rational horror films deal with real threats such as madness and serial killers like Scream (1996), supernatural horror puts into play the Devil, ghosts and other monsters. (Incidentally this makes me reflect on the film The Cabin in the Woods (2012) – spoilers for people who haven’t seen it – which somehow alternates several times between science-fiction horror and supernatural horror until it eventually settles on the latter genre when it is revealed at the end that a sort of Devil-like monster is in charge of the fate of the earth. This move cuts the film off from the rational horror genre which I personally thought was slightly disappointing. While I was expecting to watch a common supernatural zombie-filled film, the feature pleasantly surprised me at first, when it was revealed that the whole thing was a set up in a scientifically controlled environment. The originality of the film was then lost at the end when it fell back into the supernatural horror genre).

Hence, it is easy to see why there could be a confusion when talking about the fantasy genre and supernatural horror. Where can we draw the line? A lovely point that, in a certain way, brings me back to the purpose of fairy-tales can help to differentiate the two: fairy-tales, like the fantasy genre, since the beginning, have always been initially about reassuring mankind, helping us face ours fears. And this is where the horror genre in general differs greatly; a horror film is meant to frighten its audience. The best of horror is the sort of film that keeps you watching even though your can hear your heart beating fast. Worley explains that horror tries to generate an atmosphere of dread, that all is not well in the world and that generally, things do not turn out fine in the end. However in fantasy, there is a journey towards redemption, a healing of sorts whereby, eventually, things work out for the hero who has gained much from his experiences, however creepy and dangerous they may have been. He classifies Tim burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1991) as fantasy rather than horror because of the pattern it follows, with the hero ending up not only saving the town of Sleepy Hollow, but also confronting his own fears. It is argued that even when death is featured in fantasy, it is also seen as the continuation of life somewhere else, a departure to a better place; while in horror, death is the grim finality.


Reading this raises the question: where is Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) situated on this scale?

Seeing it classified as horror has always dissuaded me to watch it in a way. But I believe the way Guillermo del Toro has directed this fairy-tale may be an underrated genre that could fit the original texts well. It is interesting to point out he is currently working on adapting Beauty and the Beast in possibly a similar fashion.

Clearly there is a connection between fairy tales and fantasy, in their purpose and their pattern, which is why they work well together. According to the paragraph above, in theory it would be impossible to adapt a fairy tale to the horror genre because there is a contradiction in their purpose. However watching Pan’s Labyrinth may help me get some more insight on the issue.

When it comes to science-fiction however, I strongly believe a fairy-tale could be adapted to that genre albeit with great care and caution so as not to destroy the mysterious and marvelous side of these stories.


WORLEY. A., 2005. Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from George Melies to the Lord of the Rings, McFarland & Company – I have used this book as a tool for research, I do not own anything.


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