The Shadowlands were originally intended to be a fully playable zone in World of Warcraft, designed for high-level play. The idea was that as deceased characters made their way back to their corpses, they'd see high-level players battling creeps in the area, which would inspire lower level players to increase their character level so they could experience the zone for themselves.
A new army of the dead rises: to combat Sylvanas' assault on Icecrown, Bolvar Fordragon— the revered former paladin who took on the mantle of Lich King to keep the Scourge at bay—has raised heroes from among all the peoples of Azeroth to bolster the Death Knights of Acherus. With Shadowlands, pandaren and all allied races will now be able to become death knights.
After being deposed as Warchief of the Horde in Battle for Azeroth, Sylvanas Windrunner travels to Icecrown Citadel in the Scourge-infested wastes of Northrend, and confronts the reigning Lich King, Bolvar Fordragon. Taking the Lich King's Helm of Domination from him, she tears it in two, shattering the veil between realities and opening a portal to the Shadowlands, Azeroth's afterlife. The Shadowlands have become warped in function during recent times. The Maw, a place in the afterlife reserved for the most sinful souls, is now absorbing all souls.
The Shadowlands has long been referenced in World of Warcraft lore, but their origins and true nature remain a mystery. One thing is for certain; the Shadowlands are inextricably tied to death and decay. It stands opposed to the verdant spiritual realm of the Emerald Dream, which represents a vision of reality untarnished by corruption and mortal intervention.
In the opening cinematic, Sylvanas shatters the Helm of Dominion, breaching the veil between the material realm and the Shadowlands, an ancient dimension where the dead coalesces for judgment. Sylvanas' actions have upset the natural balance between life and death, and it's on players to enter the Shadowlands itself and repair the cycle before it is too late.
Shadowy Tormentors inhabit this dimension, and emerge from it to torment death knights such as Koltira Deathweaver. The Lich King originally kept them at bay, but after the Knights of the Ebon Blade left his service, the tormentors are now loose upon them. He even appears in the World of the Dead, as he calls it, riding a frost wyrm during  The Power to Destroy.