Hurt/comfort is a fan fiction genre that involves the physical pain or emotional distress of one character, who is cared for by another character. The injury, sickness or other kind of hurt allows an exploration of the characters and their relationship.
Hurt/comfort may be abbreviated as H/C. If the emphasis is on the hurt aspect of the story, then H/c may be used instead. If there is absolutely no comfort and a lot of hurt, then the term Hurt/Hurt has been used. The amount of hurt portrayed may edge into torture, another sub-genre of Hurt/comfort. Though not all character torture fans think of it as a h/c subgenre as the "comfort" part may not be important at all in some torture fic, and the point is not to hurt the character for an equal (or surpassing) comfort "pay off" as is the case with much h/c fic. (see the Talk page for discussion of the subgenre question)
Depending on the fandom and/or the author, H/C stories may also encompass BDSM elements to varying degrees.
Brief History: Began as a "Get'em"
Hurt/comfort is one of the earliest genres of fan fiction. Originally, they were called "get" stories -- "get Spock", "get Kirk". The first "get" stories had no sexual content and were often light on the comfort.
The Star Trek zine Contact contained both 'Get-' style and 'Hurt/comfort' style stories, as well as friendship stories between Kirk and Spock. An early example of the intermixed relationship between the 'Get-' style story and the 'Hurt/comfort' style is in the editorial for Contact #4 (1977), which used both of the terms interchangeably: "CONTACT seems to have become known as the 'get-em' zine of fandom. It abounds with pain and the hurt/comfort syndrome. This was never our original intention. Granted, we all have that masochistic streak that loves to see our heroes suffer…but four issues of ONLY this may have run its course."
By 1979 when "This Deadly Innocence (The End of the Hurt/Comfort Syndrome)" by Leslie Fish was produced, the term 'Get-' had fallen out of use and the term Hurt/Comfort was primarily being used. As one of the first Kirk/Spock stories ever published to make the leap from Gen to Slash, the tropes of Hurt/Comfort were well recognized.
Why the Appeal?
The popularity and appeal of hurt/comfort is oft-discussed.A fan in 1981 speculates on the popularity of H/C:
A fan writes of how media has, in the past, let her down:A very simple reason lies in our social culture, where males are not supposed to show feelings, and homosexual relationships are frowned upon as unnatural and perverted. So, when is it acceptable to show emotions? Well, when someone is hurt, it is unkind to be unfeeling, so then real emotions can be shown, possibly pent-up ones saved from other times. I agree that most h/c stories are a bit overdone. I mean, if I were sick or wounded, I certainly wouldn't feel like expressing my undying love and devotion right then; I'd probably just lie there and suffer silently. Seriously wounded people are generally justifiably self-centered, unless they have some great responsibility for the safety of others, and then some can get up and keep on going. As for the rescuer, he is gonna be scared and out of breath and won't have much time for telling the hurt one how much he loves him, either. I've seen so much of that kind of thing in the ST stories that unless it is extremely emotional and well- written, it is rather unbelievable. Of course, they'll have time to talk when the injured person is recovering, but not right at the time of torture, shooting, beating, stabbing, etc. 
Like many fannish folk, I can remember, from earliest childhood, watching TV shows in search of -- something in the way of relationship between characters. I can also remember being generally disappointed. Jess Harper (a stunning young Robert Fuller) in Laramie, got shot or beaten up a lot. But his partner, Slim Sherman (John Smith), was almost never around to take care of him. On The Lawman, Peter Brown's character (handsome young deputy) was once kidnapped, beat up, and tied to a bed, and I think we got some concern from John Russell. I remember an episode of The Tall Man in which Billy the Kid (Clu Gulager, also very young and attractive) had been drugged, but Pat Garrett (Barry Sullivan) didn't do too much to help him. I did like it when Adam accidentally shot Little Joe on Bonanza, but then he went off into a guilt trip and a side plot involving a woman in whom he was interested. Which establishes in my mind the truism that hurt without comfort isn't really satisfying! The general procedure seemed to be endangerment, rescue, and fade to black, with absolutely no gratuitous touching or caring allowed. 
