As I watched another documentary about serial killers, I wondered, why on earth did I put myself through that? I asked the same question while reading creepy stories on Reddit and watching thrillers and horror movies. Whenever I watch a documentary about something involving violence, I do so with horror and disturbance depending on the degree of violence portrayed. However, even though I am horrified of the images on the screen, I can’t seem to look away. The good news is, I’m not the only one who just can’t look away.
Bridget Rubenking of the University of Central Florida and Annie Lang of Indiana University conducted an experiment in which 120 participants watched clips of three types of disgust: socio-moral (lying, betrayal), body product and death, and gore. The researchers measured heart rate, skin moisture, facial expressions, and the participants’ memory after watching the clips. Socio-moral disgust elicited a slower response of disgust and participants were less attentive. On the other hand, while looking at body product and gore, participants had an initial negative response, and their heart rate accelerated, indicating that in the beginning the content was too disgusting to watch. Their memory recollection improved after watching the three clips (socio-moral, body product, death/gore) and their heart rate slowed down, suggesting that they became more attentive over time even though the scenes were increasingly more explicit. Despite showing initial negative reaction and resistance to the clips, the participants paid more attention to the clips while they were more gory. The research implies that once disgust is introduced in the picture, we become more attentive and remember the content better. But why would we look at content that clearly disturbs us?
Eric Wilson draws on findings of biologists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, and artists in order to discover why we are attracted to morbid things. Wilson (a student of the macabre and the morbid) in Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck concludes that “our attraction to the macabre is, on some level, a desire to experience someone else’s suffering.” Empathizing (while being physically safe from the situation) leads to the exploration of scenarios in which we could assess the dangers that threaten our survival, and leads to the sharing of feelings that the person on the screen is experiencing (death of a loved one, a natural disaster). While I was watching a documentary about gang violence in central America, I immediately felt part of the terror the people described on interviews, and thought about a situation in which that type of violence spreads to my native country–the Dominican Republic. In this case, I didn’t choose a place where I was currently inhabiting (the United States), but I thought about the place where the development of gang violence would be the most painful or most horrific experience to me. That sense of empathizing helps us forge close bonds that are essential for survival, and according to Wilson, it is “normal [and] noble.”
Michael Stevens from Vsauce offered an explanation that molded our fascination of the repulsive into the SCREAM mnemonics. “We like disturbing things because we like to SCREAM. They give us Strength, Catharsis, Reality, Exploration, and Meaning.”
After watching a horror movie some people feel “accomplished” because they successfully watched scenes that were disturbing. That sense of accomplishment can give the viewer a “rush,” and therefore they can feel “stronger.”
We like to be exposed to disturbing stimuli because we are curious creatures, and we would choose unpleasant feelings over uncertainty. Stevens also explains some of the possible neurobiological aspects behind morbid curiosity. Norepinephrine and dopamine are released once a threat is perceived in order to be more alert and be prepared to escape. However, the release of dopamine doesn’t imply that watching a horror movie is a pleasurable experience, but it contributes to the idea of seeking that stimulus.
There is also the concept of schadenfreude, which means “harm-joy” in German, in which we find a sense of happiness when something bad happens to someone else. In the sense that we would compare ourselves to their current situation and be glad that we are “less harmed.” For example, while watching a horror movie one can gain perspective when someone loses their head. If you’re having a bad day, remember that at least you still have your head on your shoulders.
Morbid curiosity can be considered the dark side of beauty. It is a paradox that can’t be completely explained. Why would we like to be exposed to stimuli that make us feel disturbed while evolutionarily, we have seek shelter and stability? We are attracted to the unpleasant perhaps because we want to gain insight and appreciate more the things that are pleasant. Or maybe because we get a rush from it and it is momentaneously a pleasurable experience. Or maybe we see it as a way to “train” ourselves just in case we have to face the zombie apocalypse that was shown in the movie. Whatever the reason is, like Andrés says in the movie Jaque Mate: “eso e’ lo que le gusta a ustedes… el morbo.” In other words, we are attracted to morbid things, whether we like it or not.