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.”
Read: What fan fiction teaches that the classroom doesn’t
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.