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.
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 can be seen as a shadowy version of the physical world, and can be routinely visited as a spirit when player characters die. Governed by the Covenants, the four ruling realms of the Shadowlands are Bastion, Ardenweald, Revendreth and Maldraxxus (although countless others exist), which serve as the main setting of World of Warcraft's eighth expansion.