News & Politics

Appetite for Destruction: Why Are Americans So Obsessed with Disaster?

An entire industry has been built around our obsession with catastrophes, but where does that interest come from?

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?"

There is some need to pay respect, to further the connection that news outlets begin, but it could also be another way to alleviate the fear of dying that Godbey refers to as "existential angst." Like rubbernecking on the freeway, engaging in activities like watching a Gettysburg battle reenactment or taking a tour of a Holocaust museum brings us close enough to the action to have some idea of what the experience -- death or near-death -- was like, but from a safe enough distance.

Upping the "Real" Quotient of Fake Realities
Sometimes waiting around for something bad to see isn't enough -- we actively seek out mini heart jolts, too. TV lineups are filled with high-pressure, anxiety-ridden shows like 24. The existence of shows like Discovery Channel's Destroyed in Seconds and Storm Chasers stems from a need to satisfy our danger lust from the comfort of our couches. Movies with plots centered on bloodshed and bombs rack in millions of dollars from viewers and the old media saying, "If it bleeds, it leads," is sadly accurate.

Perhaps because of the rise of reality television and our increasing ability to experience every facet of someone else's life, these faux intense pursuits are becoming more and more real. Fast and Furious was recently released into theaters accompanied by something called a D-Box Motion Code, which makes the movie seats shake in tune with the action on the screen. It's as close as audiences can come to being in the passenger seat of the high-speed, crash-happy cars without actually being in danger.

Not to be outdone, roller coasters in amusement parks are getting faster, higher, and scarier. "It's a quest for never ending excitement," Godbey says. "You don't go [on a ride] expecting to die, but you do want a thrill of it. You get a taste of that thrill, but you're reassured by the park that this isn't going to hurt you." We're so inundated with violent and graphic images, either from the news, entertainment, or what we happen to see throughout the day, that the line separating us from actual harm is getting closer to the edge.

Though there's been a lot of talk about how cell phones and driving can be a deadly mix, it only placed fourth (sixth in non-urban areas) in a study done by the Virginia DMV about crashes caused by driver distraction. Rubbernecking took the top spot, causing 16 percent of these types of accidents. It even beat out driver fatigue, which one might assume would be the most dangerous. The people too busy surveying roadside damage to pay attention to the road could end up starring in a rubbernecking show themselves.

It seems bizarre how fixated our society is on death and destruction, to the point that there's an industry specifically devoted to promoting fictitious fear that encompasses all types of entertainment. And we may view wrecks, watch scary movies, and get strapped into roller coasters with our hands over our eyes, but we can't help but peek between our fingers to see what happens. But if you consider that our obsession could stem from a fear that's even more all-consuming, maybe it's not surprising that we do whatever we can to shield ourselves from death. However, when it starts to put us in real danger, as is the case with rubbernecking, maybe it's time to reevaluate a defense mechanism that actually makes what we're most scared of that much more likely. Instead, let's stick to action movies, war battle reenactments, and keeping our eyes on the roads in front of us.

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