Morbid Curiosity

Jacob Blauvelt, Reporter

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We are anomalously drawn towards some very repulsive events; terrible car crashes, natural disasters, fights, war, gore, and the list goes on. The feeling of guilt comes across many of our minds for being interested in these things, but we cannot fathom to look away. There is no single reason for this, but this morbid curiosity allows for Strength, Catharsis, Reality, Exploration, Acceptance, and Meaning. The acronym SCREAM represents the why many of us look for when viewing these disturbing things.

People are naturally curious, even if the outcome is known to not be favorable. We often find uncertainty more unpleasant than unpleasant certainty, so at least if we look, we will know. When frightened, our alertness and attentiveness is bound to escalate. Neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and dopamine are released when we are scared. Preparing us physically and mentally to take on a threat or have the ability to escape.

Dopamine is part of the reward system in the brain, which is released in response to pleasurable things, but this does not mean our brain finds disturbing things to be pleasurable, it is more interesting than that. When dopamine systems are inhibited, from animals in lab tests, they will cease to seek out food and starve to death. If the food is placed in their mouths, the animals will consume it and show signs of satisfaction. Evidence like this suggests that the brain contains systems that motivate seeking, approaching, and curiosity, for their own sake. This can be applied to the study of compulsive behavior, just because you want to do something, does not mean you enjoy it.

The rush of chemicals into our brains and bodies when we are scared help us when the threats are real, but if the threats aren’t real or we are safe from them, the same chemicals still appear making us more attentive, curious, and making it more difficult to look away. The guilt of not wanting to be seen as someone who desires the gruesome may fuel our desire to look in the first place. Sometimes pressure to not do something, will make people more likely to do that exact thing.

The Boomerang Effect is part of social psychology and refers to the unintended consequences of an attempt to persuade resulting in the assumption of an opposing position instead. This goes hand in hand with The Streisand Effect. This phenomenon is one whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet. This came to be when Barbra Streisand sued to suppress a photo published online as part of a California coastline preservation project. One of the photos she was trying to get rid of, showed her house and the relative location it. Before the lawsuit, only six people had downloaded the image of her house, two of them being her lawyers. After being brought to the public’s attention, nearly five-hundred thousand people flooded the site and downloaded the image. In a similar fashion, social pressures and taboos against viewing disturbing things can make them more interesting. By doing this, it demonstrates to ourselves that we are free, and are able to make decisions on our own.

Viewing disturbing content can also make us feel stronger, because their repulsiveness can be seen as a challenge. Glenn Sparks of Purdue University studied the way terrifying things, such as films. After watching, viewers would often feel stronger, being satisfied that they made it through the film.

Schadenfreude, otherwise known as the pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. Following celebrity scandals or seeing defeat on the rival player’s faces can make you feel good. The Social Comparison Theory describes and predicts behavior like this, although grades and rankings cause anxiety, we nonetheless seek out evaluations of ourselves in comparison to others. We especially enjoy those that place us at the top, but similarly, if it is someone that we look up to, being evaluated closely to them can us feel even better about ourselves.

Viewing films of anger, aggression, or violence, that do not involve us, can cause our own anger and aggression to burn off, as if it were satisfied. This is known as Catharsis, a cleansing, a purification. Images that play with emotions can be a powerful demonstration that we have control, or at least a regulation around how we feel.

We condemn the actions of serial killers but nonetheless treat them like celebrities. There are many websites that sell autographs and works of art that are made by real serial killers, being called murderbillia by some. On a spectrum of petty thrills to complete obsession and fear, our relationship with the morbid is complicated, but it is under our control if we are aware of our actions.

One of the most constructive and socially important issues of the morbid is the facilitation of meaning, acceptance, and empathy. Morbid curiosity is often about imagination, imagining what it would be like to be that other person. What if that happened to me? Could it happen to me? Empathetic feelings remind us that our time is limited and we are fragile, by doing so brings us closer together.

Viewing unpleasant things doesn’t always make them less unpleasant or any less real but that is not always the point. Morbid curiosity is also about acceptance, remember our brains are wired with motivations to explore unpleasant things, because doing so can be preferable to ignore. Gawking at morbidity is often us asking why, there must be a reason, an explanation behind all of this. When tragedy strikes or horrors are revealed we listen to experts give opinions, neighbors describe the killer, we look for signs that were missed, and conformation that others feel the same as we do, that people are helping or making sure justice is served.
Caitlin Doughty in her “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” book, says accepting death doesn’t mean you won’t be devastated when someone dies, it means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by questions like why do people die? And why is this happening to me? Death isn’t happening to you, it’s happening to us all. That may be a heavy thing to cope with, but acceptance like that is one of the greatest things morbid curiosity has to offer. Morbidity helps us make sense of the world. To a young child, being new to everything, seeing someone else such as their parents become scared of something they are watching on TV, they are four times as likely to become scared of the program themselves.

How we feel and how we feel about how we feel is to a large degree learned. Jokes access underlying shared attitudes, so might we be morbidly curious for the same reason we tell jokes? Morbidity allows us to access shared underlying attitudes of an existential variety, those of morality and justice.

Whether it is used for empathetic or explorative reasons, morbidity and laughter may share an adaptive rule. We are morbidly curious because we like to SCREAM. More strangely, the desire to SCREAM and laugh, overlap.

Works Cited

“Beauty Has a Dark Side: Morbid Curiosity Explained.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 1 Mar. 2012, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120301083415.htm.

“Morbid Curiosities.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/morbid-curiosities.

Burkeman, Oliver. “This Column Will Change Your Life: Morbid Curiosity | Oliver Burkeman.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 July 2012, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/jul/27/morbid-curiosity-change-life-burkeman.

Arts, College of Liberal. “Purdue College of Liberal Arts.” Introduction to Judith Butler, Module on Gender and Sex, www.cla.purdue.edu/communication/directory/?p=glenn_sparks.