|"There are no evil spirits, there is light and dark in them all. But when they're unbalanced, the darkness takes over."|
|— Unalaq explains the dark spirits to Korra.|
Dark spirits are entities who have become unbalanced due to the influence of the spirit of darkness and chaos, Vaatu. Despite Vaatu's imprisonment within the Tree of Time by Avatar Wan, spirits were still susceptible to turning dark depending on the state of the environments they considered important. Particularly, the Water Tribes experienced several incidences of dark spirit attacks following the Hundred Year War, due to the destruction of a sacred spiritual forest in the North Pole and progressive spiritual neglect in the South Pole. Dark spirits attack seemingly at random, with many lurking in sacred or secluded areas that have become neglected over time.
Inhabitance of the Spirit Wilds
In 9,830 BG, Wan unknowingly freed Vaatu from Raava's grasp, thereby allowing him to roam the Spirit Wilds and use his influence to turn other spirits dark, with the intention of harnessing their anger into strength for use in his battle with Raava during Harmonic Convergence. Wan managed to stop him from causing further transformations by merging with Raava and becoming the first Avatar, after which he imprisoned Vaatu inside the Tree of Time in the Spirit World. This allowed the dark spirits whom Vaatu had converted to return to a balanced state. As a means of eliminating conflict between humans and spirits, Wan also sealed the spirit portals and oversaw the return of the spirits to the Spirit World.
Despite these actions, some spirits still managed to cross over to the mortal realm periodically. For instance, dark spirits began to appear in the Fire Islands shortly after the death of grieving mothers from a village under the control of Toz. With the sole intent of haunting and punishing the warlords in the Fire Islands, the spirits drifted into encampments during nighttime and abducted children. The dark spirits ceased their actions after the first Fire Lord united the Fire Islands and brought the warlords to justice. They came to be known as the Kemurikage and eventually became part of Fire Nation legend.
Era of Yangchen and era of Kuruk
During the childhood of Yangchen, three shishi turned dark when she entered the Spirit World for the first time, as they sensed the immense fear of one of her past lives. While she was able to return to the physical world, her sister Jetsun did not, sacrificing herself for the Avatar. Later, Yangchen twice dealt with phoenix-eel spirits on Ma'inka Island who were causing damage on the edge of villages. She noted that on the second time they met, after the Saowon clan had broken their agreement and had shown a lack of respect for the environment, the spirits had darkened much more, and no longer resembled animals from the physical world.
In general, Yangchen often took the side of humans when they came into conflict with spirits, believing that the humans should be able to thrive and prosper. Agreements were made that the spirits would leave humans in peace if humans would respect their environment. While some humans respected the new pacts, such as in the case of General Old Iron and the ruins of Tienhaishi, many did not.
The humans' violations of their agreements led to many spirits turning dark by the life of Avatar Kuruk, making use of passages to the material world that had been created by Father Glowworm. When Kuruk first meditated into the Spirit World, he saw the Heartwalker of Yaoping Mountain, who was planning to attack the nearby town. Kuruk flew to the mountain and defeated the dark spirit, which took a toll on his mind and body, causing him to suffer from depression. The Avatar battled dark spirits again when he traveled to Ma'inka Island and destroyed the phoenix-eel spirits under a cavern. He was found by Nyahitha, who confirmed that his battles with the spirits were taking a heavy toll on his soul.
Kuruk and Nyahitha began to take a more active approach to the dark spirits. Kuruk tracked down dark spirits in their own realm before they could attack humans, hunting them down and destroying them. Eventually, he found the origin of the new cracks between the world, and duelled Father Glowworm. Though the spirit was grievously wounded, it managed to escape. Though dark spirits stopped attacking the human world, Kuruk's battles took an irreparable toll on him, contributing to his early demise.
The long term consequences of Kuruk's battles with the dark spirits led to many spirits in the physical world choosing to move back to the Spirit World in the decades after his death, especially as many of their homes were threatened by daofei. This contributed to the Air Nomads' loss of many spiritual sites.
