The science of rubbernecking

Humans aren\'t the only creatures who like staring at morbid disaster. What draws us to it?

Published February 18, 2012 2:00PM (EST)

            (<a href=''>visuelldesign</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(visuelldesign via Shutterstock)

This article was adapted from the new book "Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away" from Sarah Crichton Books.

“Don’t look.”

That’s what she asked, more than once. I heard her distinctly each time, and told myself I should oblige, and even once partially turned my head in her direction, but I just couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. I engrossed myself again, and again submitted to the anger, the sorrow, the fear, as well as guilt’s perverse pleasure: I felt that I shouldn’t be doing this, but I was doing it anyway, and got a peevish thrill from my transgression.

It was evening, dinnertime, and this had been going on since morning, right before I left for work. I had just finished breakfast. I had my satchel over my shoulder. It contained my books for that day’s class (on Keats’s “To Autumn”) and also my lunch (a peanut butter sandwich). I had my hand on the doorknob, ready to leave, when Sandi, my wife, ran up to me, phone in hand, and said, “Turn on the TV.”

I did, and there it was. Too slowly, a jet, brilliant white, wide enough to seat a hundred, plowed into a narrow rectangular tower, luminous and silver in the September sunshine. The blast silently boomed, and the skyscraper turned black billow, spume of flame: an immense sinister candle. There was a stop, and the sequence rolled once more, sound-less, with the same dilatory tempo. It repeated, each time more mesmerizing and meaningless, someone else’s eerie dream. No words explained it— fit it into a familiar story, with reassuring causalities and characters. It was unmoored destruction, sublime. I watched, and watched.


We all know what this was, and likely remember our need to witness the eruption one more time, and also to look when the events became more horrific: another fiery collision, and then buildings sucked to the ground, leaving only rubble and crushed loved ones.

Don’t look. Look. This refrain has played in my head much of my life, one voice telling me it’s wrong to stare at morbid events and another urging me to stare anyway, hard.

It’s my turn to pass the accident on the side of the highway. I tell myself to keep my eyes on the road, to avoid being one of those rubberneckers who clog traffic just for some sick titillation. But decadent anticipation takes over; I realize I’m going to gaze, and I’ll enjoy the experience all the more because it’s frowned upon. I hit my brakes and gape, until an angry horn prods me forward.

I imagine we’ve all felt that guilty rush before the morbid. The exploitation of a suicidal starlet, the assassination of a world leader; the hypnotic crush of a hurricane, the lion exploding into the antelope; the wreckage and the rapture, the profane and the sacred: whatever our attraction, we are drawn to doom. Everyone loves a good train wreck. We are enamored of ruin. The deeper the darkness is, the more dazzling. Our secret and ecstatic wish: Let it all fall down.

What is this fixation on the perverse — the deviant, the macabre, the diseased? Jack B. Haskins, late professor of journalism at the University of Tennessee, offered this definition of morbid curiosity: “an enduring unusually strong attraction to information about highly unpleasant events and objects that are irrelevant to the individual’s life.”

My own experience tells me that Haskins is wrong. My attraction to the macabre might well be directed toward “unpleasant events,” but it’s certainly not irrelevant. My Gothic sensibilities, though sometimes silly, to be sure (what man over forty monthly watches Freund’s "The Mummy"?), have inspired my writing and fueled my intellect. Morbidity seems essential to others as well, and maybe not just to humans. Consider a scene. On the edge of the savanna, an elephant rots. The cow had been sick for a week, stumbling, alone, over the hot plain. Ten days ago, it fell in the dust and died. Now its flesh has decomposed. Only the large skeleton recalls the mammoth’s grandeur.

A herd lurches near to the bones. The pack is composed of females, all related, led by the matriarch. They’ve had no prior contact with the dead beast. They stand over the corpse. With their trunks, they gently probe the bones, seizing choice remains, turning them in the sun, then dropping them. Eventually, each picks up a bone or tusk and carries it hundreds of yards away.

