Why can't we look away?
Whether we admit it or not, we're fascinated by evil. Dark fantasies, morbid curiosities, Schadenfreude: As conventional wisdom has it, these are the symptoms of our wicked side, and we succumb to them at our own peril. But we're still compelled to look whenever we pass a grisly accident on the highway, and there's no slaking our thirst for gory entertainments like horror movies and police procedurals. What makes these spectacles so irresistible?
In Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, the scholar Eric G. Wilson sets out to discover the source of our attraction to the caustic, drawing on the findings of biologists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, and artists. A professor of English literature and a lifelong student of the macabre, Wilson believes there's something nourishing in darkness. "To repress death is to lose the feeling of life," he writes. "A closeness to death discloses our most fertile energies."
His examples are legion, and startling in their diversity. Citing everything from elephant graveyards and Susan Sontag's On Photography to the Tiger Woods sex scandal and Steel Magnolias, Wilson finds heartening truths wherever he confronts death. In Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, the perverse is never far from the sublime. The result is a powerful and delightfully provocative defense of what it means to be human—for better and for worse.
Wilson (Against Happiness) offers up his own half-guilty attraction to horror films and the like as the starting point for this meandering and self-conscious cultural analysis of morbid curiosity. Bite-size chapters point toward the idea (culled from a variety of sources but borrowing in particular from the life of Thomas Hardy and a definition of imagination by Coleridge) that pain and perversion avoid reproducing themselves when properly channeled through art, and that morbid experience is itself, at least potentially, the seat of ennobling insight. To this end, Wilson delves into fight clubs or the obsession with serial killers, as well as morbidly minded experts like artist Joe Coleman. At the same time, Wilson manages to overwhelm a sensational topic with too many self-reflecting one-liners and chipper self-effacement ("I'm as callous as the next guy, or gal. Hence this book: my effort to understand my insensitivity and become a better man"), which do little more than detract from already hurried treatments of complex issues although he gets credit for trying to abide by author and interviewee Joyce Carol Oates's unsparing dismissal of his line of thinking on serial killers as, among other things, "na ve." While the book does not pretend to rigorous analysis, its consideration of its fascinating material matter might have run deeper.