Everyone loves a good train wreck. If you’re like me, you can probably attest to spending a substantial amount of time binging Netflix docuseries like Manhunt Unabomber, Ted Bundy, or Don’t F*** with the Cats. Some of you may not be tv-fanatics, but this morbid fascination with catastrophes doesn’t unfold solely in the entertainment realm. Your parents, for instance, are often glued to the news, engrossed in watching a catastrophic event. This morbid fascination didn’t stop when the pandemic hit, either– and it certainly isn’t exclusive to age.
In fact, this allure begins at a very young age. All eyes gaze upon the woman yelling at her husband on the street, or the disastrous car accident on the highway. Children eventually learn to moderate their reactions to disruptions, as do we. But do we ever really learn to control our innate desire to observe them? When an accident occurs, there’s always a large pile-up, until you reach the source of the pile-up, the accident itself. We shake our heads, judging those who had stared at the disaster, cursing them for holding the rest of us up. As we get closer to the accident, we remind ourselves not to look, not to be a ‘rubbernecker.’ We do everything to control this impulse, but the thrill of the disaster tells us otherwise. We take a quick peek, fascinated by what appears beside us. We guiltily submit to the disaster’s pervasive pleasure, gaping at the scene, before driving away. Most of us simply can’t look away. Instead, we seek out the thrill of disaster, and the pleasure we obtain from seeing mayhem. We can’t help ourselves; human nature will always cause us to be enamored by disasters. Psychologically, it is very difficult to resist this innate urge. This transgression is a guilty thrill, and one all too familiar to me.
I have questioned this so-called transgression for what feels like an eternity, and soon began seeking answers. Carl Jung, a well-known psychiatrist, asserts that this fascination “allows us to entertain our most destructive impulses without actually harming ourselves.” Sure, we can justify our morbid fascination when it comes to real-world disasters; we need to know what has occurred in our world, even if it requires watching gruesome acts. Yes, many of us become enamored, but this act can be justified because we are simply witnessing history. I believe that history, specifically catastrophic events, is not simply a representation of the past. It is the future, the epitome of morality, and the very foundation that allows society to improve. As the saying goes, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is therefore only natural for us to want to engage with the events around us.
This theory cannot be extended into the fictional entertainment realm. Take the Fight Club or Hunger Games – both are fictional films that are based upon catastrophe, mayhem, and gore. Millions of people worldwide are consumed by these types of films, yet they have nothing to do with true events. Throughout the decades, many have argued against the dissemination of fictional materials, contending that fiction is not in the best interest of society from a moral standpoint. Depictions of vice, immorality, and sadistic acts can indeed influence one’s way of thinking. For example, critics of Quentin Tarantino films, such as Kill Bill, often link the violence and gore present in his films to a potential increase in societal violence. While this link is quite possible, one could also argue that fiction yields more good than bad. Many studies show that when we knowingly engage with fictional entertainment, we become less skeptical of the story’s viability. The violence and gore found in films like Tarantino’s is the bread and butter of the entertainment industry. In fact, it is the gore present in these films that captivates its viewers, as the film’s narrative fuels their fascination with mayhem. It is human nature’s fascination with gore that cannot be controlled; it is the foundation of what makes viewers come back for more.
Some may deem curiosity about disaster a transgression, or a sign of insensitivity towards others. I see the allure of watching catastrophes in a different light. I would argue that a fascination with morbidity is a form of compassion. Consuming disasters becomes unethical if one’s consumption is exacerbating the issue at hand. For example, it is unethical in my eyes to passively watch a catastrophe unfold when presented with the option to instead help the victim. Nonetheless, watching a fictional or real-life disaster unfold brings forth a deeper understanding of the adverse effects of the said disaster. For many, witnessing gruesome acts such as death or suffering creates empathy and compassion for the victim. This raw emotion is hard to produce, but can be found through witnessing darkness. And it is only once one witnesses or understands darkness that they can transform said darkness into good. Empathy is the antigen to social friction, as if we can understand each other, societal peace and harmony become more attainable.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: ELIZABETH HOECKEL, PINTREST