This behavior is difficult to account for. Other instances of animals attending to their dead seem to possess evolutionary value, to preserve shared genes. In many cases, the living linger near their fallen companions in hopes that breath remains and that they might be able to assist in the recovery. Elephants prop up collapsed members of their herds, ostensibly to keep them from suffocating. Dolphins aid their wounded by carrying them to the ocean’s surface to take in air. But what of the elephants who are simply fascinated by another rotting elephant, one obviously dead and not in the same herd? Is this an example of animal morbid curiosity? If so, what are the motivations for such behavior?

Some scientists suggest that the elephants’ practice bears evolutionary value. Studying the dead might give the living hints about how the creature died and so reveal behavior that should be avoided. Others, though, believe that the conduct of the elephants is not adaptive at all but simply an instance of normal instincts breaking down in the face of incomprehensible death.

Carl Jung, who founded, along with Freud, psychoanalysis, believed that we like to witness violence precisely because it, the watching, allows us to entertain our most destructive impulses without actually harming ourselves or others. Jung himself was drawn to darkness. When he was four, he couldn’t stop thinking about the corpse of another four-year-old boy, who had drowned in a nearby river. Around the time the child was found, Jung almost leapt into the same deadly rapids; he was saved only by the swift grip of the maid. To this suicidal urge, the adolescent Jung added a fixation on ghosts, nightly encountering haunts throughout his house.

Jung continued this “corpse preoccupation,” as he called it, his entire life, and it informed one of his most lasting contributions to our understanding of the human psyche: the idea of the shadow. He believed that the self is composed of three levels— the conscious ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. The personal unconscious is made of repressed memories and instincts unique to an individual’s history. The collective unconscious, in contrast, transcends the particular. It is a ubiquitous, timeless reservoir of archetypes that organize conscious existence. One of these archetypes is the shadow, an archive of all that we hate about ourselves, usually morbid impulses, such as the propensity toward melancholy or suicidal and murderous urges. The shadow’s favored forms are devils, demons, imps, vampires, werewolves, goblins, enemies of planet and country and town, and other people who just irritate the hell out of us.

Because we loathe the shadow, we push it deep into the unconscious, hoping to forget about it, make it go away. But it won’t. The harder we repress it, the more aggressively it rebels. Think of water pressure in a hose: the longer we impede its flow, the more its force builds, until it explodes, a geyser. A repressed shadow floods our minds with harmful visions. It bedevils us with traumatic nightmares that can make our days neurotic. Or, worse, it foments outright psychosis, tempting us into projecting our own internal demons onto others, usually loved ones. We distort our parents or wives or children or friends into monsters and so sabotage our most valuable relationships. Though we hate the shadow, we also secretly desire it, because in our deepest recesses we actually yearn for ruin.

We might profess pristine piety, but we really have sympathy for the devil. This is an obvious point— that we all have a dark side, a perverse imp. However, most of us deny it, trying to convince ourselves, and others, that our intentions are always righteous, our thoughts preeminently pure. And so we set up a game that seems silly, though in fact it’s dead serious: don’t let the right hand, bearing the torch of righteousness, know what the left hand, the sinister appendage, is doing. Such self-delusion ensures that we will remain divided against ourselves — reason versus the shadow, light against darkness — and moreover that the more nefarious side, because repressed to a place beyond awareness, will persist, unchecked, in its sowing of discord. Jung thinks that mental health arises from concord between the darkness and the light. As long as we continue to demonize our morbid tendencies, we are only half a person, unnatural, out of whack, like day with no night, up without down.

We become whole, healthy, harmonized, only when we acknowledge our innate addiction to the macabre. We must welcome it into our consciousness and embrace it. Then, almost as if by miracle, what earlier seemed simple destruction becomes necessary to life. No longer feared, demons turn angels. Luke offers his affection to Vader, and off comes the scary mask and there stands a father, loving and in need of love.