As the world began to enter a new technological age in the life of Avatar Roku, there was a resurgence of dark spirits at the polar regions. Bands of dark spirits raged through the wilderness, in both the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, attacking some remote villages, hurting people, and homes being damages. Many spiritually inclined people of the Water Tribe suspected that this was due to spirits being displaced in the industrial revolution's search for natural resources, with nations extending their reach and laying claim to sacred land.
The first Dragon Hunts in the Fire Nation also led to spiritual activity and strange phenomena at the sites where dragons had been slain, though Fire Lord Sozin dispatched an elite taskforce to deal with these incidents and keep them under wraps from the local population. When the Water Tribes sent a joint envoy to investigate these death sites after noticing what was happening, Sozin spun a propaganda campaign that blamed the Water Tribes for any strange spiritual activity that leaked to the public.
Hundred Year War
The Hundred Year War contributed to the resurgence of dark spirits, as the global conflict caused several spirits to turn dark. Following the Air Nomad Genocide, dark spirits began to inhabit deserted areas that previously had spiritual significance to the Air Nomads, including areas of meditation in forests located near the air temples.
In 99 AG, destruction of the forest near Senlin Village also caused Hei Bai to turn dark. Having protected the forest for thousands of years and unaware that the Fire Nation was responsible for its destruction, Hei Bai terrorized the nearby village as the winter solstice drew near, during which time the separation between the two realms was minimal. As punishment for the forest's destruction, Hei Bai raided the village every night and abducted a single villager during each of his attacks. He eventually reverted to his docile form after Avatar Aang ensured the renewal of the forest by showing him an acorn.
Attacks in the Water Tribes
Following the Hundred Year War, dark spirits also appeared in the Water Tribes due to spiritual imbalances. In 151 AG, many spirits were angered after Tonraq destroyed a sacred spiritual forest in the North Pole while in pursuit of barbarians who attacked the Northern Water Tribe. As a result, they rampaged through the capital and destroyed infrastructure until they were pacified by Unalaq using spiritbending. This technique restored the balance of light and dark within the spirits, and they subsequently returned to the forest.
Due to the increasing neglect of spiritual traditions, spiritual imbalance also became characteristic of the Southern Water Tribe following the end of the Hundred Year War. This resulted in the dissipation of the southern lights, since the spirits ceased to dance in the skies. Instead, the spirits turned dark and rampaged in the South Pole in the form of a torrential blizzard known as the Everstorm. Dark spirits roamed within the storm and inhabited the harsh tundras, attacking individuals who attempted to journey through the storm. The phenomenon persisted for decades until Avatar Korra and a small expedition team set out to disperse it by reopening a dormant spirit portal at the heart of the South Pole. Dark spirits also lurked in the seas surrounding the region, as there were many incidents of attacks on ships in the waters near the Southern Water Tribe.
Resurgence during Harmonic Convergence
Dark spirit incidents increased as Harmonic Convergence neared. A dark spirit assaulted Korra on the Mo Ce Sea and was able to infect her, posing a lethal threat to the Avatar Spirit. Shortly thereafter, Korra and her group were also attacked by spirits that inhabited an ancient meditation area near the Eastern Air Temple, having been released when Tenzin attempted a spiritual cleansing. They were resilient to bending attacks, but were pacified by Korra when she performed spiritbending. As the spirits dispersed, their dark energy was also cleansed from the surrounding stones, restoring the environment from a dilapidated state.
Several naturally dark spirits inhabited the Spirit World, including a dark spider spirit which trapped intruders in a thick web before tossing them into the Fog of Lost Souls. However, Unalaq's increasing presence in the Spirit World caused drastic changes to the landscape and increased the number of dark spirits present in the realm. The combined negative energies of Unalaq and Vaatu allowed the former to amass an army of dark spirits to fight alongside the Northern Water Tribe military for the remainder of the Water Tribe Civil War, aiding Unalaq's forces in overpowering the Southern Water Tribe rebels and defending the Southern spirit portal. During Harmonic Convergence, the horde of dark spirits also attempted to prevent Korra from defeating the Dark Avatar. They dissipated following the return of Korra's astral projection to the Tree of Time.
