Why we need to think more about morbid curiosity
I’ve spent the past several years investigating why humans sometimes love to escape into terrifying fictional worlds, why we turn our heads when we pass a wreck on the side of the road, and why are intrigued by the minds of killers.
Morbidly Curious is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I’ve called this collection of behaviors, and others like them, morbid curiosity. When I say “morbid” curiosity, I don’t mean that the curiosity is bad or maladaptive. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. Morbid curiosity simply refers to our interest in gathering information about potential threats or dangerous situations. “Morbid” here just refers to the fact that the object of our curiosity in these instances is some threat to our safety.
Morbid curiosity has gotten a bad rap over the years. I’m sure I’ll write a post (or several) about that at some point. One example was the moral panic that happened around slasher movies in the 1980s. Film critics like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert bashed slashers, calling them “women in danger” films and arguing that fans of the films were sick or depraved.
Siskel and Ebert had a strong influence on perceptions of films throughout the 80s and 90s. Their word really mattered, and they gave little grace to slashers. Siskel hated the original Friday the 13th so much that he spoiled the ending in his official review. He also published the address of Paramount’s chairman and actress Betsy Palmer in the review, encouraging readers to send them hate mail.
Gene Siskel’s review of Friday 13th in the Chicago Tribune (May 12, 1980).
Across the pond, the UK government became concerned about the effects of violent movies on the health and well-being of viewers. A list of banned films, deemed “video nasties,” was created. The UK government was so concerned about the video nasties that they had the Scotland Yard raid video stores and burn any copies they found.
Slashers weren’t the only concern. In the 90s and 2000s, video game graphics improved dramatically. Alongside less pixelated faces and 3D worlds, depictions of violence in games became more realistic. This led to a new moral panic that even ended up with multiple hearings in the United States Senate. At the center of the concern was Mortal Kombat (1992) with its gruesome finishing moves.
A “fatality” finishing move from Mortal Kombat (1992).
Science was inundated with research on the potentially negative effects of violent video games. After thousands of studies and tens of millions of dollars over the course of two decades, the evidence now seems pretty clear: violent video games don’t make kids more violent.
A Misunderstood Virtue
My hope is that this Substack will be a source for people to learn about the science behind our fascination with the macabre. There are so many misunderstandings about morbid curiosity among both the public, lawmakers, and even scientists. For example, most people think horror fans are less kind and less empathetic than other people. However, the data simply don’t support this.
Rather than being a stain on our psyche, morbid curiosity is a bit of an unsung hero. There’s some evidence that engaging in forms of scary play can combat anxiety and build resilience. In fact, research I’ve conducted at haunted houses across the US and Europe suggests that scary play can have a number of psychological benefits.
Photo from a haunt study at Dystopia Haunted House in Vejle, Denmark. 2020.
I hope I’ve at least convinced you that it’s worth giving morbid curiosity and scary play some thought. Even if you’ve never been a fan of horror or true crime, I think there will be something interesting for you to learn from the discussions on my Substack. At the very least, you’ll have a better understanding of your friend who binged Dahmer on Netflix.
Thanks for reading Morbidly Curious! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.