Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Dead Stuff

By Andrew E. Kaufman

I’m in the process of finishing my new novel, a psychological thriller that centers on the case of a three-year-old boy who was kidnapped and murdered more than forty years ago.During that time, I really had to dig down deep in order to portray the depth of emotion parents feel when this kind of tragedy occurs. It hasn’t been easy.

And several times while doing this, I also found myself asking the same question: why do we find murder so entertaining when really, there’s nothing entertaining about it? An odd question from someone who makes a living writing about it, but I'd never really given it much thought—until now, that is.

One look at the primetime television lineup clearly illustrates the point. Shows like CSI and Criminal Minds are more popular than ever, as are books of the same genre. It seems serial killers—and killers in general—are the villains we love to hate.

But why? Why are we so fascinated with the thing that should horrify us the most? After much introspection, I came up with a few theories:

We love a good puzzle

And is there any bigger puzzle than a murder? Crime solving has always been fascinating business. Even more intriguing are the modern-day advances in forensic science. It never fails to amaze me how much they can determine from so little. For me, the best mysteries seem to be ones that appear the most confusing—that is, until the investigator cleverly pulls it all together in the end. It’s the aha moment that’s the payoff.

The “Good to Know that Somebody has it Worse than me” Theory

Death is the ultimate dose of bad luck. It really doesn't get much worse than that, and no matter how bad things are in our own lives, we can always look at the guy who got whacked and think, “Wow, and I thought I was having a bad day.” It’s a form of relief, something that helps us put things into the proper perspective. Also, I think, humans are for the most part a compassionate species, and many of us feel a certain degree of sympathy for the victim, thus drawing us in even more

Justice, Media-Style

We love to hate the bad guys, but we also love seeing them pay for their deeds, and quite often in the world, that simply doesn’t happen. It makes us angry. Seeing justice served on the screen or the pages in a book tends to fill that void. We know it’s not real but still get to sample that emotion on some level,which restores a sense of decency to our world.

Morbid Fascination

Having said all that, there is a dark side to all this. Simply put: we like morbid. I'm not sure why, but we do. We may cringe or cover our eyes (then peak between our fingers) but there seems to be something about the truly bizarre and grotesque that fascinates us. Maybe it's as simple as this: it's human nature to be curious, and the more disturbing something is, the more curious we seem to become. We don’t really want to know, but we sort of do. It's the reason people slow down to look at a car wreck on the side of the road.

What about you? As always, I'm interested in hearing any theories you may have on this. Comments?


  1. I think people also read and write crime/death stories as a way to process their fears in a safe way. I know I do!

  2. I'm with LJ -- and I think it's the same with crime/mystery/death as it is with vampires. We get to hold these things at arm's length and examine them for ourselves and process the information as we see fit.

  3. Well thought out and said, Drew. I think a lot of readers, who see murder and rapes and other disgusting, depraved behavior reported in the news media, feel helpless and shocked at it all. But reading about or viewing a case that they know will get solved and the bad guy killed or put away is very reassuring for people who otherwise feel powerless when reading about those depressing real-life situations.

    I am not a horror fan, so not one of those people who are fascinated with bizarre, grotesque violence, but I sure enjoy reading thrillers or mysteries where the hero gets the bad guy, putting an end to innocent victims piling up! And the hero couldn't save the day if the villain wasn't doing evil deeds!

  4. I think we all like to see the good guys win, although sometimes there's an awful lot of collateral damage along the way.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  5. Interesting post, Drew. For me, it's the puzzle.

  6. From one moment to the next, I could identify with all of the theories here. And I'll add one. My life is very safe. Almost boring. It's nice to experience something I'm not exposed to in reality. Different is interesting. Extremely different, from a safe perspective, is extremely interesting.

  7. Good point, Peg. I wouldn't want to experience some of the things I read about in crime novels, but doing it vicariously is fine.

  8. I agree. I don't ever want to experience the things I read or even write about, but it is that other side of me that holds it as an interest. However, there are some characters that I have read about--where justice prevails at the end--and I won't read that book again. The ickies are just too icky!

  9. The comments so far are all excellent. Interesting to see how perspectives change from person to person, but there seems to be one central theme: it's a way to get a taste of good vs. evil without all the risks normally associated with it.

  10. And it's SO satisfying to see good conquer evil, the bad guys stopped, and innocent lives saved! Too bad that doesn't happen more in real life!

  11. We crave emotion and adrenaline and books and movies help us process it in a safe way. And we also like to think we're smart, and guessing the who-done-it makes us feel smart.

  12. I believe your mention of Solving a Puzzle plays a big part, Drew, as does curiosity, although I wouldn’t put all curiosity into a Morbid Fascination.

    In many ways, writing (or reading) about crime in a fictional sense may be cathartic for the reasons you mentioned such as justice, the differences between right and wrong, good and evil. As writers, we can create a credible world in any fashion we choose. Our characters become a study of personalities, of motives and forces that move them, as we move the story forward toward a satisfying and credible resolution in a logical cause and effect world.

    And maybe writing is as much as an escape for a writer as it is for a reader.

  13. Great points, Drew. I'd say, for me, it's probably a combination, although there's something about the heightened state of emotions, that can come with reading any genre, that seems attractive. Perhaps, as Peg said (more or less), it alleviates those feeling of mundaneness in our simple, boring lives :)


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