The Science of Rubbernecking
Don’t look. Look. This refrain has played in my head much of my life, one voice telling me it’s wrong to stare at morbid events and another urging me to stare anyway, hard.
It’s my turn to pass the accident on the side of the highway. I tell myself to keep my eyes on the road, to avoid being one of those rubberneckers who clog traffic just for some sick titillation. But decadent anticipation takes over; I realize I’m going to gaze, and I’ll enjoy the experience all the more because it’s frowned upon. I hit my brakes and gape, until an angry horn prods me forward.
I imagine we’ve all felt that guilty rush before the morbid. The exploitation of a suicidal starlet, the assassination of a world leader; the hypnotic crush of a hurricane, the lion exploding into the antelope; the wreckage and the rapture, the profane and the sacred: whatever our attraction, we are drawn to doom. Everyone loves a good train wreck. We are enamored of ruin. The deeper the darkness is, the more dazzling. Our secret and ecstatic wish: Let it all fall down.
What is this ﬁxation on the perverse — the deviant, the macabre, the diseased? Jack B. Haskins, late professor of journalism at the University of Tennessee, offered this deﬁnition of morbid curiosity: “an enduring unusually strong attraction to information about highly unpleasant events and objects that are irrelevant to the individual’s life.”