This reconciliation, like all negotiations between sworn enemies, is extremely difficult to achieve, often requiring a lifetime of psychotherapy or disciplined meditation. How best to go about this work of welcoming the macabre, finding the light in the darkness, the darkness in the light? Through a Jungian teaching known as “active imagination.” Jung’s example suggests this bold idea: to create or to contemplate morbid phenomena is necessary for mental health, for expressing the psyche’s destructive powers and reconciling them with bright reason. In going to the multiplex to check out the latest gore, I’m really plopping down on the therapist’s couch, in quest of a more concordant and capacious and generous self. Halloween is the seventh heaven. The chain saw massacre: a kind of mass.

- - - - - -

In an experiment designed to determine reactions to seemingly real violence, and to understand how these differ from responses to obviously fake Hollywood mayhem, male and female college students were shown three violent films.

Each student had the power to shut off the video whenever he or she wished. Most quit watching about halfway through, expressing disgust with the gory scenes. In contrast, students found an excessively violent scene from "Friday the 13th, Part III," fully scored, to be “involving, exciting, and not boring.” When this same clip was shown without the audio enhancement, it was less riveting.

It appears that the trappings of Hollywood movies, especially sound tracks, can make a horrific experience grippingly dramatic. The psychology professor Clark McCauley, who conducted the experiment, accounts for this result by invoking a Sanskrit text, the Natyasastra, written around AD 200– 300. This work explores the concept rasa, “aesthetic or imaginative experience.” In discussing tragedy — which shares traits with horror — the Natyasastra claims that although we try to avoid actual sadness, we are attracted to aesthetic renderings of grief because they pull us away from our “preoccupations with ourselves” and open us to the suffering of others. We transcend narcissism and empathize.

This transcendence grows from catharsis: normally self-interested feelings, like pity and fear, are purified of their egotism and connected to more altruistic concerns, such as how to assuage the suffering of the collective. Fiction encourages this emotional free play. We are invited to explore without the pressure of consequences.

McCauley applies the Natyasastra to horror films. The fear and disgust inspired by such films invite us to sound the depths of our humanity, to contemplate the origins of our own disgusts and fears, or to put ourselves in the place of the characters in the story, killer and victim alike. In either case, if we could respond positively to the invitation, we might be expanded, awakened, enlightened — to a great and possibly transformative degree when we behold the more brilliant works of horror.

Of course, life is messy, as likely to be selfish and stupid as expansive and wise, and so it’s the rare occasion that making or watching a film is devoid of egotism’s blindness. Some scary movies will exploit suffering more than open us to its trans- forming depths. And most fans of the horror genre are probably going to be ignorant of their favorite films’ invitations to transcend selfishness. Still, the potential is there: viewing a scary movie, especially one by a true artist — a del Toro or a Kubrick or a Polanski — can, however infrequently, call forth what is best in us and maybe make us a little more empathetic and charitable than we were before.

- - - - - -

On September 11, 2001, my wife and I sat down together and watched the catastrophe worsen.

But I had classes to teach, and so reluctantly left the screen. I held the students only briefly in each of my three sections, telling them that we would pick up with Keats the next class — even his wisdom did not that day suffice — and urging them to go back to their dorms and call their families and friends. Between classes, I persisted in watching the footage, breaking only to call Sandi, to comfort and in turn take solace. I returned home around five. Sandi was in the kitchen preparing dinner, food that would best nourish our baby. The small television beside the coffeemaker, like the other sets in our house, was off.

After giving my wife a hug, I clicked the set on: the conflagration in the sky, now strangely comforting, like a wound you can’t imagine not having. More than that, the footage at this point was, as shocking as this might sound, gruesomely beautiful: swelling ebony smoke against the blue horizon. And the film inspired this staggering thought: “Here is one of those rare ruptures from which history will not recover, and I am alive at its occurrence.” I felt exhilarated, inappropriately, and I was ashamed.

“Come on,” Sandi said. “Turn it off and help me chop the vegetables. Don’t look.”

But I did, though she asked me again to stop, and I continued into the night, brooding.

Excerpted from "Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away" by Eric G. Wilson, published this month by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2012 by Eric G. Wilson. All rights reserved.  

By Eric G. Wilson

Eric G. Wilson is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy," "The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace," and five books on the relationship between literature and psychology.

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