Why We Can’t—and Shouldn’t—Stop Rubbernecking

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The gruesome brings out the generous: a strange notion. But think of the empathy that can arise from witnessing death or destruction.

Stop staring. I bet you heard this more than once growing up. This command, after all, marks the unbridgeable gap between the impulsiveness of the child, who gawks at whatever seizes his attention, and the adult’s social awareness, based on a fear of giving offense.

The auto mechanic has a huge mole on his nose. There’s a woman crying unaccountably in the supermarket aisle. The little boy looks and looks, while the mother pulls him away, scolding all the while.

Most children eventually get the point and quit their gaping. For good reason: Although we’re tempted to gaze at the car wreck on the side of the highway, suffering is involved.

But let’s be honest. We’re running late for work. We hit a traffic jam. We creep angrily ahead, inch by inch, until we finally see the source of the slowdown: an accident. As we near the scene, we realize that the highway’s been cleared. The dented cars are on the shoulder. This is just an onlooker delay, rubberneckers braking to stare.

We silently judge all those seekers of sick thrills–for making us late, for exploiting the misfortune of others. Surely we won’t look, we tell ourselves as we pull beside the crash. Then it comes: the need to stare, like a tickle in the throat before a cough or the awful urge to sneeze. We hold it back until the last minute, then gawk for all we’re worth, enjoying the experience all the more because it’s frowned upon.

Is There a Benefit to Rubbernecking?

Why do we do this? Our list of morbid fascinations is longer than we’d like to admit, including disaster footage on the TV news, documentaries featuring animal attacks, sordid reality shows, funny falls on YouTube, celebrity scandals, violent movies and television shows, gruesome video games, mixed martial arts, TMZ, Gawker, and the lives of serial killers.

Everyone loves a good train wreck. We are enamored of ruin. Our secret and ecstatic wish: Let it all fall down. Why? Does this macabre propensity merely reflect humanity’s most lurid tendencies? Or might this grimmer side produce unexpected virtues?

In Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes, and Make-Believe Violence, Gerard Jones argues that children can benefit from exposure to fictional violence because it makes them feel powerful in a “scary, uncontrollable world.” The child’s fascination with mayhem has less to do with the fighting and more to do with how the action makes her feel. Children like to feel strong. Those committing violence are strong. By pretending to be these violent figures, children take on their strength and with it negotiate daily dangers.

Carl Jung made a similar argument for adults. He maintained that our mental health depends on our shadow, that part of our psyche that harbors our darkest energies, such as murderousness. The more we repress the morbid, the more it foments neuroses or psychoses. To achieve wholeness, we must acknowledge our most demonic inclinations.

Yes, I took pleasure in my enemy’s tumble from grace. No, I couldn’t stop watching 9/11 footage. Once we welcome these unseemly admissions as integral portions of our being, the devils turn into angels. Luke owns the Vader within, offers affection to the actual villain; off comes the scary mask, and there stands a father, loving and in need of love.

The gruesome brings out the generous: a strange notion. But think of the empathy that can arise from witnessing death or destruction. This emotion–possibly the grounding of all morals–is rare, but it frequently arises when we are genuinely curious about dreadful occurrences.

Renaissance scholars kept skulls on their desks to remind them how precious this life is. John Keats believed that the real rose, because it is dying, exudes more beauty than the porcelain one.

In the summer of 2010, I visited the National September 11th Memorial Museum in New York City. Photographs of the tragedy and its aftermath covered the walls. On a portable audio player, I listened to commentaries on each. After an hour of taking in the devastation, raw with sadness and wanting nothing more than to return to my wife and daughter, I stood before a picture of a clergyman praying in an eerie gray haze.

The man in the photo was blessing the rescue workers before their day’s hellish efforts. They kneeled amidst the fog-covered wreckage, heads bowed. I hit the play button. The commentator spoke. As the search for bodies lengthened and grief and fatigue worsened; as hopes coalesced only to be immediately crushed; as firemen, bonded by their labor, grew close; as those who had lost their children and their parents, their wives and their husbands, realized the depth of their affection–as all of this was transpiring–this horrific terrain had turned into “holy ground.”

At that moment, I understood the terrible logic of suffering: When we agonize over what has cruelly been taken from us, we love it more, and know it better, than when we were near it. Affliction can reveal what is most sacred in our lives, essential to our joy. Water, Emily Dickinson writes, is “taught by thirst.”

Staring at macabre occurrences can lead to mere insensitivity–gawking for a cheap thrill–or it can result in stunned trauma, muteness before the horror. But in between these two extremes, morbid curiosity can sometimes inspire us to imagine ways to transform life’s necessary darkness into luminous vision. Go ahead. Stare. Take a picture. It will last longer.

Eric G. Wilson, PhD, is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University, and author of Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away. Reprinted from Psychology Today(March/April 2012), a magazine covering all aspects of human behavior and mental health.

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