Morbid Curiosity

The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016

Morbid Curiosity

Why do we find it so hard to keep our eyes on the road when we pass a crash on the highway? Or stumbling across a dead animal on a country walk, find ourselves both compelled and disgusted by the sight of its spilled guts. When the British construction worker Ken Bigley was executed in Iraq in 2004, the video of his beheading was reputedly one of the most searched-for terms on Google the next day. Why do scenes of pain, mutilation, death and decay exert such an irresistible attraction?

There is no real consensus among contemporary psychologists about the reasons for morbid curiosity. Some say it’s because we live in a sanitized age: when death and suffering are hidden behind hospital curtains, they become all the more fascinating. But morbid curiosity isn’t just a modern phenomenon. In The Republic, written almost 2,500 years ago, Plato recounts the tale of a young Athenian nobleman, Leontius. Walking outside the city walls, Leontius comes across a pile of freshly executed criminals. Though he clamps his hands over his eyes and knows he ought not to look, he is quickly overcome and runs up to the corpses, drinking in the gruesome sight.

Though Plato himself didn’t venture to explain why Leontius was so eager to gawp at dead bodies, many philosophers since have tried to understand this phenomenon. There are, broadly speaking, three main theories.

The first, and most common, is that witnessing other people’s suffering is cathartic. The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, noticed that people raced to the sites of live executions “as to a theater play,” with great whooping excitement. He thought it wasn’t because they were inherently interested in the tension of watching the condemned kick and writhe in agony but rather because, once the sorry spectacle was over, they’d be left with a “feeling of relaxation.” Kant based his theory on the much older, and more famous, theory of catharsis outlined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (see: RELIEF). His idea was that by arousing intense feelings of terror and pity, we purge them too. Though he was famously sketchy on the details, some kind of release of pressure may explain why on leaving the cinema after a fist-in-mouth gorefest, we can feel lighter and oddly refreshed.

The second theory argues that morbid curiosity is an inbuilt reflex and serves some purpose. Around the same time Kant was formulating his “feeling of relaxation” theory, the English moralist Adam Smith argued that witnessing the suffering of others helped foster the bonds of what then was known as sympathy (see: EMPATHY). When we cringe at another’s pain, we’re not simply enjoying the drama but are also experiencing a faint echo of their suffering in our own body. Such vicarious winces, wrote Smith, are evidence of an inbuilt instinct for putting ourselves in another’s shoes. Smith’s argument, or versions of it, remains very influential. Today’s psychologists speak of it as an evolved impulse, so that when we rubberneck at the stretcher being loaded into the ambulance, or crane to see the blood on the tarmac, we’re not shamefully exploiting another’s misery for kicks but taking the opportunity to empathize with their pain and strengthen social bonds. Some psychologists also suggest that we gawp to familiarize ourselves with disaster and prepare ourselves for threat. Either way, the idea that morbid curiosity is innate in us, more a reflex than a choice, might explain why it feels irresistible, like the tickle that makes you shriek with laughter or the terrible urge to yawn.

Perhaps, though, these explanations are too sanitized. The third cluster of theories is concerned with our darker instincts. The early-twentieth-century psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that deep in each of our minds is a thick black reservoir in which our erotic desires, murderous rages and feelings of suicidal despair swim. According to Jung, we are both drawn to and repelled by this “shadow aspect” of ourselves. One reason its pull can be so powerful is that the mind craves to complete itself, to become fully integrated, rather than fragmented and partly repressed. For Jung, therefore, when we stumble across opportunities to indulge our macabre impulses—by looking at pictures of tortured prisoners, for example—we may experience the relief, even euphoria, of completion. It’s the pursuit of this feeling that might explain why characters like Dr. Robert Vaughan and his group of symphorophiliacs (car-accident fetishists) in J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash are aroused by collisions and their mangled aftermaths.

Still, for many of us, morbid curiosity remains a furtive, guilty pleasure. We may allow ourselves to glance rather than gaze; desire to touch the corpse but keep our hands rooted in our pockets. A visit to Auschwitz or Ground Zero might leave us filled with DISMAY and sorrow for what occurred there, but also with SHAME and BEWILDERMENT at our own prurient interest. Perhaps we may be compelled to watch someone die, yet feel conflicted by the knowledge that we are violating their privacy, and later wonder if it was only the transgression itself that appealed. Perhaps the only people with the right to view extreme images of illness and suffering, wrote Susan Sontag, are the doctors “who could do something to alleviate it.” “The rest of us are voyeurs,” she concludes, “whether we mean to be or not.”