The lure of the macabre
It’s dark and rainy. You’re sitting in your car, blasting down the highway at speed. As you’ve been driving for hours, you start to drowse off. A sudden jolt of the car instantly brings you back. “Crikey!” you say to yourself. “What if I’d aquaplaned? I’d be dead for sure!”
A couple of minutes later you see flashing lights ahead of you through the pouring rain. As you get closer you see police cars, an ambulance and a fire truck standing along the road with emergency personnel working on a turned-over people carrier. Apparently, someone else wasn’t as lucky as you. The smashed-up family car is lying on its side, windshield broken and a children’s toy thrown out onto the wet tarmac.
Horrified, you slow down and peer through your rain-stained side window to see if you can spot any injured or dead people. A covered stretcher next to the ambulance indicates that it was indeed a fatal accident. As a police officer in a flourescent raincoat wave you on, you leave the scene feeling both shaky and excited.
A morbid interest
Why do we find horrible accidents and chilling murder stories so fascinating? Shouldn’t we shy away from these things? After all, we don’t really want them to happen to us or our loved ones.
My previous blog post on Spontaneous human combustion highlights this phenomenon, as it got quite a lot of attention and comments. We are, it seems, morbidly macabre.
But you know me; I can’t leave things at being just an interesting phenomenon. I want to know WHY it’s a phenomenon. So I’m donning my thinking-cap and set out to solve the mystery of the lure of the macabre.
If I think about it, it won’t happen
Perhaps our fascination in the macabre is simply down to us preparing for horrible things? A way of rehearsing how to handle future accidents? After all, it would be a value in being prepared for the worst. And, as a bonus point, anything we think about will never happen. So perhaps we’re even shielding us from it happening at all?
No, that doesn’t quite fit. We’re not exactly known for our long-term planning abilities. We’re more a ‘Give me what I want and give it to me now’ kind of people. And even if it does indeed feel like things we think about never happen, it’s just a form of superstition.
Curiosity prepared the cat
Another idea is that we’re just naturally curious, and we feel drawn to unusual events in order to understand them and prepare ourselves better. And that could be true, I guess. We sure are curious.
But it doesn’t explain the thrill and excitement we feel. Also, we don’t seem to be all that curious about things, generally speaking. More curious about people we know, perhaps. Or people we think we know (a.k.a. celebrities).
The rollercoaster effect
It could instead be that we’re fascinated by accidents and murders because of that nice feeling we get when we realise it’s not happening to us, and that we’re all safe after all. Perhaps it’s just a relief thing?
Nah. The thrill we get doesn’t feel like relief; it’s more like that tingly feeling we get when standing next to a steep abyss, looking down. You know, that feeling of danger and excitement.
No, I believe the real reason we’re so macabre is that we don’t always feel like we’re living in the real world. In todays shielded society we’re cushioned from evil and our everyday life is free from death, accidents and illness. This is very far from the everyday world of our ancestors.
In the old days, life was hard, short and brutal. We saw horrible accidents, death and deforming illnesses on a daily basis and life was real enough. Even though life is better today – safer, softer and longer – we might miss the feeling of being real, the feeling that it all somehow matters. When exposed to an accident, we get that adrenaline rush that makes us feel alive.
So that might be it – a longing for reality; a reality abstinence if you like. We’ve evolved being exposed to horrible dangerous things and the lack of them make us feel less like part of the world. It could be that accidents make us real.