We’ve all been there: watching TV or scrolling through social media when a story about a devastating natural disaster or a shocking car wreck pops up. Immediately, it piques our interest. Oftentimes, we can’t even quite explain where the intrigue comes from. For whatever reason, despite how horrifying these incidents may be, we simply need to know more. We don’t want to stare, but we just can’t look away.
Although this sense of fascination is near-universal, many of us are still in the dark as to why we are the way that we are. As it turns out, the answer lies in the psychological phenomenon of morbid curiosity.
Understanding the psychology of morbid curiosity
By definition, morbid curiosity is an interest in things that are unpleasant, dangerous, or threatening in nature. When we take a closer look at the world around us, it’s clear that morbid curiosity is everywhere.
For example, we see it in the global tourism industry, particularly amid the rise of dark tourism. From the One World Trade Center to the Auschwitz concentration camp, people flock to visit these places every single year – and not in spite of the atrocities that occurred there, but because of them.
We also see our morbid curiosity reflected in the modern media landscape. From true crime podcasts to horror movies to death metal music with violent lyrics, it seems as though all of us, in some way or another, are driven by this fascination with darkness.
But the question still stands: why?
One research paper explains that morbid curiosity has been proposed to serve three main functions:
- It helps us understand dangerous stimuli,
- It helps us learn how to avoid negative outcomes associated with these dangerous stimuli, and
- It allows us to process feelings that morbid situations can evoke.
In many ways, morbid curiosity allows us to make sense of the world we live in. Consider the example of watching a horror movie. Even though the images and sounds are inherently disturbing, it’s an outlet for us to familiarise ourselves with dark (but very real) themes like fear, pain, and death. But, because it’s just a movie, the whole experience is distant from real-world implications. We’re given a safe space to come to terms with our thoughts and emotions on the content and everything it represents. From this perspective, morbid curiosity can serve a positive purpose.
Like most things, however, morbid curiosity is incredibly multifaceted – and its dark side, particularly in modern media, can’t go unnoticed.
Capitalising on crisis: How morbid curiosity is dominating the media landscape
In 2022, morbid themes in media – particularly television and film – are inescapable. This isn’t simply due to how many morbid productions there are, but because of how wildly popular they become, for better or worse. Although these programs always attract a mix of acclaim and condemnation, people are paying attention to them nonetheless, fanning the flames of their pervasiveness.
This year, three of the most talked-about productions featuring morbid themes were Blonde, The Gabby Petito Story, and Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.
Blonde explores the tumultuous life of Hollywood icon, Marilyn Monroe, in a startling mix of fact and potential fiction. The biopic draws on several moments in pop culture as well as Monroe’s personal history, including her movies, marriages, and drug addiction. However, peppered in are depictions of moments in the starlet’s life that may or may not have ever even happened. From a sexual assault to a forced abortion, these scenes share a lurid portrayal of traumatising subject matter. Rather than showcasing any sense of care or empathy, the entire film trivialises Monroe’s tragic, all-too-short life, seemingly for the sole purpose of shock value.
Then there’s The Gabby Petito Story, a dramatisation of a story that jarred the world. You’ll likely recognise the name Gabby Petito; in August 2021, her disappearance in the United States made international headlines, as did the eventual discovery of her body and the revelation that she had been murdered by her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Weeks after killing Gabby, Brian committed suicide himself, bringing an end to this horrifying story. With the film’s release coming only a year after the ordeal, it’s a confronting reminder that the waiting period for commodifying the pain of others is growing shorter all the time.
Without question, though, the most controversial production of the year is Netflix’s Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Easily the darkest of the three, the series tells the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, one of America’s most notorious serial killers. Not only did Dahmer predominantly prey on young, gay men of colour, but he committed some of the most revolting acts the world has ever seen. Dismemberment, necrophilia, cannibalism – it doesn’t get much darker than Dahmer.
In addition to their focus on morbid themes, these programs all have one unsettling thing in common: they’re real stories about real people.
By virtue of that fact, the creators aren’t just capitalising on the psychological phenomenon of morbid curiosity among viewers – they’re blatantly exploiting the suffering of other human beings for personal gain.
From desensitisation to dehumanisation
As research suggests, morbid curiosity isn’t inherently bad, nor is it bad to explore the phenomenon in the media. But all too often, the forces driving creators are sensationalisation, notoriety, and profits. Rather than raising awareness or fostering empathy for the pain of others, this overt commodification of tragedy tends to have the opposite effect on audiences: desensitisation.
One TikTok trend embodies this perfectly: the unfazed Dahmer flex. In it, users are essentially bragging about how unbothered they were by the Dahmer series, featuring the show’s theme song as the sound on their videos. One creator – who dons earrings with Dahmer’s face on them – even went so far as to lament that the show wasn’t morbid enough for her.
The trend has sparked outrage across the platform – and rightfully so. When horrific tragedies like these become nothing more than fodder for salacious storytelling, it’s no surprise we lose our sense of empathy, one of the very things that make us human.
When it comes to morbid themes in modern media, it’s this shift from desensitisation to dehumanisation that’s the greatest cause for concern. When we become so immune to the pain of those who have experienced some of life’s worst atrocities, what does that say about us?
Rather than blindly consuming, it’s crucial that we as viewers question the creators’ motives in producing such content and apply pressure for more ethical practices. Equally, we as viewers must think critically about why we would watch this kind of programming and at what cost we are willing to get our entertainment. With this reflection, you might just be surprised to find that you’re not just a spectator to the suffering of others but an active participant in its perpetuation.