It’s guilty pleasure and unbridled imagination all rolled into one, with a healthy dose of darkness thrown in for good measure. When our favorite fictional works decide to take a detour into the darkest alternate realities imaginable, we all get to savor our dark ideas.
The idea of parallel worlds and alternate realities has been considered by both scientists and artists for centuries, giving play to countless ideas all centering on the concept of “What if?” While these scenarios can go anywhere and reshape a fictional world into any shape, they almost always go in the darkest direction possible. Heroes become villains, evil triumphs over good, and everything generally goes in the worst direction imaginable. Whether these stories take place in an alternate universe that darkly mirrors our own or is the result of a catastrophe that must be avoided at all costs, these strangely familiar worlds excite, amaze, and terrify.
But why do so many of the alternate realities created for our favorite characters and worlds turn out to be so horrific? And why do we love it so much? Diving into the new and horrible realities can show us what we love about stories so much and what compels us to twist our imagination into such horrifying new shapes.
Enjoying the Darkness
If there is an immediate draw to these many darkened worlds, it’s that creators and viewers have the chance to express their Id in fictional form. While the fates of many characters may be harsh or shocking, they give everyone a chance to see a world where the typical laws of fictional stories and the comforting elements that we typically look for in stories are gone. Heroes die, villains win, and the common elements of well-worn stories are deeply subverted.
Being able to indulge in everything going wrong is so much easier for everyone because in the end, things will be back to normal. Should these strange worlds exist as merely a standalone miniseries or some parallel world that characters travel to, these are only temporary pit stops for readers that do not impact their long-running tales. If these dark worlds are a grim future or the result of someone meddling in the past, then they spur on our heroes to avert such terrible disaster. With so much gone wrong and every former victory now worth nothing, the stakes are higher than ever!
Most often, dark parallel worlds incorporate at one or possibly all of the following elements, which can be twisted and turned into many different forms.
Heroes Turn Villainous– Noble and heroic characters can become cruel and vicious villains, with these powerful characters instigating horrible fates for their worlds. If these heroes always won in the end, what would stop them from winning as villains without morals or guidelines?
A Vicious Ripple Effect – Most often the result of time travel gone wrong, a villain or well-meaning hero travels to the past to try and change the present. Whether they save a life, kill a villain before they start killing, or change their own history, these actions cause bigger and bigger changes, leading to a vastly different world that is far worse than before.
Everybody’s Dead – It may be the most straightforward idea, but it is certainly the most shocking. Cataclysmic events and the victories of dastardly villains either lead to beloved characters being dead by the time we enter the new world, or eventually dying by the end of the story. In either case, it’s a cruel fate for beloved characters.
Experiencing these occasions where everything goes wrong and death runs rampant may be a macabre way of enjoying your favorite stories in new ways, but it provides thrills unlike any other.
The Greatest Dark Alternate Realities in Fiction
With so many directions that a fictional universe’s alternate reality can vary widely, traversing both well-worn tropes and new spins on well-loved worlds. But the best alternate realities stick in the minds of readers and viewers long after their disturbing stories have come to an end. From dark futures that must be averted to parallel universes where everything has been turned on its head, these dark alternate worlds have created some of fiction’s most memorable stories.
The Dark Knight Returns (DC Comics) – It’s one of comics’ most illustrious alternate realities and a story that is still reverberating through the decades. Batman has been retired for 10 years, but the old Caped Crusader returns to action when he can no longer watch his beloved Gotham fall to pieces. Totalitarian governments, heroes at war, and general grimness abound!
The Darkest Timeline (Community) – When Jeff tosses a die into the air to determine which member of the study group goes to get the pizza, Abed believes he creates six alternate timelines, one of which ends with everything going terribly wrong. Pierce dies, Jeff loses his arm, Troy’s voice box is destroyed by a flaming troll, and Evil Abed dedicates himseld to invading the brighter timeline! Find out why this is the best Community episode at “The 15 Greatest Community Episodes (So Far).”
Mirror Universe (Star Trek) – While the Star Trek series has explored many dark alternate realities, nothing beats the original. The USS Enterprise crosses over into an alternate universe, one where they are absolutely evil and love goatees. The Federation is instead an empire, Kirk is a dictator, Spock is a pirate, and by the end, our heroes have found a new outlook on who they are and what they stand for.
