© 2017 American Physical Society. We examine in depth a recent proposal to utilize superfluid helium for direct detection of sub-MeV mass dark matter. For sub-keV recoil energies, nuclear scattering events in liquid helium primarily deposit energy into long-lived phonon and roton quasiparticle excitations. If the energy thresholds of the detector can be reduced to the meV scale, then dark matter as light as ∼MeV can be reached with ordinary nuclear recoils. If, on the other hand, two or more quasiparticle excitations are directly produced in the dark matter interaction, the kinematics of the scattering allows sensitivity to dark matter as light as ∼keV at the same energy resolution. We present in detail the theoretical framework for describing excitations in superfluid helium, using it to calculate the rate for the leading dark matter scattering interaction, where an off-shell phonon splits into two or more higher-momentum excitations. We validate our analytic results against the measured and simulated dynamic response of superfluid helium. Finally, we apply this formalism to the case of a kinetically mixed hidden photon in the superfluid, both with and without an external electric field to catalyze the processes.