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On Morbid Fascination

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 5, 2012 10:44 AM

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From gruesome ghost stories to real-life serial murderers to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, what’s so fascinating about pain, death, and decomposition? That’s the question Eric Wilson, a professor of English at Wake Forest University, asks in his new book, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away. (Wilson has written on a range of subjects, from Romantic and Gothic literature to David Lynch, and is an avowed horror-movie fanatic.)

Wilson’s book is a leisurely, light-footed overview of our cultural obsession with doom, gloom, and gore. Many books on this subject are narrowly focused: They aim to uncover the one, fundamental reason why we love looking at violence and death. Often, that reason ends up being tautological: Freud, for example, explained it with a "death instinct." Wilson's approach is broader, and therefore more accurate. Over the course of 49 very short chapters, he inspects every imaginable object of morbid fascination -- including horror movies, political scandals, slapstick humor, wartime atrocities, car accidents, erotic degradation, and plain old death as it’s represented in film, painting, poetry, novels, and sacred texts. And he entertains every possible explanation for our interest in these creepy subjects.

Wilson's explanations are wide-ranging, drawn from philosophy, literature, biology, sociology, and psychology. In his view, they're all probably true at once. We seem to be evolutionarily programmed to be interested in death and danger, he finds, as a form of self-protection. At the same time, we're fascinated with horror simply because it's exciting. Our morbid fascinations have an element of empathy: We want to feel (or imagine) the pain of others. But they also help us know ourselves, by letting us push aside the “socially acceptable façade” so we can revel in our “interior strangeness." And learning to look at horror is also a necessary part of engaging with the real world -- it's even a precursor to seeking justice (or revenge, as the case may be).

Our morbid appetites, Wilson concludes, exist for an astonishing number of reasons, some juvenile, others profound. No one reason is good enough to justify our fixations; taken together, though, they show that morbid fascination is not just pleasurable, but useful. We ought, therefore, to take our creepy interests seriously, rather than furtively pushing them to the margins of our lives. Occasions of morbid fascination, Wilson writes, can be thrilling, exciting, and cathartic. But they can also provide a space in which "the soul slows down... and takes stock of where it’s been and where it’s going,” where we figure out “what is essential and what is not.” Ultimately, it's better to look than to look away.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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