Sick Sad World?
December 30, 2014 2:29 PM   Subscribe

Why did I just spend 20 minutes looking at photographs of human gore? More specifically, I just looked at dozens of online images of the MH17 crash and the mangled bodies laying in the fields.(These images are not hard to find online.) I cried and felt like I was going to vomit while looking at pics of victims who fell from the sky when a missile hit their airplane, yet I kept looking for over 20 minutes. My question: What compelled me to look at these images? Is there a psychological explanation beyond the euphemism "morbid curiosity"? What part of my psyche does this activity satisfy even if no pleasure was derived from it?

In the past I have spent hours reading long articles about airline crashes. Details about how bodies die in those situations fascinated me (i.e., at what minute of the crash did they expire? What did they feel?)
posted by Jason and Laszlo to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The Science of Rubbernecking.
posted by cecic at 2:51 PM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're probably grateful it's not you and yours, which is a perfectly human reaction.
posted by starbreaker at 3:20 PM on December 30, 2014

Humanity. I find myself looking at them as a way of re-humanizing lost souls, because there but for the grace of God go I, and I want, in some way, to walk beside them as they are lost, so that I don't have to imagine their lostness, but can, in a fictionalized version, imagine that they are not alone.

I remember seeing a photo of a cartoon-like impression in the ground of a splayed body from the Lockerbie tragedy. Not the body, mind you -- just the inches deep impression it left behind, and I thought "Oh my God. That body was never meant to touch that field. It was flying over, and it landed in that farmer's field. In this way, it met that farmer. It touched his life, his land. That person was meant to be a stranger to that farmer, unseen, never-encountered, separate lives on a vast planet that would never intersect. And now the farmer has had an intimate meeting with that person, because he or she died in his field."

I've never forgotten that. It's the first time I've been affected that way, and almost the last time I've looked at tragic pictures. It's too raw.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:30 PM on December 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Maybe it's good to look at these things from time to time to keep a balanced view of life. So much terrible shit is happening constantly, and without seeing videos and pictures it can be easy to just compartmentalize it away in your brain, because you don't get the same visceral emotional shock from reading about tragedy and suffering. I know for myself, it might not do wonders for my depression, but I'd rather take a look at the worst life has to offer on occasion, to remind myself of just how bad it can be. It can keep you from getting too sentimental and optimistic about life and reign in some of your ego.
posted by todayandtomorrow at 4:09 PM on December 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

It used to be a much more ordinary thing to purposefully confront gore, drinking in the immediacy of pain and death. Public execution and torture, in medieval and early modern times, was born out of a basic instinct to confront the suffering of another and feel the dark saliva in your mouth and the repulsion in your heart. As these things fell from favor, Victorians called purposefully seeking out gore a "Roman holiday", and that's where the film gets its name.

I think the concern you have for your mental health is not because you have seen something disgusting, but because you pulled it up on a website on your personal electronic device -- an intimate, private, experience, as if you threw a curtain over your head and asked someone to bring out some gory pictures for you. I am betting that if you were living in eastern Ukraine, you probably would have regretted the innocent deaths just as much, but you wouldn't have felt so concerned by the instinct to go to the field to have a look. But no, you are living in civilized comfort, and you are not an EMT, so you can only fulfill that instinct by locking your door and googling "MH17 dead bodies". It is this inherently disgusting juxtaposition of intimacy and pain that causes some postmodernists to associate modernity with sexual perversion.
posted by shii at 4:22 PM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

People have made good points above; I'll add three thoughts.

First, one of the points of fiction is to help you confront this natural, human curiosity about things that are frightening, like death, illness, and pain. One of the functions of children's picture books is to help children vicariously experience the emotions of the characters -- which are often frightening or upsetting, dealing with being lost or afraid or at the mercy of forces beyond your control -- and be able to experience those feelings at a safe distance so they can begin to understand the array of emotions inside themselves without being overwhelmed by them. This remains one of the important functions of fiction into adulthood -- but also of non-fiction. While issues of the role of photojournalism in people's personal lives and pain is complicated and nuanced and worth thinking about, I think the basic urge to look at these pictures is the same thing that drives us to read "Where the Wild Things Are" over and over as little kids: a desire to understand things that are frightening and upsetting at a safe remove.