Human versus spirit conflict
When Korra accidentally created a new spirit portal in downtown Republic City in 174 AG, tensions between humans and spirit grew. The conflict became violent when the Triple Threat Triad attacked the area surrounding the portal on Wonyong Keum's orders, who intended to turn it and the Spirit World into an amusement park. The dragon eel spirit had called upon several spirits to help defend the portal, some of which had turned dark with rage. The dragon eel spirit itself turned dark not long after, blinded with rage over the continuous human intervention that threatened the spirits, and launched an attack on Tokuga. Intending to make someone pay, it moved through the Triple Threats' leader, partially deforming him in the process. After its attack, the spirit calmed and assumed his normal demeanor again, as did the other dark spirits.
Doi Village was a location in the Earth Kingdom that survived centuries of hardship and needed help recovering from the events of the past years. When a group of adventurers came to provide aid to this community, its leader, Ganzaya, insisted that dark spirits were at the root of the issue. As the heroes arrived to the village, they were plagued by mysterious attacks and accidents.
The dark spirits are seemingly invincible, possessing chaotic and nearly amorphous bodies that sustain damage with limited to no effect and enable them to stretch their limbs and form additional appendages. Spirits are capable of inflicting significant damage to individuals or infrastructure, and can enter machinery in order to tear it apart from the interior due to the intangibility provided by their body density.
Spirits can appear and dissipate at will, with the ability to assume different forms depending on the situation; they can contort and fuse together to become larger and more powerful spirits or shift into more convenient forms. They move at varying speeds, inflict damage to different degrees, and are affected by stimuli in different ways, reflecting the presence of individual characteristics and weaknesses despite overarching general similarities.
Dark spirits are impervious to most forms of bending, but are susceptible to spiritbending when performed correctly, and other incredibly forceful forms of bending. Like other spirits, they are also capable of possessing humans, thereby subjecting the host to mortal danger. In the case of the Avatar, dark spirit possession can result in the endangerment of the Avatar Spirit, as the invasive dark spirit feeds on Raava's energy. Duels with dark spirits can take a serious toll on a human opponent's mind, body, and soul.
Notable temporary or permanent dark spirits
- When designing the dark spirit that attacks Korra in "Rebel Spirit", Bryan Konietzko created three basic stages based on the spirit's emotional state: a "dark mode" for when the spirit was agitated, and its appearance was more jagged; a "neutral mode" for when the spirit was calming down, and its form rounded out; and a "light mode" for when the spirit's negative energy was transformed, and its color inverted like a photo negative. This template was then used by Konietzko and the production staff for creating the other dark spirits.
- In "The Southern Lights", the lurking spirits that followed Korra and her group throughout the South Pole were loosely based on African wild dogs, while the serpent-like spirits that attacked her in the sacred forest were based on pelican eels.
- In "A New Spiritual Age", the various dark spirits that Korra encounters in the forest were designed by background painter Fred Stewart, the production crew wanting to utilize Stewart's talent for drawing "freaky" artwork.
- Though not able to be seen in the show, the dark spirit hand in the forest has a mouth.
- Dark spirits are stated by Unalaq to not be inherently malevolent, but rather chaotic, merely reacting to nature's destruction. This, combined with their supposedly intricate relationship with light spirits, reflects traditional Asian ideas of yin and yang, that neither darkness nor light have moral attributes, and that evil comes from imbalance. When spirits are angered, Vaatu, the spirit of chaos, takes advantage of this and corrupts them with his essence.
- Hundun is the only known being besides Vaatu who can turn spirits dark.
- The Kemurikage are the only known dark spirits to have been humans prior to transcendence into the Spirit World.