Why are we so fascinated by death?

As a society, we are fascinated by death; police dramas dominate our TV screens, murder mysteries have a significant portion of book shops, and we always want more. I consider myself to be a fairly passive person, I’m non-confrontational and generally avoid arguments, but find myself excited about a new true crime podcast or unsolved murder TV show. Is there something wrong with me? Is my interest bordering on unhealthy and a sign of something dangerous lurking in my subconscious? I don’t think so, because I’m not the only one.

We’re not strange or disturbed; I think we’re a product of society. Daily newspapers began circulation in Britain at the turn of the 18th century. Life was very different, no phones, no internet, none of the modern, high-speed technology we’re used to. Information wasn’t as readily available and newspapers were a very important source of information about the wider world. Now think about Jack the Ripper, terrorising London in 1888, people were scared for their safety, not wanting to be the next victim. So newspapers became a way to follow the case, learn about any developments, and hopefully learn of an arrest (That in the case of Jack the Ripper never came). It’s certainly no coincidence, that the term ‘yellow journalism’ was coined around this time as “Crooked journalists would often fake evidence, create witness accounts and mislead the police to create racy and sensational stories.” (Thehistorypress.com).

The more sensational the news, the more papers will be sold: “Part of the reason newspaper sales rocketed was because the press used the Whitechapel cases to stoke the public’s fear” (Historytoday.com). Newspapers aim to be the first with breaking news and are always trying to beat the previous story in a vicious cycle which means we’re a society desensitised but also intrigued and wanting more. I believe newspapers initially, and now the wider media, are the main reason we have this morbid fascination with death and murder.

But that’s not the only factor. How about the books we read as children? They had a clear good guy and bad guy; the bad guy was caught and good triumphed, happy ending. Police procedurals and true crime stories are no different, they’re merely the grown up version. It’s a natural progression from one to the other.

There’s also some comfort in it, knowing the justice will be done, the killer will be caught – admittedly not always in real crime – and handed a lengthy prison sentence. It reassures us that the police are efficient, there to protect us, and that society is reacting how we think it should. Similarly, we watch horror films or shows ultimately knowing we’re safe, whilst still feeling that rush of adrenaline.

Leading on from this, we like emotional distance from the killers, the media portrays them as monsters which implies not human/other which has been in play since the Whitechapel murders: “the press were forced to label the killer with haunting titles such as ‘monster’ and ‘fiend’, adding an almost supernatural element to the killer’s reputation.” (Thehistorypress.com). It gives a clear us and them. Reassures us that we’re human and normal, unlike them. There’s also the comfort that it’s not happening to us, which sounds callous but is a natural reaction.

Finally, if we watch and read about these cases – real or not – we feel like we understand the killers a little more and so are better prepared to not become victims ourselves. What did they do, that we can avoid? Our primal instinct of self-preservation comes into play.

What do you think is the reason we’re so fascinated by death?

https://www.historytoday.com/history-matters/how-press-created-%E2%80%98jack-ripper?fbclid=IwAR0JzYYLxEJGmNsONnW_U8NpW8FT_hL_1jSXtKZsgk4tJnipM-rnkfaAAkM

https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/jack-the-ripper-and-the-tabloid-press/

3 thoughts on “Why are we so fascinated by death?

  1. I have no idea why we are so fascinated about death. I can tell you a quick story of mine, in another life I was a soldier, infantry. The guys with rifles and to close in and kill the enemy. The first question of our mouth in basic training was when were we going to be deployed. And we were young but very well aware that our job was to kill. That was fascinating for a bunch of 18 to 19 years old guys, all together with the same mindset and obviously the training from the instructors mindset not only about the use of different weapons. An aggressive mindset for sure. Then when reality hit and we did get our wish, some guys froze, and they were treated really as a bunch of sissies and nobody wanted to be around them which at the time is understandable since you are reliant to the guy next to you (an 18 year old guy) to do his job to save you and viceversa so the last you want is someone shooting at you and the your partner crying and hunkered down. It´s no use. Those who froze were great people but not cut up for that job. And killing, it was pure detachment. We didn’t see them as humans, they were an enemy that was trying to kill us and you just react. There is some detachment but not all, it´s just weird to explain. But you have to have some detachment that I know.

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    1. That’s a very good point, a soldiers will have a very different relationship to death than a civilian. Something I’ve thought before when ex-soldiers are arrested for murder in the civilian world is that – for them – the leap might not be so great, those lines of morality have been blurred by their time in service. Would love to hear your thoughts on that. I think detachment is definitely the right word, the reason I am so able to research all these horrific crimes is because I have mentally detached myself from it, almost tricked myself that it’s fictional

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      1. Soldiers who kill in civilian world are just a bunch of nutcases and should be put to death.
        If I examine myself a bit, I would say that there is the element of group mentality. We are all there in a strange environment in very harsh conditions to live in. It builds brotherhood, which is different from friendship. That brotherhood makes you do things for the other guys that you would never do in the civilian life. You will risk your life for the other one on a constant basis. There is also that group mentality of macho so you don’t want to be seen as a sissy hence you do the job. And the detachment is that as our priest said to us, this is a JOB (a weird one for a civilian) that is necessary. I doubt the Talibany Banny (those are real nutcases) would say we stop killing our own people, enslaving the women, e.t.c when you walk to them with a cup of coffee…. they shoot we shoot. The adrenaline is incredible, but it is a controlled adrenaline since you have to be aware of the situation and who is where and movements and tactics, but that is second nature since you already. have practice it for months if not years. There is also the factor of being pissed off, I got pissed off when being shot at and I was quite ingenious at calling them all types of colorful names when they stopped shooting and then they began shooting when I yelled at them nothing nice for sure. So being pissed off is good. Again there was a detachment from seeing them dead, didn’t affect me, the odor did, and it pissed me off the rotten corpse. Other than pissed me off there was no emotion towards them. By the way I was in the Spanish Legion, I´m not American.
        But that mentality is much more easier to install in a group environment to young guys like I was, I was only 19 when I first deployed. And as weird as it sounds I enjoyed it. Enjoyed the brotherhood. Here is a video if you wish to see, it´s 15 minutes not long. This journalist does describe it very well. If I hadn’t seen that video to this day I would not be able to answer that question as to why we actually liked doing our job that involves killing. He nailed it, we as soldiers didn’t even think about what this guy says, we just did it and forget about it or try to. This journalist really tells you why soldiers miss war that involves killing not murder. Big difference.

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