Second, there's something to be said for witnessing -- another sort-of traditional religious concept in the West, as someone mentioned with religion upthread, that we don't talk about a lot anymore, both because the religious aspects have faded and because the ubiquity of recording devices makes everything "witnessable". But it's another human urge to witness, take notice, and record other people's pain or suffering, even if you can't alleviate it. If you study pastoral care and counseling, one thing you'll learn is that sometimes your purpose in a situation isn't to help someone; it's simply to bear witness to their suffering so their suffering isn't alone and unrecognized. There is a reflexive recoil of, "That's gross, that's disrespectful, that's disordered" when media shows people dying, and sometimes that's the right reaction, and again, with photojournalism/video, it's hard to know where the line is between "snuff" (death to titillate) and witnessing. But sometimes the impulse to look is an impulse to bear witness to others' humanity and suffering. I used to write obituaries for a student newspaper, which was the worst because all the subjects are 18-24 years old, died unexpectedly or tragically, and you have to intrude on grieving, shocked families -- but for the most part families were SO EAGER to talk to me, calling intrusively the day after their kid's death, because it was really important to them that their child be remembered and witnessed by their community, and for the most part they were profoundly grateful that someone was recording their child's story and their family's grief so that neither will be forgotten or sink, unrecognized and unremarked, into the past. Working on a school board, I sometimes had to watch videos of child abuse (I lied, that was the actual worst, way worse than calling grief-stricken families) during legal proceedings, and I would remind myself, when it was awful and horrible and I couldn't bear it, that part of my job was to bear witness to these events for the wider community, to ensure that they weren't forgotten or ignored, and to ensure that SOMEONE watches them and handles the aftermath so that the whole community doesn't have to. It felt like a special, shitty job that was entrusted to me -- literally entrusted, given to me with trust that I would discharge it properly. Those are important jobs -- undertakers, hospice workers, social workers, lots of people are entrusted by society with handling our tough parts properly, and that should be understood as a service to the whole community.

Third, more personally and less "grand scheme," sometimes reading the narratives of events about a particular disaster or death causes my imagination to run so wild recreating that event in my mind (sometimes in far more gruesome ways than actually occurred) that I have to look at the pictures so that I'll stop dwelling on it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:38 PM on December 30, 2014 [11 favorites]

Odds are that I have read more books about genocide than most people. I tried to figure out why recently and the conclusion I came to was that reading stories about people who suffered feels like a way for me to be a witness to their lives. In a small way, reading about what happened to them means they have not been forgotten. That's what I tell myself at least - it might actually mean that I'm really weird and great at justifying the things I do. But I think the former is at least as likely as the latter.
posted by kat518 at 5:53 PM on December 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

I read a lot about missing people, and the unidentified. I frequent sites like The Charley Project and Websleuths quite a bit. I agree with the posters above that witnessing is a big part of why I look at this sort of thing - a feeling that by reading about them, there's one more person in the world who knew they existed, and wonders what happened to them. There's also that these people were people just like me, who one day simply vanished. There but for the grace of god go I, or something. Curiosity, too. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Wondering what they felt, or thought, in their last moments.

I saw a similar thread in reddit once, and they recommended this book. It talks about war photography and the need for it, despite its graphicness. Tangentially, your question reminded me of this this short Wired blurb. I recommend the book Stiff by Mary Roach, as well.
posted by cobain_angel at 6:22 PM on December 30, 2014

I don't think you have to get pleasure out of something to very much want to witness it. There could be a lot of reasons for this. One is out of a sense of compassion. A part of you may have wanted to feel what the families felt or what the rescuers felt by getting to see what they saw.

When my grandfather was dying I literally saw the light leaving his eyes. That's the thing that hit me the most. The thing that made me cry. Not his frail body, his pain or his weakened voice. It is something that really cannot be described. When I watch tv and they show actors dying I often don't like it when they choose to leave their eyes open because I can tell too clearly they are alive because the light is still shining through and you can see it. Until you actually see it leave a person's eyes during death, you don't realize how glaringly obvious it is in living people.

Even though this was a terrible thing to watch happen I still chose to volunteer at a hospice so I could see it again! Not out of enjoyment really, but to feel connected. Even though death is not a fun part of life it is indeed a part of life and a part of reality. Sometimes ignoring the 'ugly' things simply because they happen to be ugly becomes tiresome. There comes a time when you would rather expose yourself to something REAL and TRUE even if it happens to be ugly because it connects you with emotions and things that are real and true. Even when it's sad there's something refreshing about being connected to those things and in a weird way it can sometimes be quite freeing.
posted by rancher at 3:29 AM on December 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

I do this too and used to watch a lot of horror movies. My personal pet theory is that these are two sides of the same coin. And it all boils down to a malfunctioning feeling of fear. So I seek controlled fear, which is still "escaping my real inner fears". Can you sit still in a room with no distractions for two hours? Probably not. Neither can I. Real fear comes along then. I think it's got to do with my upbringing and growing up in a family where real emotions were not very welcome. Haven't succeeded myself, but you can probably train your real fears to surface again. And be dealt with in an adult way. Good luck!
posted by hz37 at 2:12 PM on December 31, 2014

This foreward to Night Shift, by Stephen King, may offer one possible insight.
posted by spacediver at 8:41 PM on December 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

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