The Eroticization of Nurturance: H/C as a Trope Played Out in Slash Stories
Hurt/comfort often plays a specific role in the plot of slash. Hurt in first time slash stories generally exists to make one the caretaker of the other (often isolating the two of them together), which breaks down both physical and mental boundaries between them, which leads to realizations about each other, which leads to slash. (see also: Magical Healing Cock) Joanna Russ has said about these types of stories that:
Another fan sees the trope as disturbing:The nurturance in these stories is quite unreal, just as the misunderstandings, the scrupulousnesses, and the worries that keep the lovers from declaring themselves, are pure ritual, manufactured for the occasion. By "unreal" I don't mean simply glamorized or idealized but TOTALLY UNLIKE REALITY; if your beloved appears at your door bleeding and battered in real life, you probably don't feel a rush of erotic tendresse. In fact, once you've called for an ambulance, covered said beloved with a blanket, made sure the patient's head is lower than the patient's feet, and administered what medical help you can, you are far more likely to go into your bathroom and throw up. The nurturance in these tales is like Bette Davis's resolution in Jezebel to care for Henry Fond, who has yellow fever, while she looks heavenward (in a very becoming gown) and the sweetness of a thousand violins swells up on the sound-track. Nowhere do you see, for example, Fonda vomiting blood or Davis ugly with lack of sleep or resentful of her never-ending, grueling contact with such romantic objects as full bedpans.
... the best that I have ever read in K/S is "This Deadly Innocence" by Leslie Fish. Its themes continue to impress their importance upon me. I thought of it when I read [C P's] letter in "Observation Deck". She says that she can't abide cruelty, but loves hurt/comfort stories. It seems to me that the underlying implication of h/c, as brilliantly shown by Leslie Fish, is extremely cruel. In these stories Kirk & Spock must be punished for loving each other. They can't show they care without paying the price of pain & anguish. 
To the dismay of fans who feel it is poor characterization, over time in many slash pairings the 'smaller guy' (usually the more popular character in a pairing) becomes more and more likely to be the one hurt, to the point that he actually seems to be shrinking in the descriptions used for him in fanfic. H/C written in a well-established slash fandom often goes to one of two extremes: either the littler character is routinely getting hurt over and over in ways that would kill normal people, or perhaps worse, he overreacts to the application of paper cuts, and must be saved/cured by his all powerful partner. This dynamic is larger than hurt/comfort, but is definitely related to it.
H/C as a Trope Played Out in Gen Stories
Close body contact tropes that don't lead to sex.
- Medicinal Snuggling: hypothermia, one sleeping bag and thou
- Gen Bed Sharing: slide on over, buddy, the bed's big enough for two
- Gen Bathing: showers, baths and, well, more showers and baths
H/C in Gen as a Substitute for Sex?
Some fans believe that the intimacy of close body contact and comfort in H/C gen stories can be a substitute for sex. Others disagree.
A fan cites This Deadly Innocence, Or The End of the Hurt/Comfort Syndrome as groundbreaking meta:
I first read this story in 1979, and it‘s just as delightful today as it was then.
