Disclaimer: This is about FICTION! The things we enjoy in fantasy are NOT things we enjoy in real life. I do not want to fall in love with a cannibalistic serial killer, I swear.
Think Morticia and Gomez Addams. They’re in love. Their love for each other is chock-full of darkness, from their celebration of mortality and danger, to their aesthetic.
I’m bringing them up first, because I worry when people think of dark romance, they think of terrible things, like tragedy or abuse. That’s not what dark romance is about. When a relationship dynamic becomes tragic or abusive, it loses its romance real quick. Though tragedy and abuse can play a part in making a story dark, when it comes down to it, romance needs to be romantic.
The Adams Family represents the camp side of it. Their morality is clearly present, even if they scare people and engage in the occasional PG-13 sado-masochism display. They care about each other. They genuinely care about others outside of their family, though they don’t quite understand social conventions well enough to show it to outsiders in appropriate ways.
But romance can go darker. In the setting and overarching plot, sure, but I think it feels more like a dark romance when the darkness is a noticeable part of the main couple’s dynamic, and feeds into the romance rather than taking from it. A lot of vampire stories are good examples of this. At least the ones that involve a love story that doesn’t end tragically. Vampires are about seduction. About giving up a piece of your soul and humanity and embracing something that is feared and conventionally thought of as ‘wrong’.
This can exist without vampires. Without anything supernatural at all. Human beings have so many taboos to play with. So many social conventions to break. So many fears to exploit. What do the characters willingly sacrifice to be with the one they love? The more they lose touch with morality, or what we see as good and human, the darker the romance can get.
Hannibal, the series, is a good example of this. Though it wasn’t explicitly stated that Hannibal and Graham were a thing, their love and obsession with each other was clear. I don’t consider this a dark romance, but I think it had enough elements that it could have become one. It teetered on the edge of one. It played with death, murder, fear, cannibalism, mental illness, and hatred so desperate and dark, somehow it twisted into an obsession that resembled love.
Love cannot exist between perpetrator and victim. That, to me, is why abusive relationships in fiction don’t count as romance. The power dynamic is all wrong. Stockholm Syndrome is not romantic.
So then why is Hannibal used as an example? Hannibal clearly victimized Graham. The power balance was way off. For me, it’s like the relationship between Beecher and Keller in HBO’s show Oz. There’s a tipping point in the relationship where the power balance shifts. The victim does something drastic to take back what they lost. They often lose more of their soul or their humanity in this, but they gain the upper hand somehow in the relationship. Their dynamic swings like a pendulum and they become equals, and when that happens, it usually ends tragically rather than romantically, like with Oz. But there was that hint of romance trying to break through the darkness.
I love this shit. I prefer the stuff that doesn’t end tragically for the main pair — I had such high hopes for Hannibal! I love it when I feel guilty for wanting them to win against the world. I love when morality isn’t black and white, but grey and splashed red with blood.
How do you feel about dark romance? Do you have a favourite example? I’m always thirsty for more, so if you know any tv shows, movies, or books, shout em at me! You know where to find me: Comment section, or twitter!
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Sam Clover is an author of M/M speculative fiction. Though she dabbles in a variety of genres, dark themes always find ways to permeate her work. She is a prairie girl from east of the Canadian Rockies, and a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community. Her debut book “Cold Snap” was released by Ninestar Press in December of 2020.