What Is Morbid Curiosity?

The basics of our fascination with danger, death, and disgust.

Posted Feb 22, 2021

Sammy-Williams/Pixabay
Source: Sammy-Williams/Pixabay

I don't want to look, but I have to!

We’ve all felt it at some point. It could have been triggered by seeing a car wreck while driving down the highway, the latest true crime documentary on Netflix, or a friend talking about how they saw a ghost in an old building. We tell ourselves that we don’t want to look, don’t want to listen, and don’t want to know—yet we still look, we still listen, and we still seek out the information. 

Usually, we don’t want to look because we fear that what we see will not be pleasant. You see this play out frequently with horror movies. There’s a jump scare and the killer is on the screen. Half the audience covers their eyes in terror, while the other half is glued to the screen. However, even the people that are covering their eyes peak through their fingers from time to time to keep an eye on the killer.

So, why do we do this? Why do we subject ourselves to fictional worlds of fear and anxiety, and how does this relate to things like rubbernecking on the highway? I’ll be exploring this topic in much more depth on my new Psychology Today blog. But for now, here’s an introduction to the psychology of morbid curiosity.

The Car Wreck

Let’s start with real situations. The car wreck story is a bit old and tired, but it’s a good example because it’s something that almost everyone has experienced and can intuitively understand. It’s true for almost everyone that you don’t want to see someone injured and you don’t hope anyone died in the wreck. But, if they did, you do feel compelled to look at it. Here’s why.

The world of our ancestors was a dangerous place. The world today can also be dangerous, but even the most basic treatments that are available today can severely decrease the seriousness of an injury. If you got injured 10,000 years ago (or even 100 years ago), your chances of surviving were far less than they are today with modern medicine. Even if the blood loss didn't kill you, an ensuing infection might. This placed a premium on avoiding danger—or at least avoiding the consequences of danger.

However, to avoid danger, you must first know something about it. The more you know about something, the better you can predict it. And the better you can predict it, the better you can deal with the consequences if it does occur. 

Oskars Zvejs/Pixabay
It would be difficult to drive by this without staring.
Source: Oskars Zvejs/Pixabay

This is where curiosity steps in. I don’t want to be in a car wreck myself to find out how bad a car wreck is. I also don’t want someone else to be in a car wreck. But if they are, I do want to know how bad it is. This could inform my current decisions and behavior.

For example, if the car wreck is particularly gruesome, it might cause me to slow down or be extra cautious the rest of the day to decrease my chances of that happening to me. If it’s just a fender bender, it may not affect my driving behavior very much (this would make for a great observational study!). 

Morbid Curiosity All The Way Down

I’ll explore this idea in much more detail over the next several blog posts, but this is the main point of morbid curiosity. The consequences of threats have left their mark on our psychology and influence our behavior in response to “morbid” situations. This has resulted in most of us having some morbid curiosity, and some of us having a lot of it.

This psychological tendency has also played out in large-scale human behavior time and time again. The Roman gladiatorial games. The presence of death in rituals and religion. The spectacle of public executions. The massive fan base surrounding the true crime and horror genres. Coloring each of these phenomena is a tendency for humans to be morbidly curious.

Keep Your Enemies Close

The best way to avoid the consequences of a threat is not to simply avoid it. Avoidance might get you away once or twice, but it’s not a good way to deal with future encounters. It’s more efficient and more productive to first learn something about the threat. This way you can know how to identify, avoid, or deal with it in the future.

This basic idea was nicely captured by Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II (and is sometimes attributed to the famous Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu): Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.