Meta and fic go so well together, don‘t they? As soon as fans started writing fic, they began analyzing tropes, speculating and debating characterization, and commenting on the "why" of it all. Rereading "This Deadly Innocence" now reminded me of how often fic is used as part of the fannish debate. Back in the 70s, there was a lot of meta written about hurt/comfort As more and more Trek zines were published, so were more and more h/c stories (originally called get stories, i.e., "Get Spock", "Get Kirk", etc.) Along with this was lots of analysis and psychoanalysis as to what the appeal of h/c meant. Fans observed that many of these stories were written in order to get Spock (or Kirk) to show vulnerability, particularly emotional vulnerability. As the 70s continued, h/c stories became more and more extreme. Fans commented there seemed to be "more and more pain to reach that one moment of emotional confession/pay off." K/S had emerged from its early 1970s underground by 1976. A new concept was introduced into the fannish debate - that slash was a natural substitute for h/c – that sex should, and would, replace violence. "This Deadly Innocence or The End of the Hurt/Comfort Syndrome" by Leslie Fish was written specifically to prove this point. In the author‘s words, in her interview in Jenna Sinclair‘s Legacy # 5 fanzine: ""This Deadly Innocence" was originally subtitled "The End of the Hurt-Comfort Syndrome" because, as many fans had been considering for years, the H-CS was indeed a euphemism for sex; a way for the characters to physically express powerful love for each other without venturing into dangerous‘ sexual territory. I got to thinking about just how dangerous the H-CS could become, and decided to expose it -- to the characters, and to the reading audience."(It didn‘t work out that way – h/c didn‘t exactly go away; it is a genre all its own, both apart from slash and concurrent with slash.) 
One fan in 1987 writes: "Heavy friendship" fans seem to rely on hurt/comfort situations as the means for K and S to express their feelings for each other. I do still enjoy some h/c stories, but once I accepted K/S, I found most h/c situations to be incredibly masochistic. In essence, h/c stories say, "You are unlovable unless you're in pain." K/S is much healthier; they don't need excuses to love each other." 
Gen H/C and Sex as Discussed by Some Starsky and Hutch Fans
The incredible flood of hurt/comfort stories are so tantalizingly close to being sexual that it's almost painful (and funny). These writers turn out page after page of lovingly detailed torture and humiliation, loaded— albeit unconsciously--with sexual symbolism, solely for the purpose of flinging S&H into each other's arms and having them gasp: 'I love you...buddy.' 'I love you too, babe,' chaste kiss, fadeout. 
Mohave Crossing', 'Solitaire,' 'Wilderness', 'Bomb Scare,' and Copkiller [all Starsky and Hutch zine stories or zines] seem to fit your pattern ('page after page of lovingly detailed torture and humiliation...solely for the purpose of flinging S&H into each other's arms and having them gasp: 'I love you...buddy, I love you too, babe, chaste kiss, fade out.'). For that matter, so do "Shootout," "Coffin," "Survival," "Bloodbath," "Fix," and numerous other aired episodes... Perhaps I took your comments wrong, but they seem to imply that those of us who don't particularly care for the S/H theme are just kidding ourselves about latent sexual overtones present in the hurt/comfort (or get'em) genre. I believe you were saying that those of us who read and enjoy hurt/comfort instead of S/H aren't willing to admit that certain sexual connotations are present within the stories and aren't sophisticated enough to take it the final 'inevitable' step—S&H in bed together. I agree that hurt/comfort has its basis in sexual gratification but I'm not a psychologist so I can't explain why some of us stop short at hurt/comfort and others go on to S/H. I do know that most of us obtain a modicum of sexual pleasure from this kind of story. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. I really wish someone would do a study of it. As a child I got tummy twinges from seeing Little Joe Cartwright (among others) "get it" (as he so often did); as an adult...well, suffice it to say, I enjoy stories and TV shows offering this kind of fare immensely. 
I have to leap in on the discussion [J C] began last time, continued by [J W] and others--hurt/comfort and S/H. Many moons ago, before I knew fandom existed, my partner and I were writing all kinds of S&H. You name it, we wrote it—not particularly well, perhaps, but that's beside the point. And rarely did a tale get by without a good hefty dose of h/c. When you're gonna dent em, dent 'em good, was our motto—no way is Hutch going to cuddle him if he just tears a hangnail. Or vice versa. So Kick Hutch Week was followed by Stomp Starsky Week, and they and we got our jollies without any qualms of conscience on either side. Suddenly along came the Brave New World of Fandom, and we discovered there was a name for all this stuff. And we read 'Mojave Crossing,' and stopped writing h/c for a while, because we knew we couldn't top that. There from arose a problem—if no one gets dented, what happens to the emotional bits we love to write? So we were forced to stop and reexamine what we were writing and why, and the result of that was a step forward in the evolution of our writing. One thing, you might say, lead to another. Natural progression—h/c to S/H.And I bet someone is now going to jump on me for that... 
