Why are We Attracted to Tragedy?
“It's a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely?”
It’s odd, isn’t it, how whenever something horrible happens in front of our eyes the logical thing is to obviously look away, but we don’t. Then, the images that we see permanently sear themselves into our brain to the point that we may have nightmares about it. This applies to several situations; when watching a horror movie, we cover our eyes but peek through our fingers. When there’s a large procession of police cars on the highway and we can tell that there’s been an accident, we join the people flocking around the area, having their eyes glued to the wreck. But why is this so? Why do we look at things we don’t want to, and then regret it immediately after? Apparently, there’s a science behind it and it’s much more developed than the greek ideas of old.
So where does our obsession with destruction begin? According to Dr. John Mayer, our brains upon being near dangerous situations, activate their survival instinct; we want to survey the nearest source of danger and ascertain that it cannot hurt us. Our eyes take in the horrible site, and this perception travels to our amygdala, which is the part of our brain responsible for memory. It then signals parts of the frontal cortex responsible for analysing data as well as interpreting it. As a result of this evaluation, our body activates the fight-or-flight response.
All right, fine, we look at the car crash to see if it’s able to hurt us or not; why do we keep staring at it?
According to Dr. David Henderson, we are compelled to continue looking as a way to face our fears of destruction from a viewpoint of safety; kind of like assessing if we could actually survive being in that situation if we were actually involved.
Illustrated by Avani Gupta
Another thing we need to address is the humans’ ‘negative bias’- that is to say, humans are prone to negative happenings more than positive. We are drawn to negativity. We have low expectations to avoid getting disappointed, we would spend more time watching a murder documentary than a cartoon (well, most of us) and we’d resonate more with a tragedy than a happy ending.
However, having a bias and paying more attention to negative occurrences does not explain why we feel so guilty and disconcerted after the event. According to psychiatrist Gail Saltz, the sadness comes from the identification with the situation, and the realisation that it could be you or your loved ones in that situation. This is a completely normal response, and it also explains why though we can’t look away, we’re left with a pit in our stomach.
Obviously movies love to portray characters who look at tragedies as ‘psychopaths’- and then we’re left wondering if we’re the same, but no. It’s a different situation entirely, as psychopaths and sociopaths don’t display empathy in general. They would not feel horror at all, they would be completely dissociated from the situation.
So, how do we avoid feeling so terrible if wanting to look at the accident is a survival instinct?
According to Dr. Renee Carr, consciously recognising the power you have in the situation, and the position you’re in is a good way of disengaging your brain. You could take control of helping those affected; or if you’re unable to even handle that, simply remove yourself from your situation. Odds are, the people affected already have people helping them but if you’d feel guilty about that as well, then try your best. You could walk away from the situation feeling like you actually did something. Not all people are able to handle themselves though; for these people, Dr. Carr advises them to remove items of this nature from their surroundings. Self care and being more present and conscious also helps battle this state of mind.
Well, for the next car crash that you happen to witness, after having surveyed the situation, be sure to help in any way you can! Life doesn’t always have to be such a horror movie.