'Everyone loves a good train wreck,' author insists
Published Friday, July 13, 2012 10:40AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, July 13, 2012 10:58AM EDT
Tapping into happiness has become a big money-maker for authors in recent years. But author Eric Wilson wants readers to get in touch with their dark side in his new book, “Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away.”
In his latest work, Wilson examines our morbid curiosity with violence and outlines why humans are hard-wired to watch other people suffer.
“We can’t help enjoying gore and violence, whether it’s fictional or non-fiction,” Wilson said earlier this week on CTV News Channel.
To prove his point, Wilson cited one scenario that is familiar to people around the globe.
“Think about being on a highway,” said Wilson, a professor of English at Wake Forest University in Winton-Salem, N.C.
“You’re caught in traffic and you see an accident up ahead. You tell yourself you’re not going to look, but as you get closer it’s like an itch. You can’t help it. You can’t shut out the accident,” he said.
The reasons for this compulsion are both psychological and physiological in nature, according to the biologists, psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists interviewed for this book.
“The heart rate goes up. Our body releases chemicals. It’s very much like riding a roller-coaster,” said Wilson.
Whether we admit it or not, that physiological rush that comes from observing catastrophe feels good. That society deems it a taboo to enjoy violence makes it all the more interesting, according to Wilson.
From the appeal of torture porn and fight clubs to the strange allure wielded by Civil War battlefields, our inability to ignore gore stems from an innate “hunger to penetrate the most profound mysteries of existence,” Wilson writes.
Evolution can also be credited for our taste for disaster.
In studies cited by Wilson, scientists showed pictures to people of animals being eaten by lions. In watching these violent images the human brain registered what actions to avoid in the future to escape such harm.
Society’s handling of death in a modern-day world has also contributed to the public’s fascination with the macabre.
Prior to the 1950s, “people usually suffered and died in their own homes,” Wilson writes.
Even children were familiar with death’s “sound and its smells, the agony of it, and its peace,” he adds.
Today, however, death has disappeared behind the doors of hospitals and funeral homes. Yet deep inside us our fascination with death continues, said Wilson.
That fascination is continually fed by today’s media, as Wilson writes in his book.
From newscasts to new movies, death and violence are all around us and impossible to ignore in a post 9-11 world.
“There are literal train wrecks, but there are celebrity scandals and footage of wars and natural disasters that are on television,” Wilson told CTV News Channel.
“A train wreck points to all those parts of our existence that our culture says we should not look at, but we do,” he said.
That instinctive act is part of who we are and relates to what some psychologists such as Carl Jung would call the shadow side of humanity.
“It’s that part of ourselves where we keep everything we hate and fear,” said Wilson.
Instead of repressing these dark feelings and thoughts, Wilson argues that they should be examined and embraced.
That process is one that Wilson has grappled with in his own life.
In the past Wilson battled depression and bipolar disorder, which is discussed in this new book.
Wilson has also had a life-long preoccupation with the gothic, as well as gloomy romantic authors and poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson.
That past colours Wilson’s book, as does a pervasive message that the dark side of human nature is part of who we are.
“We are enamoured of ruin,” Wilson writes.
The deeper the darkness is, the more dazzling. Our secret and ecstatic wish: Let it all fall down,” he continues.
So the next time you slow down on the highway to gawk at an accident remember that you are not alone. As Wilson writes, such a ghastly sight is “a special invitation to think about life’s meaning.”