In Sickness and In Health: Memories from the Time of Hanahaki Disease in Fanfiction

March, 2024
Elisa Penha, Blog Correspondent
Elisa Penha is a first-year Humanities student with plans to double-major in Classics and Celtic Studies, and minor in Medieval Studies. She is a lover of early 2000s emo bands, the poems of Richard Siken, and over-analyzing Percy Jackson novels. She will usually be found writing stories about elves, or a melodramatic personal essay.

It starts with a cough. A petal stuck to your tongue and spat into the sink. Soon it’s the lungs, a tightness, a coiling of vines, sharp and unrelenting thorns that pierce the soft meat inside of your chest. You pull flowers from your mouth like a never ending magician’s scarf being threaded from a hat or a sleeve. You grow sicker and sicker and the one you want is powerless to stop it—how could they? You can’t make somebody love you. You tried. You did all of the right things. You were kind and you brought gifts and you prayed, to every god there may or may not be, that they would turn around someday. But they do not and never will. They’re sorry about it. You tell them not to bother. It wouldn’t have made a difference either way. 


Hanahaki disease is a fanfiction trope where flowers grow in the lungs and throat of somebody suffering from unrequited love. The sickness can be cured in two ways: one, the beloved returns the feelings of the sick, and the flowers disappear mysteriously, or two, the flowers are surgically removed from the lungs, but along with them, the romantic feelings. Otherwise, Hanahaki disease means certain death, as the sick continue to cough up and choke on flowers until they suffocate. When I was twelve and online, nothing was “in” the way Hanahaki disease was in. In every fandom, with every pairing, there existed hundreds and hundreds of Hanahaki disease stories and artworks. I even wrote a few. I suppose I understand the allure. It is likely that one of the first love stories you ever heard was Romeo and Juliet; there is, and has always been, something very transfixing about dying for love. It’s about having faith in something. An unwavering and whole devotion of the self in a way that is impossible to undo, and in a way that is deeply tangible. For writers, it often seems that demonstrating the physicality of love is difficult in the absence of sex. But there is nothing more visceral than a corpse. Death seems, then, like the next best thing. 


The slow death of Hanahaki disease is meant to be a manifestation of the overwhelm of love, a progression of the colloquial language that we have, for decades, been building to describe this indescribable feeling. Lovesick. Butterflies in your stomach. All of that. It’s not pleasant language. It’s not supposed to be. It’s meant to be disgusting, but not too disgusting, masked by flowers and sexy, angsty imagery: bloody hands, and bloody pining. Hanahaki disease was just palatable enough to keep its lust and remain suitable for romance stories, something to condemn your favourite characters to. It’s not disgraceful enough, not hideous enough, to warrant sequestering, so the sick can live yearningly around their “complacent” beloved for as long as they can. Hanahaki disease is treated with many of the same hallmarks as the ill protagonists of so-called “sick lit” young adult novels– think Five Feet Apart or The Fault in Our Stars or Me, Earl, & the Dying Girl, only more gorey, and almost exclusively queer. 


Characters afflicted by Hanahaki disease usually treat it the way the worst people in the world treat a zombie bite—keeping it hidden. It’s all rather period-drama-like, where the sick ducks away into the bathroom and coughs blood into a tissue, but instead, a wet carnation falls from their mouth. There was, doubtlessly, a shame that came with having Hanahaki. A deep embarrassment to know, even before your beloved does, that you have been rejected. Nobody wants to confess they’re unwanted: humiliation is one of the first hallmarks of Hanahaki disease, subjecting characters to a physical degradation for something neither them nor their beloved could control. On this matter came one of the largest criticisms of Hanahaki disease: the question of delegating emotional responsibility. Hanahaki disease was unique, uncomfortably so, in the accountability it bestowed upon the beloved, which, whether meaning to or not, made them the benefactors for the deaths of the sick. The disease in and of itself was a backhanded way of berating them for being unable to reciprocate, sentencing the sick to the romantic equivalent of a lethal injection, or perhaps the electric chair, since there is nothing peaceful about a death through Hanahaki. Subsequently, Hanahaki gave the unfavourable impression that the sick were goading, forcing, their beloved into said reciprocity. I recall reading one particular Will Solace and Nico di Angelo Hanahaki fanfiction in 2017—Will, a healer, was intensely maligned both by the other characters and in the Tumblr notes for letting Nico die, as though he’d chosen it. The emotional autonomy of the beloved characters in Hanahaki fanfictions is entirely sidelined, torn to shreds, in favour of pressuring a disingenuous romance. One might ask—would that even work? If the beloved were faking reciprocation, would the disease know? How much control, really, do these characters have over who they do or do not love? It is with these questions that we begin to notice the seeds of the deeply embedded queer metaphor that blankets Hanahaki disease, absence of romantic charge therefore becoming the trope’s second hallmark. The third is, simply put, guilt. In every party involved, there is guilt, because nobody wants to be the way they are, or feel the way they feel.