As in any genre, there are degrees of quality. I don't believe that the next step, or rather, the missing step in h/c is the bedroom. Compare a story like Mojave Crossing in which the love (and I emphatically do not mean sexual love) between the two characters is conveyed so well, with some of the lurid mutilation/humiliation scenes- that allow the characters to sob, 'I love you' only when death is moments away (presumably). What I meant to imply, what I will say now, is that scenes like these are very unhealthy ways of dealing with the emotions that occur between S&H. I perceive a sexual tension between the two men. I believe that the writers who deal almost exclusively (obsessively?) with h/c perceive that same tension, unconsciously, and are attempting to transmute it into more socially acceptable forms. What could become a sexual situation is neatly transformed into non-threatening titillation—no Mary Sues, no Other Women and no hint of homosexuality...at least most of the time. The unconscious sexual symbolism that I mentioned doesn't exist in all get'ems, but I can think of a few examples right off the bat. 
It is a matter of taste and preference, not of sophistication; and S/H is not a natural sequel to h/c. S/H and h/c fans tend to separate into distinct and mutually exclusive groups. S/H readers don't much care for h/c—as a friend of mine observed, 'There are better things to do with those glorious bodies than mangle them' --and vice versa; S/H writers don't do h/c stories and vice versa. Exceptions are quite rare. 
This story includes agony that runs the gamut from sexual assault (the beautiful blond gets it in this one, but details are mercifully left out) to Starsky being beaten with a tree branch (see page 23 if you think I jest). What I want to know is why do this to characters that you love? Why hurt them like this in order to get them to touch one another? 
[It’s] something I've been wanting to say about h/c for a long time, and this from an S/H person -- is h/c really all that bad? Okay, I agree, when that's the only reason for a story, then h/c is being done in excess. And I must confess, when I first got into S&H I really got off on h/c, but after awhile I got so sick of that being the only reason for them to touch, be emotional, cuddle, be sensitive to each other, etc. S/H is a lot more fun, alot more satisfying and is a lot more realistic. 
I don't know WHY I am attracted to the male/male relationship and I am not that turned off by the lesbian relationship. All I know is that it gives me a funny feeling in the throat, or the stomach or somewhere when I read the scenes. Similar to the good h/c scenes only more so, but it also depends on how well the explicit sexual scenes are done. 
Gallery with Examples of H/C Fanart
Kirk and Spock in Precessional, artist unknown
Doyle and Bodie, inside art by Kate in Discovered on a Rooftop
Chewbacca and Han in Kessel Slave
Han and Leia, by Laura Quilles, in Imperium
Sam and Dean in You'll Thank Me When It's Wednesday!
Peter Caine and his dad in Bitter Blood, art by TACS
art from Interphase #1
cover of Ouch!, a zine series specializing in H/C fiction
Spock and Bones, art from T-Negative #15, Jackie Franke
Walk Away Victorious, Merlin/Arthur fanart by novemberlite (2011)
Specific H/C Tropes in Fanfic
Not all stories with these elements are H/C, but they can frequently be found in H/C stories.
- Amnesia: Usually including the partner's pain in being forgotten or unappreciated.
- Disability fic: Includes blindness, amputation, paralysis, and other permanent injury.
- Brain damage: Sometimes seen as a subset of disability fic, these are stories where one BSO is made permanently child-like. Examples include: Gentle on My Mind and sequels in The Professionals, the Highlander "Teddy Bear" stories, "Changes" in The Sentinel, "Goodbye to Dreams" in SG-1. Since these stories often include sex, some people have said they fulfill the same needs as chanslash in other fandoms. There are however also brain damage stories in which the BSO does not end up child-like, but with other effects from a brain injury, such as aphasia, seizures, partial paralysis, etc.
