As I was watching a game of professional football at a friend’s house, I heard their teenaged boys gasp at what appeared to be bad falls. The gasps were not in pity for the injured, but in awe of their physical prowess. It was a pleasurable “wow.” When there was an attempt to minimize the roughness of football because of the consequent brain injuries due to concussions, there was an outcry by football fans to leave things as they are.
Humans enjoy seeing violence. To wit: boxing. In Roman times, throwing Christians to the lions was entertainment seen by more than 50,000 people in the Colosseum. Gladiators fighting to the death in the same arena had audiences cheering. In the Middle Ages, public hangings drew crowds. Centuries later, it was beheadings by guillotine and the burning of witches that drew onlookers. What was considered entertainment in the past would be seen as horrendous today.
I sometimes catch myself staring at a car accident as I drive by, somehow fascinated by the damage. People slow down to stare, creating traffic problems. I have witnessed street incidents where people gather to look at the wounded until the paramedics arrive and need to disperse the crowd in order to get to the injured. I look at my TV screen in awe at fires and floods devastating whole communities. I don’t turn away; I am caught up by images of devastation — nature at its fiercest. I am mesmerized by huge waves crashing under my window during a storm.
The popularity of violent movies also speaks to the voyeuristic pleasure of witnessing destruction. For some people there is excitement, emotional arousal that feels satisfying. Other people like me stay away from scary movies because feeling frightened is overwhelming. I also avoid scenes of people or animals being abused and suffering as it gives me visceral pain. Destructive images seen by our brains cannot be unseen. I have also stopped reading about such events, not wanting to incorporate those images into my psyche.
There are several theories that explain our fascination with violent occurrences. There is relief that it’s “not me” in the accident we are witnessing. There is also release of our own lethal urges: “better to see it than do it.”
According to Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist, witnessing violence and destruction triggers the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotions, survival, and memory. This in turn helps us confront our own fears of pain and death while feeling safe. The brain does not differentiate between witnessing incidents in a movie, on TV, in a book, or in reality. Our hearts beat faster when frightened, and we cry at sad scenes. The reason we keep staring at the unfolding disaster is that we feel intense emotions without risking harm.
Traumatic events create a stronger psychological arousal compared to positive events. For some, they trigger their own survival preparedness: What would they do in similar circumstances? Some people need stimulation; driving fast, bungee jumping, and skydiving elicit a pleasurable high. For others like me, it would create unbearable anxiety, and I would do anything to prevent myself from being in such situations. I believe it may be a genetic propensity that makes some people feel more alive by risk-taking, while for others, the extra stimulation takes them to an unpleasant place.
In watching matadors perform in bullfights and riders in a rodeo, we see people tempting death. We look at them with admiration at their daring acts, allowing us again to feel fright while feeling safe. What is new today is that suffering of animals has become a contentious issue. There are outcries against the painful deaths endured by the bulls and the agony endured by the horses and cattle bucking in rodeos in an attempt to stop the pain of the tight strap encircling their backs and stomachs.
We have banned dogfights and cockfights in the U.S., but cockfights are still prevalent in Mexico and other parts of the world. There are new objections to animals being used for entertainment in circuses and SeaWorld stadiums. I find it heartening that we are moving away from the witnessing of violence and pain as acceptable entertainment. Civilization is the control of our more lethal urges.
Natasha Josefowitz is the author of more than 20 books. She currently resides at White Sands Retirement Community in La Jolla. Copyright 2020. Natasha Josefowitz. All rights reserved.