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.
The final destination of the spirits of the deceased remains a mystery to the priests and philosophers of Azeroth. However, as spells such as [Resurrection] can reunite a dead body with its spirit, and a majority of living creatures from the tauren to the troll shadow hunters claim they can communicate with and call upon the power of the spirits, a widely held belief is that the spirits of the dead remain on the Material Plane — in an immaterial state that can only be altered or contacted through the use of magic.
The experience curve is adjusted to make it faster than ever to prepare for the newest challenges, and each level along the way will provide more meaningful increases in progress and power. All expansion zones are getting more flexible, too; they'll be able* to scale to you and your friends while you level to 50, so it's easy to try a zone you've never played.
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.
Ascend the Tower of the Damned: at the heart of the Maw lies Torghast, Tower of the Damned, a cursed otherworldly prison where the wickedest souls in the universe are locked away. Highly replayable and inspired by roguelike games, heroes are invited to explore its ever-changing halls and chambers and do battle with the minions of the Jailer, Torghast's vile ruler. Those who brave its trials can claim legendary treasures and help free the heroic spirits wrongfully trapped within.
Adventurers entering the Shadowlands will find the realm of the dead in disarray. In the natural order of things, souls are sorted and sent on to an afterlife realm appropriate to the lives they lived, but starting around the time of the Burning Legion's third invasion of Azeroth, all souls who have perished—including the innocents slain at Teldrassil—are being funneled directly into the Maw. The Shadowlands are starving for anima even as the Maw continues to grow from the glut of fresh souls. Sylvanas Windrunner has been seemingly perpetrating acts to bring about great amounts of death and destruction. In partnership with the Jailer, they have been working toward a common end for some time.