- Coma: One of the partners is in a coma for a brief or extended period of time. Example: Distant Shores, an epic Starsky & Hutch slash novel by April Valentine, wherein Hutch is kidnapped, presumed dead by Starsky and everyone else, but actually has been in a coma in Australia for several years.
- Death stories: Sometimes written as all hurt, no comfort; sometimes the comfort is aimed at the BSO who didn't die.
- Attempted Suicide: Subgenre of suicide fic where one of the characters attempts to commit suicide but is either prevented by another character and/or comforted after the attempt by one or more other characters.
- Rape recovery: Rapefic stories that concentrate much more on the recovery than the rape itself. Examples include Being an Anchor by Lanning Cook in Sports Night.
- Snifflefic: Stories with very minor hurt, in which the point was the comfort: putting them to bed, making them tea, seeing them cossetted. First used in reference to The Professionals story, Fever, by Pam Rose.
- Degenerative illness: Stories where the author's woobie develops cancer, AIDS, or other lingering, long-term degenerative illness. Examples include Dancing on Glass by Em Brunson in Sports Night, PuddleJumper Estates and ZPM Enterprises in SGA, possibly Helpless in Sherlock (BBC).
- Torture: Injuring the character over and over again using extreme measures. Very popular in Highlander fandom, as the main characters were immortal and regenerated.
- Amateur Surgery: When one character, usually not a doctor, has to perform a life-saving surgical procedure on another character. A variation has him or her assisting in a primitive field surgery.
Common H/C Types by Fandom
- Age of Sail: Disability fic, primarily amputation.
- Blake's 7: According to executrix, "A lot of Blakes7 stories are referred to as BUARA (Beat Up and Rape Avon), which I believe is the B7 equivalent of a "Get-Spock" story." The term is defined at Judith Proctor's Blake's 7 site as "used for slash stories where Avon suffers terribly, but almost invariably without any permanent damage." 
- Highlander: Methostorture, featuring works by Barb G, Juxian Tang, Maygra, and Mairead Triste.
- The Lord of the Rings/FPF: In hobbit fic, Frodo is the character who is most often sick or injured. His suffering may be related to his ordeal on the Quest and the loss of the Ring. Frodo tends to be cared for lovingly and well by all the other characters, including many original characters from the Houses of Healing. The FrodoHealers Yahoo! group, which allows only gen stories, had 3754 posts between June 1, 2002, and May 31, 2003. PippinHealers is a smaller but still consistently active group. See also Hurt/Comfort recs at lotr_fic_recs.
- Original Slash: Manna Francis's Administration series and maculategiraffe's slavefic The Slave Breakers are both examples of original slash darkfic.
- The Phantom Menace: Soulbonding, with a side of BDSM.
- The Sentinel: Smarm bridged the gap between slash and gen, and a lot of Hurt/comfort writers were drawn to it, such as Martha. Ordeal, Snake Oil, and Cake is a series of H/C stories by Martha focused on Blair as the woobie, while The Dragon by Mairead Triste focused more on Jim. Kitty and Martha's Beach, 78 chapters of "platonic" h/c, may still be the paradigmatic smarm story. 
- Starsky & Hutch: Elspethdixon said: "My general memory/impression is that pretty much all Starsky & Hutch fic of reasonable length is h/c of the old school variety." 
- The X-Files: See Muldertorture.
- Dragon Age: slavefic, especially of the "Magister A/U" subgenre.
