I recently took a test to find out how morbidly curious I am and it turns out, extremely. I knew what the results would be before I got them but witnessing the evidence in cold, judgemental numbers on my phone screen made me a bit embarrassed. What's wrong with me?
The test I took – the Morbid Curiosity Calculator – is much more than a random internet personality quiz (though I love these as much as the next millennial). It was developed by horror expert Coltan Scrivner PhD and cosigned by the University of Chicago as a tool with scientific basis to discover and monitor facts about rates and states of morbid curiosity around the world. In the test, a collection of leading statements are posed, varying in intensity:
If I lived in Ancient Rome, I would be interested in attending a gladiatorial fight. (I clicked 'somewhat disagree'.)
I would be interested in attending or watching a video of an exorcism. (Strongly agree.)
Responses are captured, calculated and results scrutinised against collective participant benchmarks. I scored above average in most categories and particularly highly in the one relating to interest in 'paranormal danger'. Yikes.
A quick glance at demographic stats about who watches what evidences that I am not alone in my morbidly curious position. (Reader: I just know you are itching to take the test, too, and if you aren't, humour me.) It is well documented, for instance, that young women make up 80% of true crime podcast listeners, and under 25s are the largest horror audience demographic. To boot, I don’t know anyone who scrolls past a jump scare video on TikTok, even if we do end up hiding in the comments section.
Is our need for fear, our interest in death and our proclivity for horror increasing despite, or perhaps because of, the pandemic? And what does that mean for our mental health and the way we communicate about morbid stuff?
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On Netflix, the modern funhouse mirror that reflects the world, Contagion was promoted on the front page like breaking news in the pandemic’s nascency, almost a decade after it was first released. I clicked on it, as did everyone else. It was Warner Bros' second most popular film at the start of 2020, up from the 270th most popular in December 2019. At the time, psychologist Dr Pamela Rutledge told Insider that it was healthier to watch fictionalised accounts of viral contagion than the real-life news. She pointed to the idea of an anxiety-soothing 'resolution' in the glimmering hope of Contagion’s conclusion: a kind of parallel-world finality that we pined for in the storm’s eye of real life.
Eighteen months on, I know that is not why I watched it (twice). I was curious, morbidly so, to see what was about to go down. I was prepping for the worst rather than hoping for a fairytale ending. I wanted to see what would happen to my body if I were ravaged by a virus, while picking up potential tips on how to protect my parents, my grandparents. I wanted to know how I could emulate Contagion’s leading lady, Gwyneth Paltrow (something I think about regularly, in other contexts), and reinforce my internal underground bunker in preparation for what was coming next.
Coltan Scrivner says self-education is a crucial reason we reach for morbidity in our consumed media. "Young adults are much more likely to be morbidly curious than older adults," he tells R29. "If morbid curiosity is about learning, as I think it is, then this age disparity makes sense. Older people have had more time to learn about dangerous situations and so they might be less curious about them." That could explain why most horror fans are under 25. Similarly, the kinds of morbid curiosity you may be interested in are split along demographic lines. "Men tend to be more curious about violence and women are sometimes more curious about the minds of dangerous people," says Scrivner (go figure). This indicates why true crime is such a wildly popular medium among female audiences – we're trying to arm ourselves.
As well as learning from morbid media (how to protect ourselves, how to prepare), we also use them to distract ourselves from real-world anxieties. When done right, screen horror is shocking by design and has the unique ability to yank us by the collar out of any potential personal hell and into an imagined one much more efficiently than, say, a laughter-track sitcom that pootles along pleasantly in the living room periphery. "Certainly some people find it relaxing to watch horror movies or crime shows," says Scrivner. "I think they pull us in more easily since they trigger our threat-detection system. So they might help us stop ruminating or worrying about other things in our lives better than other shows. And when the show is over, the anxiety will often subside." Well, sort of. If you’re like me, the original, real-world anxiety you were seeking relief from will come back in waves but this time interwoven with thoughts of the little girl ghost you’ve just watched, who is almost definitely behind the sofa. But at least she's there, as a form of horrible/comfortable diversion.
If this is resonating with you, you’re likely a dark coper – a new term which Scrivner and his associates coined just last week. The term derives from a recent study (which took place in a haunted house, no less), which found that horror fans can be classified into three main groups. Firstly, adrenaline junkies, who desire "novel, complex, and intense experiences". They try and up-regulate their arousal to get the most out of it, participating in watching a horror movie or attending a haunted house simply for the thrill, in the same way someone might want to go skydiving. White knucklers are people who genuinely don't enjoy being scared, try and down-regulate their arousal but participate anyway, for some reason. And dark copers are a newly identified typology made up of morbidly curious people who use horror to cope with anxiety. "We found that people who score high in the dark coper dimension use a mix of strategies: some down-regulate their arousal and some up-regulate it. What makes this group distinct is that they tend to use horror as a way to cope with various aspects of their lives." He concludes: "If we are thoughtful about it, we can use frightening fictional experiences to teach us about ourselves and perhaps even improve how we handle anxiety-inducing experiences."
The extent to which 'dark coping' can actually benefit the mentality of those who instinctively use it is less understood, and murkier. More research is required on the effect of morbid curiosity on our mental health in general, says Scrivner (and he’s working on it in upcoming research). But in a 2020 study he did discover a nugget of revealing evidence, finding that "horror fans and morbidly curious people were more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic," though more work is needed to understand why. Could these initial findings begin to paint a picture of morbid curiosity as something that isn’t inherently bad or shameful with unhealthy connotations but potentially psychologically useful, instead?
Either way, it’s no coincidence, he argues, that morbid curiosity rises when confronted with an event like the pandemic, which has brought death closer to home for many of us – particularly young people, many of whom, like me, were introduced to familial death for the first time around the pandemic. The way we view death more generally is changing for the better. A recent report from British funeral home Farewill studied changing attitudes to death over the last two years. Of the 2,000 people surveyed, Gen Z is now the generation most likely to have discussed end-of-life wishes with loved ones (63%). Forty-seven percent of those surveyed said COVID-19 has made them think about their own mortality more, with over a third (34%) now talking more openly about death with their friends and family.
Perhaps if we rebrand morbid curiosity as 'morbid openness', things might start to look a bit brighter. Talking openly about death in a non-judgemental space is a key therapy in contemporary grief theory. Reducing any perceived shame around morbid curiosity and promoting it as a useful tool for those who naturally have it in abundance might just have a similar effect.