Appetite for Destruction: Why Are Americans So Obsessed with Disaster?
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We've all been there -- stuck in an endless traffic jam, cursing the other drivers for whatever is making them slow to a snail's crawl. And then as we get closer to the point of attraction, whether it's a gruesome crash or just a car pulled over, we turn our heads, gawk openly, and repeat the same rubbernecking behavior that enraged us moments ago.
There's no doubt that humans are curious creatures and nothing draws us in more than disaster. We can't help but look at wrecks; we flock to see explosion-heavy blockbusters and horror movies, and we make sites like concentration camps and Ground Zero tourist destinations. An entire industry has been built around our obsession with such catastrophes, but where does that interest come from?
A Captivation with Calamity
According to Emily Godbey, a professor at Albright College who has done extensive research on the subject, our fascination with destruction is nothing new. However, she believes that its prominence in our lives is definitely a modern phenomenon that came with the rise of industrialism during the nineteenth century. "Part of what happens is that as industrialism spreads, people get these very routine lives," she explains. "The unexpected, no matter what it is, brings a certain kind of excitement to people's lives … when they've been making widgets in a factory."
Seeking out a little excitement when life gets mundane is understandable, but what Godbey really believes attracts people to witnessing another person's harrowing experience is that it's a safe way to get a thrill. She uses a relationship analogy to illustrate her point: "In a breakup, we always say, ‘It's not you, it's me.' I think with this, it's the reverse. It's not me, it's you." Because the event is happening to someone else, we're able to confront a common underlying fear -- the fear of dying -- without having to live through it ourselves. "We're able to experience the existential dilemma of human lives -- that we know we're going to die," she says. "But if we're watching it and not in it, there's no real risk, and in a way you get to deny that you're not dying … and it's a moment of relief." Godbey postulates that the reason we feel so compelled to stare at terrible situations (ever heard someone say, "It was like a train wreck, I just couldn't look away"?) is because we need to acknowledge and quell such scary feelings.
The Rise of Dark Tourism
Not only are we drawn to disasters happening right in front of us, but we also feel inclined to visit the places in which they happened. After the 9/11 attacks, even Mayor Giuliani couldn't stop people from coming and watching workers and volunteers sort through the wreckage. In fact, a year after September 11, it was estimated that the area attracted about a million more tourists than the Twin Towers ever drew.
There's something that compels us to visit sites like Ground Zero and Auschwitz, sites of such historical destruction and pain. In the book Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster , authors J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley link the popularity of such sites with technological advances and the media. The media brings images from all over the world into our living rooms, many of them violent because that's what garners the most attention. As they put it, "The events themselves have (apparently) come closer to us in space and time … can it be surprising that, when the opportunity presents itself to validate that global-local connection, so many decide to visit the sites of these deaths and disasters?"