The Allure of Disaster

Why do we watch disaster movies when the world is on fire?

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

Why do we subject ourselves to watching bad, scary, frightening things unfold? I don’t think I’ve ever watched as much news as I have this past year, it’s physically impossible to look away from daily case and death counts. As morbid as it is, I have this gut yearning to know the stats.

I was driving home last week and got stuck in traffic, in the opposite lane to a crash, because drivers on my side of the road were slowing down to get a look. Rubbernecking. Morbid curiosity.

Carl Jung believed we like to watch violence because “it allows us to entertain our most destructive impulses without actually harming ourselves or others.” We can’t tear ourselves away. I even remember as a young child, in the comfort of my home on the other side of the world, my parents sat me down to watch the events of September 11, 2001 unfold because I needed to “see and remember this moment.”

These are all horrifyingly real world scenarios. We can justify a sense of needing to witness history. But what about our fictional desires? The scary movies? Horror writing? Why do we spend our time, especially women, devouring ‘entertainment’ in the form of documentaries about men who kill their families, or true crime podcasts? What is the allure in disaster?

Some perspectives compiled by Hayley Soen for The Tab include:

“I believe that, as humans, we have a morbid fascination with events that can have such an impact on the lives of others. The same base instinct that draws us to look at a car crash in some ways draws us to these documentaries.” — David Green

“We want some insight into the psychology of a killer, partly so we can learn how to protect our families and ourselves, but also because we are simply fascinated by aberrant behaviour and the many paths that twisted perceptions can take.” — Caitlin Rother

My guilty ‘disaster’ viewing pleasure is the end of the world.

Last October, I went to a movie theatre (!!) to watch Greenland (trailer), where it still felt odd to be so close to strangers even in a covid-free-ish country.

Greenland is an addition to the apocalypse genre which I personally love: movies like 2012, Independence Day, San Andreas, The Day After Tomorrow. All based on catastrophic scenarios that could theoretically happen — aliens, climate events, earthquakes — the films balance relatable stories of humanity with unlikely events. Viewers can enjoy, but disassociate. The events edge towards being too unlikely.

However, after Greenland I felt unnerved — the chaos in the film felt relatable.

This was before I saw the trailer for Songbird. If you thought the curiosity of watching Contagion in March 2020 was bad enough, try a movie that sets itself in the fourth year (yes, fourth) of lockdown, as the virus Covid-23 (yes, 23) has mutated. Predictably, the movie is already subject to criticism.

While humans love to know things with morbid curiosity there surely is a line. Songbird recklessly approaches that line.

I’ll still watch it… but maybe in the comfort of my own home. No cinema required.

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