To the Greeks, love was rarely positive. Hesiod talks about the nature of Love in what we might call Lovecraftian terms today. Love is a creature of the primordial void; a child born of chaos.
Love then arose, most beautiful among the immortal gods, who loosens the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and mortal men.
This negative view of love can be seen in many Greek tragedies, where the affections of heroes or heroines – whether they be Oedipus, Dido, or Ariadne – rarely turn out for the best. In modern western literature, however, we have largely abandoned this view of love in favor of the Christian romantic view, which prizes romance as a symbol of Christ and the Church, His bride.
But tropes which adopt the more dismal, classical view of love remain, some of them stemming from the classical sources themselves. Others add a surprisingly Christian twist to the old view, leading to a disturbing fusion.
The kiss of the death falls neatly into this latter category. In this trope, a person either knowingly or unknowingly causes the death of another person through a display of affection. This particularly cynical understanding of love is peculiar to Christianity. It would never work in a pagan sense because the pagan never had a high view of love to begin with, and so it could not be horrifying.
Indeed, the New Testament is probably the original source of this idea. Judas’ kiss is one of the most iconic moments in the New Testament, and every Vampire or Femme Fatale that came afterwards have something of Judas in them.
The first type of kiss of death which is most similar to the kiss of Judas is the vampiric kiss. The affection that a character gives is used as a cover for their own selfishness. This type of kiss can be familial in nature, such as in the case of the notorious ‘Mafia’ kiss, popularized by the Godfather, where a Mafioso uses a kiss to signal who he wishes to kill. It may also be sexual, such as is in the darkly amorous advances of Dracula.
It can be used as a euphemism, as seen in the case of the Dementor’s kiss in Harry Potter, where a creature bestows a symbol of affection without any pretense of good intention, and the word kiss is simply used a euphemism for the hunger of a shadowy, ghost-like figure. It can also be used ironically, such as the case with Kissing Kate Barlow, in the book Holes, where a notorious outlaw kisses those she kills, as a way of demonstrating how she was betrayed in turn. In every case, the life is destroyed by the pretext of love.
There are times when the romantic view of love and the twisted Christian version intersect in this trope, and that’s when the kiss of death is not intended to be fatal, but nevertheless kills. A straight example of this concept can be seen in X-Men’s character Rogue, who inadvertently draws the life force out of anyone she touches, at one point, nearly killing her boyfriend in the process.
Nathaniel Hawthorne takes this idea even further in his short story Rappaccini’s Daughter where the kiss of death never actually happens, the main character is simply warned that the kiss of his beloved is poisonous, and brings tragedy on himself in his attempts to cure her. Here love finds its way back to the Greek status of being fundamentally tragic.
The Kiss of Death requires a high view of love for its horror take root. In it, the bond of affection which is often used for the betterment of both individuals is either used by one individual to exploit the other, or unknowingly part and parcel to the destruction of them both. In many ways Christianity, by holding love in very high esteem, also paved the way in literature to unseen depths.
The relationship in literature between fathomless heights and unfathomable depths is exemplified by the existence of an inverse trope: the kiss of life. We are well aquainted with this story, which goes by many names, including ‘love’s first kiss’, ‘true love’s kiss’ and other alibis. It is so well-known at this point that it now appears mostly as a parody.
In the kiss of life, a stone-cold corpse is kissed by a lover, who may very well be acting in despair that moment, without any hope that his love will be realized. And just like that, the corpse awakens, and the moment gives way to rapture as an impossible dream manifests: death is not permanent. Love conquers the grave.
If Judas with his betrayal of Christ exemplifies the kiss of death, then Jesus Himself may be a precursor to the kiss of life, for we are well acquainted with the tragedy of His death on the cross, and the despair of his disciples as all hope seemed to be lost, and they congregated together hiding from unfriendly enemies. The moment of His resurrection is a triumph that has echoed for two thousand years.
Elsewhere on this site, my colleague has written about the relationship between fantasy and horror, and the dichotomy of love expressed here is a good example of it. The astounding moment of triumph following a moment of bleak despair, described by Tolkien as a eucatastrophe, enables – through its subversion – the astounding terror of a world where that despair is never conquered, and the triumph is never realized; where love is indeed a grim facade for death.