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The lure of the macabre

22 September 2012

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!”

“Oh my god – a traffic accident. How horrible! I wonder if I’ll be able to see any severed limbs or dead bodies?”

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

Ok, this is supposed to be macabre, but I can’t help finding it cute and adorable. Just look how happy they are, with their little tufts of hair and their intestines hanging out! OK, I get it; I’m probably sick.

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

“Gah! I hate this film! Why did you take me to see a horror movie?”

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.

Reality abstinence

“Ok, ok! It’s real enough! It’s real enough!”

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.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 September 2012 23:38

    I think the dancing skeletons are adorable as well.


    • 23 September 2012 08:08

      I know – aren’t they just? I guess we’re jaded by all the modern media, but they remind me of Jack Skellington if anything.


  2. 23 September 2012 02:09

    Yay, you wrote a post about this! I was hoping you would!

    I think all of these theories are valid. I’m terrible at making up my mind.

    I love being scared, and I love horror fiction and movies and such. But I do NOT like being scared in real life. So I don’t know what that means. I’m probably just broken.


    • 23 September 2012 08:14

      I doubt that you’re broken. We don’t actually like these things to happen to us personally, but hearing about them or watching them from a distance gives us that sense of reality without having to get personally involved.


  3. 24 September 2012 20:27

    “Crikey!” Is that something people say? Really?


  4. 24 September 2012 20:28

    There was a toy out on the wet tarmac? Now I am terribly depressed.


    • 24 September 2012 20:38

      It is depressing, isn’t it? Even if we manage to get the toy dry again it will always smell funny. Funny strange; not funny hahah.


  5. 24 September 2012 20:29

    EVERYONE looks happy with little tufts of hair and intestines hanging out. I guess.


    • 24 September 2012 20:43

      I sure hope so. My hair is getting rather tufty and it’s probably just a matter of time before my intestines will start to hang out.


  6. 24 September 2012 20:35

    Life does seem to be safer, softer and longer. The main cause of death over here where I am seems to be eating too much food.


  7. 24 September 2012 20:36

    I wonder if there is some sort of universe out there where people are NOT fascinated by the macabre? This would make traffic a lot more efficient as it would solve all the rubber-necking.


    • 24 September 2012 20:49

      I would guess places where the life’s still hard and cruel would have people less fascinated by the macabre. So it might be a wealthy society side-effect.


  8. Lina permalink
    26 September 2012 12:33

    Interesting! However I believe people in the Middle Ages were just as macabre as we are (just think of how people gathered to watch executions) and they did lead a life that was hard, short and brutal. I think you have to dig a little further into the human mind to find the answer to this question. Thinking-cap back on!


    • 26 September 2012 12:57

      Goddammit! You’ve just sunk my whole theory! *grumbles whilst putting thinking-cap back on*


    • 15 October 2017 14:06

      Perhaps we’re mistaking the fascination for public executions during the Middle Ages – perhaps it’s got nothing to do with feeling alive in the face of danger and more to do with entertainment.

      Today, we’ve got entertainment coming out of our ears (figuratively speaking) but back in the days, people weren’t so lucky. A public hanging or beheading was as exciting as things got. So instead of being macabre for a lack of danger in their lives, perhaps they were macabre because they longed for entertainment, and were they desensitised enough to find human suffering and death just that: entertaining?


  9. 26 September 2012 15:02

    “… and a children’s toy thrown out onto the wet tarmac”


    • 26 September 2012 18:36

      I’m a bit at a loss as to what your point is? Are you highlighting a grammatical error that I just can’t see? Or are you bothered by the untidiness of the scene of the accident? Or could it be that you were moved by the image of a little child being part of a horrible car crash? No, surely not!


  10. 26 September 2012 21:51

    I think, the reason we are so enthralled is because somewhere deep down in our subconscious we have been a part of the tragedy before. In another life, “way back when”, we have seen the gore, the blood and the value of life. We don’t know why we are so enthralled because knowing or remembering is not part of our conscious, which is why we are still here, doing it all over again…We saw death and have returned once again to live. So, it really isn’t a tragedy after all but as human beings it’s within our limited realm to have an emotional response.


    • 26 September 2012 22:01

      Hmm, but that still wouldn’t explain our fascination with gruesome accidents, would it? Rather, wouldn’t we be rather blasé about the whole thing?


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