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

Morbid curiosity can sometimes inspire us to imagine ways to transform life’s necessary darkness into luminous vision.

| July/August 2012

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

  • Car Wreck

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.

8/10/2012 2:34:50 PM

I thought we were the only ones who were taught this. As a child, if we were approaching an accident on the road, my mother was adamant. Even as passengers, she would tell us "Eyes straight! It has nothing to do with you." or "They don't need your help!" and later as we became drivers, "Eyes on the road! You could cause another accident!" She head learned this while working a few years for the highway patrol in Montana. As a 64 year old, I am grateful for this lesson that has stayed with me to this day.

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