The planar location of Innistrad holds a special place in the imagination of Magic players and fans because it is such a distinctly unique setting. In particular, Innistrad is defined by its flavor which is deeply rooted in horror genres.
Today’s article will break down the tropes and horror genres from which Innistrad draws its inspiration and builds its distinct flavor. In particular, I’ll be breaking down a handful of specific genres/archetypes of horror that play a particularly important role in the worldbuilding and cohesion of Innistrad as a setting and narrative tale. The genres I’ll be looking at today are:
- Post-Romantic Gothic Horror
- Eldritch Horror
- ‘Lovecraftian’ Cosmic Horror
- Modern Cinematic Horror
One of the coolest things about Innistrad’s flavor is that it flawlessly melds all of these unique subgenres into one seamless world. The fusion of all of these fan-favorite horror genres is what gives Innistrad it’s mass appeal. No matter what one’s preference of archetypal horror – it can be found creeping, crawling, lurking or hunting on Innistrad!
“What is Gothic Horror?”
It may seem counterintuitive, but gothic horror is actually an extension of 18th and 19th century romanticism. Romanticism was an artistic and literary movement largely based in England and Germany and is defined by a handful of trademark elements:
- An emphasis on emotion.
- A focus on the natural world.
- An exploration of the past.
- It was written for an emergent middle or merchant class, sensibility and audience.
One, two and three are all characteristics of storytelling that naturally lend themselves to a good ghost story that we’d encounter on Innistrad. Feelings of fear that a person experiences in some dilapidated, haunted, ancient castle, for instance. Four is significant because romantic literature (and particularly gothic subgenres like horror) were largely written for a literate, middle-class audience (as opposed to previous literature which was written exclusively for an aristocratic audience).
In many ways, the romantic sensibility latent in the gothic is the starting point of what we understand as the horror genre:
“An ancient, crumbling church that is haunted by the spirit of a powerful demon.”
“The eeriness of the luminal space in the natural world.”
We can thank Bram Stoker for his famous vampire tale, Dracula, which is a gothic epistolary novel (the entire novel is a collection of letters written by the characters). Also, the vilification of the aristocracy in the gothic and gothic horror was a popular trope with the newly literate merchant class.
“Science has gone terribly wrong…”
Since the romantic sensibility was a celebration of the natural world and an exploration of the lost past, concerns about how science should be used was also a popular theme in gothic horror. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is perhaps the most famous horror story of all time and directly questions the merits of science left unchecked.
“What is Eldritch Horror?”
The word Eldritch can actually be traced back to 16th century Scotland to describe something otherworldly, ghastly or uncanny – i.e., something that does not belong in “our” world. Many linguistic archaeologists agree that the etymology of “Eldritch” comes from ‘the world of Elves.’ So, subject matter that pertains to the supernatural world of the elves.
“Humans are the protagonists of horror. Bad things happening to people = scary. Bad things happening to Elves? They probably deserved it!”
It’s kind of interesting that Elves are not a tribe supported on Innistrad despite a set being called Eldritch Moon!
In modern times, the word Eldritch is often used synonymously with “Lovecraftian cosmic horror.”
Green occupies an interesting space on Innistrad since the color doesn’t incorporate “Eldritch” in the Elven sense. Instead, green’s identity on Innistrad is closely linked to the romantic notion of nature as a wild and emotional space. We see lots of cards representing wild animals and or Humans that transform into Werewolves (folk tale).
“What is Lovecraftian cosmic horror?”
Lovecraftian cosmic horror is a genre of horror that was influenced by American writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). Lovecraftian, or cosmic, horror takes the gothic/romantic notion of unraveling the lost secrets of the ancient past to an extreme and delves into the realm of incredibly powerful and irreverent cosmic beings and monsters. Lovecraft’s most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” is a mystery about a cult that worships an incomprehensibly powerful and irreverent being called Chthulu whose mere presence makes people go completely insane and lose their minds.
Romanticism placed newfound importance on the concept of individualism. Regardless of whether the reader is an aristocrat or middle class, the concept of the individual experience and emotion is important and celebrated.
Lovecraft absolutely obliterates this sensibility with his innovation of cosmic horror. Individuals are virtually powerless and insignificant in contrast to these supremely and incomprehensibly powerful pantheons of cosmic monsters. We can see cosmic horror directly referenced in the form of the Eldrazi, which make an appearance on Innistrad in Eldritch Moon:
It’s also significant that the monsters that make up Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu mythos” come from “somewhere else.” It’s unclear exactly where they are from, or why they exist, but they are distinctly “not from around here!”
The fiends of Eldritch, or cosmic, horror are not from our world, should not be in our world and their mere presence (like the Eldrazi upon a Magic plane in the multiverse) has apocalyptic ramifications.
The Eldrazi “race” closely mirrors the pantheon of cosmic monsters from Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. It’s a really cool way that Innistrad is able to co-opt another subgenre of horror into its setting and narrative. Innistrad really is a locus of “all things horror.”
