The strange allure of disaster porn

By Jack Shafer
October 30, 2012

Like me, you’ve probably been flipping from the Weather Channel to CNN with one hand and raking the Web with the other, searching for scenes of maximum destruction from Hurricane Sandy. Long after satisfying your basic news needs about the horrific body counts, power outages, travel advisories, school closings, and surges of tidal and river water to come, you’ve likely been loitering around your screens for more. Somebody tweets about a live video feed of a construction crane gone limp in midtown Manhattan, and we go there. Emails from friends direct us to videos of vehicles floating through lower Manhattan like derelict bumper cars and the shattering of the Atlantic City boardwalk into toothpicks. Next up, toppled trees, washed-out rails, flooded streets, subways, and tunnels, and the sinking of HMS Bounty.

Oh, the horror! Pass the popcorn.

Advanced voyeurs (you know who you are) understand that shame, rather than being a deterrent, actually works to reinforce both the urge to look and to share what we’ve seen. I’d have continued watching TV and scanning the Web until the early a.m., messaging to my friends and family what I’d seen, had not the pop and flash of a nearby transformer killed my electric power at 9:30 p.m. on Monday.

What impels us to watch, to hunger for more disaster and mayhem, and to keep on watching long after we’ve learned all there is to know? Wake Forest University English Professor Eric C. Wilson gathers some clues in his new book, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away. We never feel more alive than in times of distress, danger, and calamity, Wilson writes, whether we experience it directly or at a televised remove, watch it dramatized in a movie, or read it in a novel. He cites a psychologist to theorize that our morbid curiosity has an evolutionary function: Being well-informed about dangers and potential dangers helps us survive; finding points of empathy through which we can connect with those who have suffered allows us to build lasting bonds. Wilson discusses the cultural appeal of fairy tales, horror films, and “documentaries” like Faces of Death; he recycles the now-standard view that gruesome and graphic stories prepare the young for adulthood; and he reminds us of how Aristotle schooled us in the value of catharsis to explain our fascinations with the perverse.

Or is our connection with the macabre more about animal arousal than it is evolution? Wilson, backed by Kant and Burke, surmises that as long as we can watch from a safe vantage point—but the closer the better—we can “undergo a sublime experience” while observing the suffering of others or a catastrophe. I suspect that the sublime experience is a learned one—that the first time you rubberneck a car crash you don’t quite understand it but over time, by poking dead cats flattened on the highway and going to your grandmother’s open-casket funeral, you eventually get it. From there—at least for boys—emerge new horizons, the delights of setting off firecrackers taped to robin’s eggs and of breaking schoolroom windows after hours. As P.J. O’Rourke once put it, “making things and breaking things” brings the only true joy in life. When nature builds something as powerful as a hurricane that breaks things in new and inventive ways, how can we not gawk? We’re all transported back to the sandbox where we, young creator-destroyers, obliterated the cities of sand we’d carefully constructed.

Proximity to the action is essential for us to experience the sublime, Wilson argues, and I agree.  Natural disasters in Asia made for dry reading back in the day when news was transmitted by telex and newsreel. But 24-hour-news satellites, cheap video cameras, and the Internet have made all disasters local, whether they be tsunamis in Thailand and Japan, earthquakes in New Zealand, or terrorist attacks in New York and London. Television and the Web place us in the comfortable zone between too-far-away-to-feel-the-rush and I’m-so-damned-close-I-got-splattered-with-blood. As I noted above, the media buzz I got last night from the Hurricane Sandy coverage could have kept me up for hours beyond my usual bedtime. Had my electric power been restored by morning, I don’t have to tell you what my first act would have been upon awakening.

Our appetite for destruction does know limits. One might be wise to decline the offer of viewing a “beheading” video, Wilson writes, unless the viewer can erect a sufficient a psychological “buffer” between himself and the images or has another way to decipher the rawness of the havoc into something that has meaning. “[W]ithout this buffer, we risk the transformation of morbid curiosity into trauma.” (Wilson says he’s never watched one.)  One way to tame indecipherable images of death is to experience them as a group. I doubt if many witnesses to public hangings, even first-timers, ever had trouble sleeping the next night—such are the comforts of being a part of a mob. Another way to suppress the direct power of the images is to add the element of a story to the action, something that nobody seems to have tried to do with beheadings. If we can tie “a horrific eruption to a coherent narrative, then [we] can understand the terror as part of a larger and purposeful structure,” he writes.

That’s one of the reasons we couldn’t stop watching the Trade Center towers burn and fall after 9/11. Each narration of the events, each new view, helped us integrate the disaster into something more containable than the first viewing, for who among us had ever seen a skyscraper filled with people collapse? There have been attempts to ease the trauma of 9/11 with memorials in Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and at a crash site in rural Pennsylvania, but I don’t know that they’re working. Maybe someday they’ll be like the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields, the site of the Chernobyl disaster, and the “preserved” devastation of Katrina of which Wilson writes, places where people bear witness, bury demons, and, yes, do a little shameful rubbernecking.

If you’ve seen more of the Hurricane Sandy disaster than you really need, you should be ashamed. But not too ashamed. The only thing worse than looking too much is not looking at  all.

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PHOTO: A large uprooted tree lies on a house following a night of high winds and rain from Hurricane Sandy in Bethesda, Maryland October 30, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

2 comments

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Jack: I thought you would be penning a piece about the lemming-like performance of the reporters and editors covering these events. They are so predictable they could be archived and reused. In the Boston area, any time the wind blows or the moon is full all mobile crews are sent to Scituate, where water crashes over the sea wall with great effect. At one point yesterday three of the network affiliates (I didn’t check the fourth)were doing live reports from Scituate at the same time. And the Boston’s Globe’s big front page photo was a shot from…you guessed it, Scituate. Yes, we’re fascinated by this stuff– but can’t the media give us anything more original and useful that looping the same reports?

Posted by BenMC | Report as abusive

A few ways to repent of the detached voyeurism:
~~~
• Get involved in the relief efforts. Consult community leaders on how best to volunteer.
• Prepare yourself to respond better to the next disaster (this wasn’t the first and won’t be the last).

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive