I really like dark fiction. I’ve been pretty obsessed with the show Orphan Black recently, which is a fairly graphic show about clones and murders. When I was younger, Holly Black was one of my favorite YA authors, and her novels generally center around some slightly sadistic fairies and other fantasy creatures who are not all rainbows and gumdrops. I know I’m not the only one who loves these kinds of media. But what is it about that gritty feel that makes dark fiction so much more satisfying than any other kind of fiction to me? I do have what in past times might have been termed a “melancholic personality”, and that explains part of it for me: I’m drawn to dark things because I tend to exist in a slightly depressive state.
But that doesn’t explain the overall popularity of these shows. I think there’s a lot of reasons that people feel attraction to the dark. One obvious reason is that it allows us to feel like we’re engaging in something dangerous and big and exhilarating that we would never actually partake in. In the same way that horror films give you a rush, so can dark and disturbing films. They let the “bad” part of you come out to play in a way that harms no one, but gives some satisfaction to the more animalistic side of our human nature. I think this is true of many kinds of fiction, that it allows us to live out certain fantasies we would never undertake in the real world.
With dark and disturbing fiction in particular, I find that oftentimes I like it because it makes me feel less alone in the world. Many people have disturbing or dark thoughts, and rarely do they share those thoughts with others. I’m sure there are lots of people out there who think they’re uniquely messed up in this world because of the things they think or want. Many times characters that exist in dark worlds or who do dangerous and disturbing things in fiction are allowed to think those same kinds of thoughts. They allow us to grapple with the harder parts of ourselves. When I read a novel that has a character struggling with self-harm, or thinking about suicide, I have a catalyst to explore my own feelings all in a fictional realm. I understand that even though this is a fictional character someone else has some understanding of what I’m going through. It helps me to feel less crazy sometimes.
There are good reasons we are drawn to dark fiction. We try to excise a lot of these elements of ourselves from our daily lives, and fiction gives us space to play and release those pieces of ourselves that aren’t appropriate in real life. But I think there’s something more sinister at play in my love for these types of novels. Our society works fairly hard to condition us to believe that violence is sexy. There are more ad campaigns than I can count that feature violence against women, shot in a way that is supposed to be alluring. Porn often features rape scenes, or violence (particularly against women). Movies that feature violence are often described as “sexy” even when there is nothing remotely sexual about them. We have been trained to associate alluring, sexual, and desirable with an aesthetic that says dark, destructive, painful, and gritty.
I know that I have been trained to see someone in pain as someone who is vulnerable, and thus someone who is open. Vulnerability is certainly a part of being sexual, but not when it’s coerced, not when it’s the vulnerability of violence, not when it’s the openness of having been stripped. So while I think there are certainly good reasons to love things like Orphan Black, I also know that the draw I feel towards it may be due to societal impulses, and that I need to remember that violent is not sexy.