Eventually, the trope manoeuvred itself away from its original incarnation, and evolved so that Hanahaki disease was not caused by an absence of reciprocity, but from a refusal of the sick to confess their feelings. If you are at all acquainted with Hanahaki disease, this is probably the version of the story you know best, as it took off as a much more “tasteful” depiction of love, and one better tailored to the kinds of stories writers were really trying to tell through Hanahaki. It is absolutely no surprise to hear that Hanahaki disease was primarily used for slash-pairings (an internet colloquialism for same-sex pairings), overwhelmingly MLM pairs, from its origins and through its existence. Before coming to the Western world of fandom, Hanahaki disease was abundantly popular in BL (boy-love) manga, and it held explicit sexual connotations depending on which character was the sick, and which the beloved. This did not change when the trope was westernised. Hanahaki disease played directly, and often intentionally, into the hand of queer fetishization, assigning submissive bashfulness to the sick, and aggressive, dominant repression to the beloved—Hanahaki disease would use the roles taken on during the illness as a vehicle to make queer pairings fit skewed standards of heterosexual ones. Though, I must emphasize, it would be incorrect to assume maliciousness and purposeful ignorance from all the writers of Hanahaki disease stories: there is a deep queerness to the symbolism of Hanahaki disease. Consider the hallmarks of Hanahaki, and the vocabulary of it, if one removed the context of the illness itself. Queer people have long been made to feel, through fictional narrative and society both, that their love was wrong, disgusting, and conflated with disease. If Hanahaki is a physical manifestation of the terror of love, it is also a physical manifestation of the terror of self repression, becoming ill at the inability to express yourself, or becoming ill because the person you want to be with is “off-limits.” This is the angle taken with almost every iteration of Hanahaki disease—unrequited love for somebody who is not queer. It’s not their fault. But it’s not yours either. It just is. However, in spite of the low-hanging fruit that is the queer subtext inherent to Hanahaki disease, and though I doubt the majority of authors understood the harmfulness of using a poorly codified—certainly misogynistic—heterosexual relationship dynamic to encase queer characters, Hanahaki disease does not deserve to be absolved from the larger environment of queer misery to which it contributed.


Hanahaki begs the question: Which love stories are you allowed to have? Are they beautiful ones? Loud ones? Or must you be dead by the end of it to make it worth anything? The nuclear fallout of the Hays Code (a law which forbade positive depictions of queer people in film and television) on twenty-first century queer media has created a devastating culture for insisting on tragedy to be the only possible outcome for any queer romances which are able to have the same, explicit canonization as their straight counterparts. And while we have been seeing a much needed move away from this in literature and on television, it has always felt as though the world of transformative works lagged years behind the social progression of “official” properties. 


Which love stories are you allowed to have? Are they love stories at all, or are they dressed in flowers, hospital beds, and posthumous confessions? There is a desperation to Hanahaki disease—one of those stories where you know the ending every time, and go on reading it anyway. But the reason we became so used to the endings of Hanahaki disease fanfictions is because we first became used to the idea of queer romances needing to end in obsoletion or in death—there is a prior, ingrained, societal understanding that we carry when moving into the world of Hanahaki disease. You had to know that it wasn’t allowed to end well to feel that dread at all. 


Which love stories are you allowed to have? And why are queer people only allowed this one? I mentioned, in the very beginning, that the other cure for Hanahaki disease was a surgical removal of the flowers, which would also remove the romantic feelings alongside them. Are you surprised to learn that the characters afflicted by Hanahaki in their respective fanfictions almost never took this route? It guaranteed survival, and it guaranteed taking away the very thing that wrought the disease in the first place, so it seems almost too simple and too good, until you consider the further implications of abandoning those feelings in order to be rid of a disease. It’s not about survival—what kind of survival is one where you had to surgically take out a piece of yourself? Who’s to say that Hanahaki won’t develop once more for somebody else who couldn’t give you what you needed? Would you do it again? And again? Medically ousting that part of yourself each time you feel things that you are not supposed to? A trope as damningly queer as Hanahaki disease having this as an option for recovery is, without embellishment whatsoever, deplorable, and at the crux of it is an answer: Which love stories are you allowed to have? None. Hanahaki disease is not a love story. It’s a lived one. 

Hurt will always come with love. It is not revolutionary to say as much. But why, so often in fanfiction, is hurt all there is to love? Being anywhere on the fandom side of the internet during the Hanahaki craze was truly exhausting. The trope spread like a disease in and of itself, until I could not look at flowers without thinking of them inside of somebody, and all of the gore and suffering that came with it. We are so enamoured with dying for love that we relinquished loving, in the present, all together. There is an upsetting wish to hurt before you are hurt, to prove yourself before love proves impossible, to show how far you are willing to go for somebody, how deeply and terrifyingly devoted they make you feel, to believe so earnestly that true love cannot exist without total selflessness. It makes me sad. The culture which informs and the culture that was informed by Hanahaki disease and other tropes like it reveal so often, so horribly, how deeply undeserving so many people feel of love. I was glad when Hanahaki disease started to phase away, but bracing myself, as I always did, for the next life it would take on, hoping that this time around, we could write something kind.

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