What draws us to the darker side? What compels us to look whenever we pass a grisly accident on the highway and drives us to watch horror movies and television coverage of disasters? Eric G. Wilson, a literature professor and a lifelong student of the macabre, set out to discover the source of people’s attraction to the morbid, drawing on the perspectives of biologists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians and artists.
Wilson shares his findings in his latest book Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck. He is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University.
Citing everything from elephant graveyards and Susan Sontag’s On Photography to the Tiger Woods sex scandal and the movie Steel Magnolias, Wilson finds heartening truths in the darker side of our psyches.
“The morbidity of sorrow,” he says, “is often a productive sluggishness, a time when the soul slows down, too weary to go on, and takes stock of where it’s been and where it’s going. During these gloomy pauses, we often discover parts of ourselves we never knew we possessed, talents that, properly activated, enrich our lives. “
Wilson says there’s something nourishing in the darkness. “It might also be compulsion toward grim happenings that are relevant toward one’s own life—that help one manage dangerous fears and desires, to learn what is essential and what is not,” he writes. “Morbid curiosity is, on yet another plane, a spiritual yearning, a hunger to penetrate the most profound mysteries of existence.”
Wilson is the author of five books on the relationship between literature and psychology. His 2008 book,Against Happiness became a Los Angeles Timesbestseller. Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, published in February, has received national attention and was named one of the “Must-Read Books in March” by O, The Oprah Magazine.
What of fear? Why do we just love to be scared?
Leonard Jason, professor, College of Science and Health; director of the Center for Community Research is a clinical psychologist and can speak to the psychological aspects of fear. “Some people like the thrill fear evokes, which is similar to what occurs when people sky dive after jumping out of airplanes or ski down steep mountains. It all involves the stress system being challenged and the results are that a person feels excited, very alive and focused.”
Stuart Fischoff, emeritus professor of media psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology, and the author of The Media Zone blog for Psychology Today, suggests that as we age, we lose that fear of the unknown that is inherent in childhood. When everything appears to have a prosaic or scientific explanation, where is the mystery or excitement in that?
"Llife and our world of imagination is diminished and tamed into blandness,” says Fischoff. “Life in technicolor has faded to life in black and white.”
Fischoff states that childhood fears and thoughts of the supernatural still reside in our subconscious, then are awakened by archetypal ‘movie monsters’ who invite us to experience fearful emotions from a safe and secure vantage point. We are still in control whilst watching a horror movie, and can choose to cover our eyes, therefore there is a sense of emotional separation.
Being chased by monsters may simply hark back to our primeval days, when we were the hunted and not the hunter. At that point in our lives, we would never have felt more alive, or conscious of maintaining our life and surviving. We are programmed to live in a state of such awareness, yet in our comfortable, secure existences, the true fear of running for our lives is an emotion that few of us ever get to experience.