The Fascination With All That is Morbid and Macabre

Featured Illustration: Marmite / Behance

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It could be the very reason you clicked — a glance, then come another, then that pulsating enthrallment — the tempo of the heartbeat, those drops of pitter-patter sweat, and those eyes, open wide and clear, to all that is morbid and macabre…

There are some things in this world that we do not wish to see but are drawn to regardless, like moths to a flame. Crime scene photographs, serial killers, horror movies, even the everyday news — at first we shield our eyes in careful anticipation. We click softly, we click delicately, until the images flash in front of our eyes. Then comes that thrilling sense of foreboding, the rush of adrenaline, that throbbing urge of fight or flight — we choose to stay.

We choose to look, to stare, and look and look until the images and the colors blend into a colorful cacophony of all that is mixed in twisted revulsion and fascination — of all that is morbid and macabre.

We are daring the nightmare. We are riding on the oscillating wave propelling between right and wrong, between beauty and horror, between all we have ever known.

And yet we can never stop.

In 1981, Stephen King wrote an essay titled “Why We Crave Horror Movies”, the very year he began writing “It.” The subgenre of horror movies has a dirty job — it appeals to the very worst in all of us. The savage, the primal, and the barbaric. King writes of a trapdoor and the depths simmering inside: “a trapdoor in the civilized forebrain… and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.”

And that’s in all of us. Like a rabid dog, like the night howlers in Zootopia, like the boys in The Lord of the Flies

As long as we keep our gators fed.

But that’s just scratching the surface. The gators are all inside us, innately, but we don’t exactly know why — or how.

At least not yet.

What we want is to live. We want to S.C.R.E.A.M., for strength, for catharsis, for reality, for exploration, for acceptance, and for meaning. We want to experience all of life’s highs and all of its lows, to relive every moment, each heartbreak, each death, each joy, each failure, and each success…

First and foremost is strength. It is the strange superiority of staying up later than the rest of your friends, the long hours spent working into the early morning, the stamina of completing a movie marathon.

The repulsiveness of the macabre is a challenge. When we look past it, we feel a sense of strength. It is through our morbid curiosity to fulfill that validation, the need of knowing that the muscle has been torn through and can continue to tear and tear again.

And with that knowledge of “making it through” comes catharsis — a release of buried emotions, of the skeletons in the closet. What the macabre and morbid offer to us can be a strange sense of relief in that the unpleasantness of the unknown — the burning, engulfing curiosity within us all to know what is on the other side — trumps what we might see.

It is in human nature that we like to be in control, or have the illusion of it. We like to tell ourselves that we are the puppet master of our own stories, that we hold our own reins, only to be blind to the millions upon millions of puppet masters above us. When we unlock just a little more of the human experience, whether for bad or for good, we tell ourselves that we move just a little more up the strings.

The reality of the world is oftentimes more horrible than any of us will ever truly know. When we see the gruesome and repulsive with hindsight — it is with knowing that the real terror is never behind us (or perhaps it is), but is in front of us, encased within particles of a screen. It is knowing that however terrible our current predicament is, we can see a lesser, poorer, more unfortunate soul, no matter how far we hit rock bottom.

As Stephen King writes, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

And yet the sheer complexity of it all is that when we step out from the movie theatres, the times we choose to hug and cherish our friends, our families, is not when we watch comedies or romances — it is when we watch the most horrible of all films, the most horrid of all films. We choose to experience the macabre and morbid because we are exploring — we are stepping in the shoes of the victim, we become empathetic to the characters and the people we have never known before. We are experiencing their suffering.

Yet when we choose to talk about the morbid and macabre is exclusively when it is acceptable. We ourselves often feel guilty at our individual premonitions, at our own fascinations with serial killers — who are comparably (wrongly so) treated as small-scale celebrities or simply at another one’s downfall at our joy (schadenfreude). What we feel is shame in our individual curiosity at horrible things, as if in a way we find gruesome things enjoyable.

But while we feel guilty for seeking out such repulsive things, when we truly take a look at them, we realize we are (hopefully) not a part of them — we set ourselves apart from the ruthless psychopathy of killers and their nonexistent morality.

And in a greater sense, we seek acceptance from the horde. We ask ourselves why? How? When tragedy strikes, we seek out the opinions of those who surround us and are thus validated when we think as they do.

In Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From The Crematorium, Caitlin Doughty, an American mortician and YouTuber, reflects on the impact of seeing morbidity so frequently.

“Accepting death doesn’t mean that you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies,” she writes. “It means that you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions: why do people die? Why is this happening to me? Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”

And that is the truth of it all. Death is not picky. Death is universal. And when we look at horrible things, in a sense, we are comforted by its randomness, its indiscriminate nature.

When we turn to the macabre and morbid, we are one step closer to understanding the world. It is, in a way, like humor to help us deal with the realities of the world. In the Encryption Theory of Humor, Flamson and Barrett argue that the basis of humor assesses who is outside and who is inside; there is always some sort of common knowledge or ideology between the teller and the listener.

Jokes and humor assess underlying ideological attitudes; the morbid and macabre help us express shared underlying attitudes of an existential variety — morality, justice, and death.

And through it all we S.C.R.E.A.M.

We seek strength through power, catharsis through release, reality through imagination, exploration through empathy, acceptance through the horrid, and perhaps the meaning of it all from what will all happen to us all — the indiscriminate, cold hand of death.

I will leave you with a quote from Nietzsche that I quite admire if any of this gets too dark. I am sure that you have experienced the departure of loved ones — and although thinking about the morbid and macabre might not help, it will certainly help you scream.

“He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you…” -Friedrich Nietzsche