“Eldrazi” is a portmanteau of two words = “Eldritch” and the Chinese suffix “zi” (which means “child or offspring of..”), which literally translates to Eldrazi being the offspring of Eldritch, which is kind of cool.
“What is Modern Cinematic Horror?”
As the name suggests, modern cinematic horror is a sensibility derived from how modern film depicts and renders elements of horror.
Most of the roots or building blocks of horror have been laid throughout history through storytelling, fairy tales, ghost stories and the gothic. However, modern film allowed elements of horror to be depicted visually (as opposed to verbally or in text form). Clearly, elements of horror have been depicted in artwork throughout history but never with the intensity of a motion picture.
While the uncanny notion of the dead returning to life as a ghost, vampire, biblical exodus or reanimated monster corpse have roots in literature and ancient history, we have Night of the Living Dead to thank for our conceptualization of the modern Zombie Apocalypse as a horde of shambling corpses that eat Humans.
Night of the Living Dead, like Frankenstein, incorporates elements of science fiction into horror. Science is the catalyst that allows us to suspend disbelief and encounter the fantastic via horror. The intersection of science and horror always creates a confluence where some element of how science should or is used is questioned or examined. Dr. Frankenstein’s ambition to reanimate a corpse without thinking about the consequences wields horrific results. Nuclear experimentation has catastrophic results in Night of the Living Dead.
Night of the Living Dead also brought a newfound element of realism and gore to horror. Although the film is black and white, the direction included scenes where the Zombies are ripping meat apart to simulate eating a live Human being, which was extremely, famously unsettling to contemporary viewers. Thus, the Zombie film has a legacy of being a space filled with representations of gore and savagery – unlike Frankenstein’s Monster, who is incredibly literate and able bodied.
“Did they ever stop to ask – should I reanimate these corpses?”
Another direct reference to modern cinematic horror on Innistrad:
When one thinks of “horror films,” it’s likely the first image that comes to mind is something from the “slasher film subgenre.”
“All work and no play make Jack a dull boy…” Murderer’s Axe?
Perhaps the most influential slasher film ever made is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s significant for a couple of reasons. First, it revolutionized the villain of the modern slasher film with it’s antagonist, Leatherface, as a giant, hulking, unstoppable male figure who typically hunts and violently kills young women. Second, the antagonist is always shown to be insane or deranged. Third, the use of tools to dismember victims. Lastly, the film completely shattered expectations of decency with regard to how much gore and violence could be shown in a successful horror film.
Keep in mind that just because I’m talking about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and how it was influential it doesn’t mean you need to watch it! It’s a difficult and uncomfortable watch.
So, we’ve got our large, hulking, insane, tool-using man who hunts Liliana? Sounds like the makings of a slasher film to me… I have a feeling the “Midnight Hunt” will have much to do with Garruk’s return.
If it comes across like I’m “way too interested” in all of these weird, nuanced elements of literature and history – it’s because I am! I wrote my entire Master’s thesis on how “doubling” or “doppelganger” are used in the gothic to critique changing ideology:
You can imagine my excitement to see Evil Twin for the first time – a regular, “William Wilson” allusion by E.A. Poe.
Or, this amazing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde allusion:
I’m a big fan of horror as a genre because it’s traditionally been a space where artists and authors can critique elements of culture that cannot be easily critiqued through regular discourse. For instance, the gothic was interested in subversively critiquing the power and wealth of the aristocracy back in the 18th and 19th centuries.
A scholar could write an article about science and posit the question “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it,” but that message is so much more powerful in the literature of Frankenstein. Part of the reason for why is that encountering “horror” or “abjection” causes an implicit emotional response from the reader or viewer in the form of fear, aversion or suspense that makes the experience significantly more visceral than normal discourse.
So, it’s a great way to get the reader or audience to not only see or hear a message, but to actually experience it emotionally. For instance, for all of the controversy and critique of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the writer has explicitly said that it’s a critique of post-industrialization America and meat processing, two themes that are buried in the subtext of the actual narrative of a chainsaw-wielding maniac indiscriminately hunting a group of waylaid teenagers on a dilapidated farm.
“Horror” is an incredibly diverse and storied genre of literature and entertainment and incredibly popular with fans because of the emotional and psychological engagement it demands from the reader or audience. It’s no surprise that a Magic plane that’s a non-stop homage to such a popular genre from mainstream culture resonates so strongly. You can look at nearly any card from an Innistrad-based expansion and track down exactly what it’s alluding to, which is really fun once you know some of the background about the history of horror as a genre.
Today’s article is by no means an all-encompassing explanation of all horror – in fact, it’s incredibly basic, but as the adage goes, “the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” Maybe today’s article inspires somebody to read a classic gothic horror novel like Dracula, Frankenstein or Melmoth the Wanderer. Maybe it allows a fan to appreciate some of their favorite designs on a new flavor level. Maybe it’s just a fun recollection of some sweet horror-themed cards from Innistrad.
I’m always excited for a new Innistrad block because I love seeing all of the new cards and references. I’m thrilled to see what we’ll be hunting at the midnight prerelease this September!