Peter Toohey Ph.D.

Annals of the Emotions

Sinkholes, Rotting Houses, Ghost Towns, and Psychology

What’s with this sinkhole business in the papers? Is is all just schadenfreude?

Posted Dec 11, 2018

 Seattle Municipal Archives/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
The Great Ravenna Boulevard Sinkhole, 1957. Ravenna Boulevard and 16th Ave NE, Seattle, Washington
Source: Seattle Municipal Archives/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Sinkholes are big news. On August 7, 2018, there was a photo feature in the unfailingly upmarket Washington Post, entitled, “67 stunning photos of sinkholes around the world.”  But no joke, it really was 67 photos in the Washington Post's Gallery, though I’ll admit I have had trouble getting all of the them to display properly on my laptop screen. And on November 12, 2018, there was a video in the Daily Mail, “Woman survives after she is swallowed by a sinkhole in China.” Captured by CCTV in Lanzhou, China, this clip displays the very moment the unfortunate woman felt the pavement open beneath her feet as she disappeared into the ground. If you enjoy reading about and viewing sinkholes, then there seems to be a new one to be found just about every day in one or another of the papers.  There are probably lots more on social media.  Sinkholes are most popular, in my opinion, when they have swallowed some object rather than some person.  Shiny red cars down the hole are best. People are just too upsetting.

 Scott Ehardt/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
A sinkhole in a parking lot at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA, USA.
Source: Scott Ehardt/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

There is something alarmingly cheerful about these pictures of sinkhole disasters that are so often in the news. Cheerful? Well, they always happen in someone else’s backyard, don’t they? Or in someone else’s street, or in someone else’s city, or in someone else’s county. The bad ones are never, we pray, in our yard, or street, or city, or our country. That seems to be why they are so popular. They happen to other people and to other people’s property. They’re not here. They are just not us. They’re not near my house. They're "not in my house!" These disasters seem to make a person feel unexpectedly safe.  That is surely awful, but I believe that this is how it works. That’s why we enjoy reading about them. They’re awfully comforting.

The alarming enthusiasm for the misfortune of others or for their things is usually termed schadenfreude—which is a version of jealousy, I suppose.  Schadenfreude is best understood as a “gloating or taking pleasure in another person’s misfortune.” Maybe it should be redefined as a “gloating or taking pleasure in another person’s sinkhole.”  That other person, at least in the case of normal schadenfreude, is usually someone you don’t know—but it can be, and often enough is, a rival or a friend. (Much of this is explained in a very good recent book by Tiffany Watt Smith, Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune.)  But for now, I’d sooner focus on such misfortune when the Sinkhole Syndrome happens somewhere else and to something inanimate like a house or a road.

 Muyo/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Hakata Sinkhole
Source: Muyo/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

There are other very popular variants of this Sinkhole Syndrome. Abandoned and decaying houses are well-liked (“Inside the abandoned Welsh farmhouse that has been empty for decades,” reads one headline), as are churches (“Haunting images reveal how the once grand churches of Europe have been left to rot,” reads another headline), factories (especially those in Chernobyl: “Inside Chernobyl’s abandoned city” reads one aiming-to-entice headline), theme parks (“The once magical Camelot theme park [in Lancashire] now lies abandonedand looks like a horror movie set”), sports fields (“Your shots of abandoned sports fields”), resorts ( “Haunting pictures of an abandoned water park reclaimed by nature (including crocodiles)”), towns (“15 fascinating ghost towns from around the world revealed”), imagined cities (“Unbuilt cities: The outrageous highway schemes left as roads to nowhere”), and even just empty places (“Pretty Vacant: The Glory of Abandoned Spaces”). These are reported, it feels like to me, as frequently in the right-wing press (the Daily Mail, say) as in the left-wing press (The Guardian).  The Sinkhole Syndrome does not respect political loyalties. The headlines introducing these stories often begin temptingly with “Inside…” or “Haunting…” You can’t beat that. You can click on any of the titles I’ve just reproduced if you doubt me – or if you just want to have some fun by reading up on these intriguing abandoned places. Here is a cracker from two days ago: “An opulent dream left to rot: British soldier shares pictures of once-grand palace built for the Afghan royal family 100 years ago only to be reduced to a crumbling ruin after being occupied by Taliban.” Top that.

 Albert Duce/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)
Urbex: Michigan Central Train Station Interior 2009
Source: Albert Duce/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

When the camera focuses on ruins like the grand palace of the Afghan royal family, it is sometimes called urbex, or urban exploration. (“A kind of guerilla photography that aims to illuminate the spaces humans leave behind,” explains the ABC News. Why is everyone a “guerrilla” these days for doing what they like, and what is it with “spaces”?).  Last year, I tried to keep track of

 ElBarto75/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Light painting inside an abandoned limestone quarry in France.
Source: ElBarto75/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

how often these schadenfreudey photo articles appeared in one or another of the newspapers I like to glance through.  I had to give up because, for a time, I was finding something every day.  It is my guess that these evocations of urbex appear most in the winter.  I am not sure why or if I am just imagining this.  But one thing is certain, there is only so much daily schadenfreude, so much Sinkhole Syndrome, that a person can take.

Here’s a good example of urbex: It concerns a rather large house in rural Southington, Ohio that the boxer Mike Tyson owned from the late 1980’s until 1999. The Cleveland photographer Johnny Joo, 24, released a bundle of photographs of Tyson's then empty former home on March 30, 2015. The place has a strange, sinkhole-like history. Tyson left the place temporarily in 1991 after he’d been arrested on charges of rape. In 1992, he was found guilty and committed to a six-year prison term with four years of parole. He was released in 1995 and returned to his mansion. But his earning power had been dented by jail and he sold the place in 1999 for $1.3m. The building has had a mixed fortune ever since and it has had a number of dodgy owners, one of whom “was the subject of an FBI investigation when he tried to sell it.” As if to pay amends for Tyson’s crimes, the mansion has now been sold to a religious group who reportedly were to adapt the home as a church. But it was empty and rotting when Joo visited. 

What may hold all of this very strange but very popular reporting together is this simple exclamation, “Not in my house!” The more you hear about the sinkholeish disasters striking other places and other people, the safer and the more content you feel with your own house, or street, or city. Or even your own life. These urbex things are “not in my house.” That’s the only way that I can understand the ghoulish pleasure that readers and viewers like me seem almost daily to take in the various versions of the Sinkhole Syndrome. Really. What else is it but schadenfreude? “Not in my house!” is the common theme that resides behind sinkholes and the ruined spaces favored by those urbex guerillas.

That was my little insight as I puzzled over this confusing excrudescence of sinkholes, rotting old houses, and ghost towns in a variety of popular newspapers. Maybe the viewing of disaster has always been popular. (Even the ancient Romans had a taste for looking at ruins.) But the Sinkhole Syndrome seems to be especially prevalent right now, that’s unless I read the wrong papers.  I really do believe that what’s behind it is, “Not in my house!” It’s not that the ruins aren't interesting. They really are.  But it’s your own house that’s even more interesting. And these photos make it really feel that way. They make everyone else's house feel all the safer.  I am sure this is a false feeling of safety—just look again at that shot of the Great Ravenna Boulevard Sinkhole in Seattle at the top of this piece. But schadenfreude usually aims to make you feel better about yourself and what you have.  It does something else, too, when it’s in the media. Schadenfreude really does sell. And when I say it sells, I don’t mean it sells Mike Tyson’s former mansion. I mean that it sells the newspapers and websites that broadcast the evocations of that gloomy abode. These pictures work because they make you feel righteously comfortable within the value of your own home— andespecially within your own life.