Why I Find Comfort in Reading Fictional Tragedy and Horror

Why delve into dark things when I could be enjoying a heartwarming romance or a lighthearted adventure instead?
Publish date:
January 4, 2016
tragedy, books, feelings, fiction, horror

I never quite had the dedication (and access to Hot Topic) to make it happen, but sometimes I wonder if I should have been an emo or goth kid. From childhood onwards, I have had a fascination with dark stories and not-so-happy endings. I would pick a horror movie over a romantic comedy any day. My favorite piece of fanfiction ever isn’t the beautifully crafted, heartwarming love story written by one of my close friends, but a horrifyingly well-written tale of gaslighting and emotional abuse.

At a certain point, I wondered why I’m so into media that ranges the gamut from angsty to outright awful. I know that my tastes aren’t uncommon - if they were, there wouldn’t be so many tragedies, horror movies, and hurt-heavy hurt/comfort fanfics — but there’s plenty of media out there that doesn’t have such a glum view of things. Why do I delve into dark things when I could be enjoying a heartwarming romance or a lighthearted adventure instead?

Sadness, fear, and anger, among an abundance of other emotions usually viewed as negative, are a part of the human experience. They can be challenging to handle and confront, and it’s often acutely painful to experience them. However, I’ve found that media that stirs up those emotions can provide me with a safe space to experience and process those emotions.

If I’m haunted by a beloved character’s death or misfortune, it hurts. I experience a genuine feeling of sadness, even loss, for this fictional character. But unlike the death or misfortune of a loved one in real life, I can put the book or the movie down. Even though the memory is there, I know that I can continue on with my life. I can choose not to revisit that series. I can go watch something happy. The emotions evoked by fictional media don’t have a bearing on my day-to-day life in the same way that real events do. It gives me a sense of control in processing negative emotions.

I actually enjoy feeling some negative emotions in a safe context like this. And I’m not the only one; people do it in everything from watching horror movies to participating in sadomasochism. The idea is the same: experiencing emotions that in other contexts would be awful, reframed in a limited way.

When you watch a scary movie, ask your partner to spank you, or eat something painfully spicy, you’re taking control of the situation. It feels much different when you freely consent to experience those emotions in a limited capacity than when unforeseen or unwanted circumstances thrust pain or fear upon you. When you have that control over the situation, it can empower you, and you have the security of knowing you can stop it at any time if it gets to be too much.

On a related note, exploring these sorts of emotions often helps me feel less alone. When I was younger, I had some of that “Woe is me, no one else ever feels awful like I do” mentality that sometimes afflicts teenagers. And I still get traces of that feeling at times. After all, when you’re sad or discouraged, dealing with a crappy job or coming out of a toxic relationship, it’s sometimes hard to not feel like you’re the only person out there who feels that way.

I used to internalize that feeling and beat myself up about it. I felt like my negative emotions were always my fault, and had trouble keeping a sense of perspective, remembering that everyone feels bad sometimes. Consuming media where terrible things happen to the characters helps me feel like I’m not alone — which in turn makes me less likely to wallow in self-pity in the future.

While this applies to everything from sad movies to songs about break-ups, the best example for me was actually the piece of fanfiction I mentioned above. It’s the length of a George R.R. Martin novel, and centers around a character who, despite his fame and intelligence, falls into a relationship with a man who emotionally and verbally abuses him. The main character unravels his entire life to try to keep this toxic relationship going, because the man he loves expertly preys upon his insecurities.

I empathized with that character so much it hurt. For the first time, I finally understood — not just intellectually, but emotionally — that yes, other people end up in unhealthy relationships. A character that I connected with and admired made bad decisions with his love life, and I could totally understand why.

When it’s fictional media, I get the best of both worlds. There isn’t actually another person out there suffering, so I’m not making myself feel better through another person’s misery. That said, I can still relate to it and empathize with the characters, which can help me remember I’m not alone, and be more forgiving of my unpleasant emotions and the mistakes that led to those emotions.

Recently while poking around online, I stumbled across a third reason that sad media may help people feel better. An Ohio State University study found that “[fictional] tragedies actually make people happier in the short-term.” While the scope of the study was limited, the results were intriguing. The researchers had participants watch an abridged version of a tragic movie, and found that viewers who thought about their close relationship after the film actually saw an increase in happiness. When interviewed about the study, Dr. Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick elaborated:

“Positive emotions are generally a signal that everything is fine, you don’t have to worry, you don’t have to think about issues in your life,” she said.

“... negative emotions, like sadness, make you think more critically about your situation. So seeing a tragic movie about star-crossed lovers may make you sad, but that will cause you to think more about your own close relationships and appreciate them more.”

While this wasn’t something I had thought about much previously, it makes a lot of sense. I try to make a point to be thankful for the good things in my life, and seeing tragic things is a good reminder of how much in my life isn’t super messed up.

My taste in media is just that: my taste. Dark, upsetting, or angsty media isn’t any better or any worse than liking joyful or fun media, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect a tortured or self-effacing soul. It simply scratches a different itch, and for many of us, can help us feel happier and more satisfied throughout the rest of our lives.