Fannish Essays and Meta About H/C: Further Reading
- A Medical View of Hurt/Comfort by Vonne Shepard
- Hurt/Comfort: A Confession and a Celebration by Renae
- When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters by Lucy Gillam
- Why Does Obi-Wan Get All the Pain in TPM H/C Fic? by Alias Solo
- The Overuse of H/C by delle
- We Always Hurt the One We Love by Lucy Gillam
- We Always Hurt the One We Love... and then turn him into a sorry-ass, emasculated, mentally unstable, whiny, co-dependent tag-along by Helena Handbasket
H/C in Academic Writing About Fandom
In "Queering Popular Culture", Susanne Jung says, Mirna Cicioni discusses similar instances of comforting in her analysis of the "hurt/comfort" genre which she characterizes as an "eroticization of nurturance." With one partner satisfying a basic need of the other - providing warmth, food or emotional reassurance - elements like warmth or food, "although not specifically sexual in themselves [. . .] are eroticised because they give a physical dimension to the closeness of the bond between the partners and lead to, or become a part of, an intimacy that also has a sexual component". 
In her essay, "Women Reading Men," feminist film critic Christine Gledhill discusses the figure of "The Wounded Man," who "may cross over the gender divide, playing to a fantasy of similarity and rapproachment." Gledhill further notes that: "one attraction to this figure is its capacity to redress the power balance between the sexes--to force the male into the position of the woman. In so doing the wounding of the man, whether physical or psychological, makes the male figure accessible to the female imagination." 
- Rosa's Hurtin' For Comfort rec page circa April 2002 (via Wayback Machine) Accessed October 12, 2008
- The outrageous "Revenge", written by Dee L. Meuser (Warp 9 1), and the early stories of Jennifer Guttridge (published in Tricorder Readings) are prime examples of the type.
- The End of the Hurt/Comfort Syndrome by Leslie Fish on the K/S Archive, originally in Naked Times #3
- epic recs on This Deadly Innocence
- from S and H #21
- from Frienz #25
- Russ, Joanna in the essay Pornography, by women, for women in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts
- from Not Tonight Spock! #10
- Rana Eros, Travel Size for Your Convenience. Hosted at the Fanfic Symposium, 21 January 2002, accessed 20 October 2008.
- Lorelei Jones, The Damsel in Distress Syndrome. Hosted at the Fanfic Symposium, 17 November 1999, accessed 20 October 2008.
- from a fan in 2011, The K/S Press #174
- from SocioTrek #3 (1987)
- from Not Tonight, Spock! #4 (1984)
- from CI5hq
- from S and H #19 (March 1981)
- from S and H #20 (April 1981)
- from S and H #20 (April 1981)
- from S and H #20 (April 1981)
- from S and H #20 (April 1981)
- from S and H #29 (January 1982), from a review of Judge and Jury
- from S and H #29 (January 1982)
- from S and H #29 (January 1982), this is a fan's reaction to drawerfic as the only slash Starsky and Hutch zine printed at that point in time was the non-explicit Forever Autumn
- For example, SGA fics Rebuilding Babel  by fiercelydreamed and the aphasic John series by busaikko.
- For example, SGA fic Wear a Rainbow by busaikko.
- Blake's 7 Fanzine terminology (Accessed October 16, 2008)
- FrodoHealers Yahoo! group. Accessed Oct. 27, 2008.
- Lucy Gillam. The Death of Smarm. Posted 26 September 1999. (Accessed 21 October 2008)
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- We Always Hurt the One We Love... and then turn him into a sorry-ass, emasculated, mentally unstable, whiny, co-dependent tag-along (Accessed 27 October 2008); Webcite.
- Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women. Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992.
- Queering Popular Culture: Female Spectators and the Appeal of Writing Slash Fan Fiction, by Susanne Jung, University of Tübingen, Germany
- Cicioni, Mirna. "Male Pair-Bonds and Female Desire in Fan Slash Writing." Theorizing Fandom. Fans, Subculture, and Identity. Ed. Cheryl Harris and Alison Alexander. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton P, 1998. 153-77.
- Christine Gledhill, "Women Reading Men," Me Jane: Masculinity, Movies, and Women, ed. Pat Kirkham and Janet Thumen. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.) 86-7.