How to Murder Harry Potter

In “deathfic,” writers of fan fiction find unexpected comfort in killing off their favorite popular characters.

RobinOlimb / Getty / The Atlantic

When Rachel was growing up in upstate New York, she was what she calls “a creepy girl child”—one prone to wild crying jags that often baffled her mother. Rachel was also, like something close to all American 13-year-olds in the early aughts, an ardent fan of Harry Potter. She read the books, obviously. And once she had exhausted those, she turned to the internet, where she found a seemingly endless supply of stories about Harry Potter characters written by fans like herself.

Soon, Rachel was reading stories in which the characters did things they would never do in the books, or in which the characters found themselves in horrible situations. (Even more horrible than being forced to lead a magical army as teenagers.) One night, she sat down to a story about the nerd-heroine Hermione Granger (a witch born to non-wizard parents) falling in love with the über-blond villain Draco Malfoy (whose parents belong to the wizarding world’s equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan). The pair’s non-canon love story unfurled slowly and sexily over thousands of words, and then the ax dropped—literally. When Malfoy’s father found out that Hermione was pregnant, he beheaded his own son. End of story.

“I sobbed for like an hour straight,” Rachel says. “I was wrecked. Absolutely wrecked.” (Rachel asked to be identified by only her first name to separate her online fan activity from her professional life.)

The memory is funny to her now; she’s sure that particular story was poorly written, knowing she didn’t have discerning taste as a middle schooler. But 16 years later, now living in Los Angeles, Rachel still goes online to re-create that feeling of emotional demolition. She continues to read fan fiction, and she’s drawn to a particularly high-stakes category within the world of fan-created literature: deathfic, the kind of fan fiction in which a beloved character dies, typically in a way that is as painful for the reader as possible. “Sometimes I’m just in the mood to hole up and read the saddest thing I can find on the internet,” Rachel says.

Quantifying the amount of deathfic available online is difficult. It pops up in surprising places, tucked into comment sections on obscure fan pages and sometimes written—flash-fiction style—entirely in the tags of a Tumblr post. On user-generated-fiction platforms such as Wattpad, Archive of Our Own, and FanFiction.Net, the number of deathfic entries is in the hundreds of thousands. These sites ask authors to label these stories with “character death” warnings, and authors also tend to tag them with notes such as “why do I do this to myself” and “why did I write this.”

A baseline assumption of love is that a person you adore is not someone you would like to watch die. Presumably, you would also not like to be the sole architect of that person’s death. But to deathfic writers, the genre isn’t about having some kind of sick control over the life of someone else. It’s about a different kind of control entirely.

There is deathfic for almost every fictional character and real-life celebrity you can imagine. You can find stories in which Rihanna dies and is reborn as a modern Messiah, and hundreds in which members of the K-pop supergroup BTS haunt one another as beautiful ghosts. These can be “crack” stories, in which writers are openly striving to make the strangest fictional reality they can imagine. BuzzFeed, for instance, has documented the rise of Justin Bieber deathfic, which includes freak accidents and maimings of all kinds. They can also be beautiful and thoughtful reworkings of familiar stories, as is the case with one of the most popular deathfics of all time, a Sherlock Holmes story called “Alone on the Water,” which has more than 200,000 hits.

Some fandoms have higher concentrations of deathfic than others. The television shows Supernatural and House, in particular, tend to inspire the really dark stuff. But virtually every real or fictional idol gets killed off at some point: the early-aughts Disney Channel cartoon character Kim Possible and the British actor Tom Hiddleston. The hosts of the My Brother, My Brother, and Me podcast and Kyle from South Park. The tennis player Rafael Nadal, the main character on USA’s White Collar, several members of the pop-punk band My Chemical Romance, and on and on.

Generalizing about the demographics most interested in deathfic is also difficult. The authors featured in the biggest repositories tend to use pseudonyms. But fan fiction in general has always been heavily female—a FanFiction.Net survey from 2010 found that 80 percent of its users identified as women. And long-form fan fiction is most popular with the generation that came online before Tumblr. (So, like Rachel, women in their late 20s or older.)

When deathfic readers chat with each other, they’re the bubbliest mercenaries you’ve ever read. In comment threads or “request” posts for fiction on Tumblr and LiveJournal, they tease one another about being twisted and offer effusive thanks to friends who do “beta” reads of particularly devastating works. They’re eager to give recommendations based on their encyclopedic knowledge of the thousands of available stories. “I’m looking to be broken tonight,” one poster wrote in a LiveJournal group dedicated to Supernatural fic requests. “Tear me to pieces, people.”

