Hooked on the latest serial killer documentary? Can’t turn away from that freak accident? We spill the tea on morbid curiosity.
I’ve always been a fan of things that make me feel… unsettled. Just ask my parents. When I was little, we frequented video rental stores for family movie nights, and my go-to film was anything directed by Tim Burton, the king of dark fantasy. I loved Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas. It didn’t stop there. My favourite books included ones titled ‘There Once Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly’ (spoiler alert: she died), and ‘Sucked In’, which was about a boy whose appendix ate him. Over time, I learnt what fuelled my fascination was a thing called ‘morbid curiosity’. Now that Halloween is around the corner (and everyone’s inner demons are unleashed), perhaps we should talk about it.
Morbid curiosity: A shared fascination for the unpleasant
I thought I was just a weird kid (partly true), but it turns out I’m not the only one who’s intrigued by morbid content. A friend of mine, Soni Tiwari, 27, enjoys consuming myriad podcasts, books and films of the horror, thriller and crime genres. It’s a topic of interest we bonded over when we first met at university.
“It makes me wonder what goes on in the minds of these people,” she says. “I want to know why they decided to commit the crime, how they went about it, and eventually how they got away with it.” It brings her a sort of comfort, and she even plays crime podcasts in the background while working.
Another close friend of mine, Marcus Hung (not his real name), 28, tells me about his routine of scrolling through Reddit before bedtime. Except he’s not trawling through the latest celebrity gossip. He’s watching videos of freak accidents (like people getting decapitated by fallen trees and different ways of dismemberment).
“Other forms of entertainment are too commonplace,” he explains, when I ask him why he doesn’t go for something more light-hearted. “When I watch these awful accidents, it’s an opportunity for me to experience the events through these people. Like I’m living (or dying) vicariously through them.”
You might be reading this in disgust, and thinking you’re not like Soni or Marcus at all. But the fascination with morbidity is quite evident all around us – especially so during events like Halloween. Think about it. We pay to get spooked in theme parks and dress like ghouls, murderers or demons. There are ghost tours available in Singapore. TV channels and streaming services have a host of dark content – such as famous serial killer documentaries like Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, and Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes – ready to entertain the masses. Morbid curiosity is more abundant than we think.
The paradox of horror and tragedy
I don’t know about you, but I’m a pretty anxious person. You’d think I’d stay away from anything that makes me flinch, cringe or panic. But often you’ll find me curled up in bed in complete darkness, watching episode after episode of the latest serial killer documentary. Why is this so?
While most of us think such content can leave us feeling vulnerable, it can actually produce the opposite effect: safety. “We like to feel the adrenaline rush, knowing that we won’t be hurt in any way, and in reality are in the safety of our own homes,” explains Syaza Hanafi, a clinical psychologist at Psychology Blossom. She likens the experience to being on a roller coaster. When the scariest part is over, we’re flooded with relief.
Syaza goes on to share that our obsession with morbid content may stem from our willingness to learn from it. Especially for women. Statistically, we’re much more likely to be victims or survivors of such crimes. “For example, if a woman survives, we’d like to think we, too, would be able to in her position. We ask ourselves questions like: What would I do? How would I respond? Would I have survived it?”
It may even help us make peace with the fact that the day will come when we’ll perish. “Most people don’t like the idea of death. It’s fearful to them, even though we all know that one day we’ll die,” says Maria Micha, a psychotherapist at Maria Micha Counselling Centre. “Yet there are some who watch it because they’re curious about death and want to understand more about it.”
The line between entertainment and obsession
So maybe morbid curiosity isn’t such a weird thing after all. It can prepare us to survive terrible crimes and provide an illusion of safety. But can we actually take this too far? Experts say yes.
“[When] our threshold for morbid content increases, this may cause us to lose touch with reality,” Syaza says. “The reverse may also take place where consuming too much of it may make you feel threatened all the time, and have a skewed version of the real world.”
Maria shares that for the same reasons, she advises individuals with anxiety and depression to stay away from morbid entertainment. “The more we watch such content, the more it becomes engraved in our minds. This can affect our mood, and if it takes over your life, you can have a psychotic episode,” she says.
I guess I can relate. I took an online test recently to measure where I fall on the morbid curiosity scale and scored well above the mean (oops). There are times when I’ve been plagued by visions of freak accidents for fear that they might happen to me. Thoughts that send my heart racing include falling off the stairs and breaking my legs, or getting attacked in an empty car park. So if you find yourself dealing with overwhelming paranoia, you may want to set an appointment with a counsellor or psychiatrist for professional help.
If there’s anything to take away from this, it’s that balance is key. Oh, and that morbid curiosity has a stronger grip on us than we think. I’m not ready to give up on those documentaries and films yet. But perhaps I’ll put on a comedy before bedtime – just for tonight.