American Rubberneckers: Why We Love to Witness Disaster


Newswise — We are a nation of gawkers.

Log onto YouTube and you can watch dozens of videos of planes crashing into the towers on 9/11 and victims leaping to their deaths. Browse Amazon for one of the 87 DVDs about Hurricane Katrina. Or tune into the Discovery Channel's new show, "Destroyed in Seconds."

"Images of disaster haunt the American national consciousness and dominate the media," says Emily Godbey, National Endowment for the Humanities Chair at Albright College in Reading, Pa., who is writing book on "American Rubbernecking," which examines how representations of disaster have become a part of popular American visual culture.

"No one wants to be in a disaster, but we all want to look at it " and will pay to see it," she says of a tradition that began in the 19th century.

"Disasters are certainly not new, but attitudes towards them in the late 19th century certainly were. At that time, American audiences started to view horrific events through the lens of leisure, entertainment and the pleasures of the senses."

"They paid for tickets to see plays and movies about accidents and disasters. They bought books, newspapers and postcards. They even paid to see staged train crashes," she says.

Of course, part of it is related to psychology. "We like activities that bring us right up against the reality that we won't be here forever," she says. "But the desire to see ruin and catastrophe is also linked to the development of a capitalist economy, a growing dissatisfaction with the routine life resulting from the industrial revolution and a subsequent desire to buy thrilling experiences as an antidote to boredom," she says.

"Nineteenth century audiences learned that " at least from a comfortable chair " disasters and accidents are thrilling, even enjoyable," she says. "Those early consumers have a lot in common with contemporary American audiences who see blockbuster films with explosions and dangerous car chases."


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