This is an excerpt from a post on Rachel's blog. To read this post in its entirety, clicking here.
Back in October 2011, someone commented on my review of Lips Touch: Three Times with the question: "why do people like such dark stories?" That wasn’t the first time I've been asked this and it's a good question. I started to type a response to that comment, but I found that I kept deleting my response and typing something else, which led me to the realization that I don't have an easy answer. So here's my long, convoluted answer!
I want to specify that I don't seek out dark books. Some people do (and they would probably have a different answer to this question), but I don't. In fact, when someone describes a book as dark (violent, scary, gruesome, disturbing, etc.), I'm more likely to steer away from that book than snatch it up. These ominous adjectives definitely aren't sellers for me.
And yet, a lot of my favorite books are very, very dark. In my attempt at an easy answer, I say it all comes down to how the content’s handled. I'm not inclined toward dark books, but sometimes darkness in a story can be beautiful, illuminating, and even healing. Dark books in the hands of brilliant writers can shake my entire worldview and/or make me learn something new about myself.
Pulling from my own experience, I have a handful of theories on why people might be drawn to dark stories. Of course, it really comes down to specific books and it's not fair to say any person loves all dark tales. I love fantasy, but I don't love every fantasy book. When handled with insight and compassion, though, darkness can actually be a strength in a story.
Finally, I'm getting to the why! The first possibility that springs to most people's minds, especially those who dislike dark stories, is morbid fascination. I like to believe that it's more than that. I know I prefer the focus on psychological and emotional ramifications of violence or trauma than gruesome descriptions of said violence. Along those lines, something interesting that I’ve noticed about myself is that I can tolerate far more violence in books than I can in movies or television. Probably because I don't like being forced to see something. With a violent literary scene, I can paint an image in my head as vivid as I feel comfortable, though authors with extraordinary skill can certainly force images into your mind with less help from your imagination than usual. But with television or movies, there’s no choice about how much to see; you see what’s displayed in front of you. (Unless you’re one of those people who hides under your sweater at frightening scenes, which I confess I have done before.) The point is that when reading a violent scene in a book, I tend to be thinking more about the emotions of each character than about the gore.
Humanity has a dark side. Very rarely do I read about a violent action that I don't believe is realistic. I love my happily-ever-after, nothing-too-terrible-happens stories, too, but I consider them a retreat from reality. Of course, there's an in-between with books that don't easily fit the descriptions "light" or "dark," and I enjoy those as well. In the end, I read to understand, and I would only be doing myself a disservice in terms of understanding people if I refused to consider their darker inclinations and only read the happily-ever-after type books.
Dark stories draw attention to real issues. Even though the darkness in stories mirrors the darkness in reality, most people's lives aren't nearly as trauma-invested as the darkest tales. For those people in safe, sheltered, and content lives, terribly dark books can force them to consider issues they would prefer not to think about, issues that whether they’re exaggerated, fictional, and perhaps even portrayed with a fantastical twist still reflect real problems. Sometimes these books motivate people into action.
Through reading, we learn more about ourselves and about the world. (This ties into my point above that occasionally readers will become so invested in an issue in a book that they take up the cross in real life.) I recently read a psychology study that concluded that people who read a lot of fiction are more empathetic and better at interpreting social situations than people who don't read very much or any fiction. When we read about characters' experiences, we put ourselves in their place. Almost always when I'm reading something, I wonder what I would do if I found myself in the exact same situation as the protagonist (or sometimes side characters), regardless of how incredibly unlikely said situation might be. This is one of the reasons that reading dark stories can be difficult, especially for highly empathetic readers: because, emotionally, they’re too close to living the painful experience. I’m glad I've never experienced the violent, traumatic events that many of my favorite characters suffered through, but I feel reading their story and thinking about what I might do, how I would feel, what I might think, how I would recover from something like that, has helped form my identity.