Days of Future Past (X-Men) – It’s the future where things went as poorly as they possibly could for mutantkind. Most every mutant has either been killed or imprisoned in internment camps by Sentinels, forcing a desperate trip into the past to prevent the assassination that caused it all. Come for the trippy time travel ideas, stay for the horrific deaths of all your favorite X-Men!
The Crime Syndicate’s Earth 3 (DC Comics) – Just one of DC Comics’ many alternate Earths, Earth 3 is an inverted universe, where heroes are villains and villains are heroes. The Justice League is turned into either the Crime Syndicate or the Injustice League, depending on the story, and they are far more powerful from the inverted villains. Evil runs rampant and the world is under their thumbs. But things turn for a worse when the evil versions invade the normal world.
Farmworld (Adventure Time) – It all begins with a wish to keep The Lich from ever existing, but what should be a better and more normal world soon turns into a nightmare. Finn’s wish stops The Great Mushroom War from ever happening, creating a new present. But soon fate intervenes, turning Finn into the new Ice King and Jake into The Lich. Thankfully, original Jake and super cool wish master Prismo are able to undo the damage and restore The Land of Ooo.
Hell Valley (Back to the Future Part II) – When too much meddling with history allows Biff to gain the upper hand, Marty McFly and Doc Brown’s hometown is turned into the worst city imaginable. Full of casinos, strip clubs, and deviants galore, the new “Hell Valley” makes the somewhat rundown Hill Valley look like a slice of fried gold, sparking a frantic race to prevent this horrific alternate future.
Ultimate Universe (Marvel Comics) – When Marvel Comics decided to launch the all new Ultimate Universe in 2000, few new just how dark this alternate take on their classic heroes would get. Wolverine, Spider-Man, and most of The Avengers and The X-Men are dead now, with no hope for resurrection in this far darker world. While there are moments of happiness, things often turn for the worst with each new catastrophe.
Age of Apocalypse (Marvel Comics) – The mutant Legion travels back in time to kill Magneto before he becomes a villain, but mistakenly murders Charles Xavier. While Magneto takes Xavier’s place as the founder of the X-Men, he’s unable to prevent the domination of the evil mutant Apocalypse, who takes over the United States. Every known X-Man becomes a twisted version of him- or herself, struggling to beat back the darkness as the others try to fix the past.
The End (Supernatural) – Dean Winchester is sent five years into the possible future by the angels to see what dark events may happen with Satan on the loose. Sam is now possessed by the Devil, most of the world is ravaged by the Croatoan demon virus, and the ragtag band of resistance fighters is absolutely doomed. In short, it’s totally awesome of one of “The 15 Greatest Episodes of Supernatural (So Far)!”
Red Son (DC Comics) – One of DC’s many “Elseworlds” comics, this incredibly dark future turns on a very simple axis – what if Superman landed in Soviet Russia instead of the Midwest? Superman becomes dictator and co-ruler with an evil Wonder Woman while a Soviet Batman and numerous outmatched do-gooders try to thwart the Man of Steel. Most everyone is dead or miserable by the end, but the impact of this mad story is still being felt today.
Old Man Logan (Marvel Comics) – Another of Marvel Comics’ many possible dark futures, this miniseries is a trip into the future where the united super villains have killed almost every single hero. Wolverine lives a peaceful life in the West with his family, having given up being a hero long ago after devastating tragedy. But he’s put back on the path to heroism and battles through even greater losses as he travels the villain-controlled United States.
Balancing Light with Darkness
If the indulgences provided by fiction’s dark parallel worlds show viewers and readers more than just their love of the darkness, it’s their ultimate love of heroism and triumph in their stories.
There is a reason why these grim tales take place in an alternate world instead of the main one. People love to see the hero win. While compelling villains and hard-fought victories make these stories exciting, seeing the good guys triumph is both inspiring and comforting. Taking a brief sojourn into the darkest timeline makes returning to the bright one a relief.
Whether our heroes prevent these terrible fates or the stories exploring dark realities eventually come to a close, the joy of a heroic world is that much more joyful. But we’ll all want to dip back into the darkness soon enough.
Do you have your own favorite alternate realities? Put yours in the comment section below!