Whenever a fight breaks out in the neighbourhood or each time we pass a serious accident on the road, we all feel a certain urge to sneak a glance. It makes sense because we are eager to know what will happen next.
The curiosity to delve into the situation and the anticipation of the unknown stimulates interest. This is why morbidity, gore, and violence have become such a staple in pop culture. The abundance of grim plotlines and ghastly scenes in TV shows and movies capture a lot of audience attention because of this morbid curiosity. But why?
Morbid curiosity generally refers to interest in all things grisly and grotesque which includes being fascinated with gore, violence, horror, and death. This fascination with the bleak doesn't necessarily mean getting enjoyment from such things because that would be truly problematic. Rather, this feeling mostly stems from the desire to experience fear and suffering without actively participating in dangerous situations. It's true that we are absurdly attracted to highly disturbing things. Our intrigue towards the macabre reflects realism. We imagine us being in the same situation and think to ourselves what we would do if the person suffering was us. This activates the fight or flight response of the brain, releasing certain hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which creates a surge of energy in the body, triggering a well-coveted feeling called empathy.
True crime shows and our seemingly increasing interest in serial killers and criminals imply that we crave to learn from negativity. Heinous offenses like these make us want to know what goes through the minds of these people and help us empathize with the victims. It makes us feel alive and somewhat connected with each other. Dr. Dolf Zillmann's excitation-transfer theory claims that overcoming a negative experience reinforces positive emotions. We live vicariously through these characters because they quench our thirst for knowing what happens when we die.
Morbid curiosity not only makes us go through these sombre feelings, but also gives us a sense of reassurance that we are alive and living. Sometimes watching aggression and violence makes our own anger wear off as if a need inside us has been met. Finishing a horror movie or a disgusting video makes us feel stronger. We get drowned in a feeling of accomplishment that we overcame our fears and did not surrender to our circumstances. All these set off our brain's reward centre, making us feel good.
Overt violence sells. But overexposure to the graphic and gory conditions lead us to think that this is what the normal looks like. Fascination shouldn't reach such heights that it turns into obsession and at a point we become insensitive. While some filmmakers use violence and gore for the sole purpose of sparking cathartic responses, others highlight the tragic reality of violence for people to learn from, rather than gain pleasure from it.
Knowing the unknown isn't bad. But it's up to us where we draw the line.
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