Some writers of deathfic—particularly those who are fans of series that already commonly kill off characters, such as Marvel—come to the genre to create a sort of elegy, or to give a beloved character the mourning that the commercial narrative didn’t have time for. Other writers sort out experiences from their own life. Rachel, the onetime Harry Potter fan, writes her own deathfic now, in addition to reading it. Many of her most popular stories are about the MTV series Teen Wolf, and in one, Rachel killed off a character’s mother. “My mom was in the hospital at the time,” she remembers. “I was specifically working through that emotion.”

Despite these various motivations, the goal of sadness is consistent. In Rachel’s most popular deathfic, the teen wolf’s best friend, Stiles, dies of cancer. That one, Rachel says, was inspired by another Teen Wolf deathfic that had been widely praised for being super sad, but that she didn’t find sad at all. “I was so mad,” she says. “This is not making me cry!” She spent two months writing a story with the goal of breaking her own heart. “I ended up sobbing when I finished it,” Rachel says. “I was pretty proud of myself.”

Looking at deathfic as a grotesque hobby would be easy. But among writers and readers of fan fiction, value judgments about what qualifies as “grotesque” are burdened with decades of history of the pathologizing of fandom and restrictions on its expression. On Archive of Our Own, conversations about free speech have simmered for years. The site has an ethos of “maximum inclusiveness,” its policy and abuse chair told The Verge in 2018, which means it allows stories that involve rape, incest, and graphic violence, including swaths of highly detailed suicide fic.

This is a controversial position. Plenty of writers don’t think that Archive of Our Own and other platforms do enough to moderate content, and find the glorification of suicide on sites with significant teen usership disturbing. At the same time, while certain aspects of deathfic are thoroughly modern—in the way it is circulated, collaborated on, and consumed—stories have been dark for ages.

“The curious minds of early Christians kept asking, What was the meaning of the death of Jesus,” the Bible historian Kasper Bro Larsen told me. He refers to iterative gospels written long after Jesus’ death as a form of fan fiction, because they filled in gaps that people were frustrated by. “What did Jesus’s resurrection look like? The old Gospels don’t tell us that, but the Gospel of Peter [shows] a big cosmic shaking of the universe,” Larsen said. The motivations of the Roman politician who ordered Jesus’s execution were explored in the Gospel of Nicodemus, which also answered the question of what Jesus did during the three days between his death and resurrection (he gave sermons in hell.) “People sought to overcome the trauma by telling stories about it,” Larsen added.

Some of the earliest deathfic published on the internet was about Frodo Baggins, the Jesus-like martyr in Lord of the Rings. These stories tended to be long and meandering, giving Frodo ample time to contemplate the significance of his life and the meaning of his death. “A Passage to the West,” one particularly accomplished Frodo deathfic from 2003, shows him wondering “if beyond death there were noises. The sound of waves crashing against jagged reef, distant and muted.” It’s not so different from excerpts scholars have of a lengthy, novelistic Virgin Mary deathfic, the fifth-century author of which is unknown, but which was so widely circulated that the Church made concerted efforts to stamp it out. “People know [the Virgin Mary] must have died, so they said, ‘Give me a nice heroic version of how she died,’” Philip Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University, told me.

For both readers and writers of deathfic, their preexisting relationship with the character who is killed sets the stakes for a challenging emotional experience. “The purpose of deathfic is to create an emotional background where the falling of the character hits us right home, and the sense of loss is real,” a LiveJournal user who loved to kill Batman wrote in 2007. Most writers I spoke with echoed this sentiment that the point of killing your darlings is to create a controlled environment for heightened feeling. In this way, deathfic seems to be the ice bath of recreational reading: It stuns the system and then allows an easy exit. You can always come back to a world in which Frodo—or Justin Bieber, for that matter—has not died horrifically.

Like all literature, deathfic is a way for people to explore their curiosities about what feelings we’re capable of, how we can be changed by loss, and whether our lives have meaning. But deathfic differentiates itself by promising control, or the choice to selectively cede it. It’s as psychologically messy as any other art form, but tinged darker by its frankness about what it is doing: seeking thrills in devastation, manipulation, or both.

Rachel says writing a good deathfic can take months, which makes it a labor of love as much as an assassination. When readers comment on her stories, saying they broke down at work or cried about specific paragraphs she toiled over, she says it’s “nice to know that I was able to write something that could affect someone emotionally.” The comments follow a pretty similar pattern: How could you do this to me? then some form of Thank you so much. Or, as one reader put it: “My eyes are completely red and swollen and I had to leave the room to go and sob without waking everybody … It’s beautiful!!”