Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The horror of it all

Barbara here. Reading the last few posts has left me with a cascade of mostly disjointed thoughts, which I will try to pull together to make some sort of useful point. Rick wonders about the predominance of "negative" characters in crime fiction and Aline was pleased to discover that despite their very negative public image, most politicians are actually committed, hard-working people whose efforts deserve respect (in the UK, at least).

Negativity is everywhere. Social media feeds on it. Facebook is full of posts about personal tragedies and links to horror stories reported elsewhere. In their quest for market share in our distracted and inattentive world, the news media have become increasingly sensationalist in their "if it bleeds it leads" mantra. We can rail against this trend all we like, but we can't fight human nature. People will walk past a world-renowned violinist playing exquisite music in a subway station, but will stop to gawk in fascination at a traffic accident. Negativity sells. There is nothing new or profound in this observation. Philosophers have been probing this question of morbid curiosity since the dawn of time, and more recently, psychologists have been putting the seemingly universal, very human impulse under a microscope in the lab.

Theories abound. Some argue witnessing someone else's moment of terror or tragedy is a kind of dry run for facing future terrors of our own. It helps us prepare and feel more confident; like little children playing superhero, we vanquish the scary monsters lurking in the shadows of our minds. Others believe seeing someone else suffer brings a feeling of relief that at least it's not us; "there but for the grace of god do I." Still a third school of thought has it that suffering is the yang to joy's ying; both heighten the feeling of being alive. And yet another theory is that we are driven by a biological imperative to feel connected to each other, to share in the emotions of others, in what is the cornerstone of empathy and ultimately morality. And to these theories, add the insights of recent lab studies that show that we pay greater attention and remember better when an emotion like fear or disgust is stirred up, which has benefits from an evolutionary perspective as well. We really need to pay attention and remember things that pose a threat to survival.

This is by no means an exhaustive analysis, it's merely my biweekly blog. Here are some links if anyone wants to explore further. There are plenty more but these summarize some philosophical and psychological insights, as well as one scientific study

All these theories help to explain the enduring popularity of crime fiction. There are few things scarier than murder, and like gawkers drawn to an accident scene, many people are fascinated by it. What are murderers really like? Are they just like us, and "there but for the grace of god go I?" What drives people to murder? What is the nature of evil? And most importantly, perhaps, can we defeat it? And as for the ying and the yang, a crime story goes to the darkest depths in order to soar towards the light again once the world is set to right at the end of the book.

People vary in their tolerance for fear, anxiety, and distress. Some cover their eyes in the scary scenes and prefer their murders off-stage and bloodless, while at the other extreme are those who want every detail of the spilled guts and spraying blood. Some want to plumb the depths of the psychology of evil while others only want to see the bad guy get it, preferably in an adrenaline-pumping car chase or shoot-out. So another allure of crime fiction is that there is something for every taste and inclination in the exploration of evil. From the safety of our armchairs, we can stare down our particular choice of evil, walk in the footsteps of the superhero sleuth, feel the full range of horror, fear, and triumph, and ultimately cheer that the forces of good prevailed.

All to say, crime fiction not only offers valuable insights on the nature of good, evil and justice, but it also plays an important role in our mental health. I guess that's as useful a point as any.


Rick Blechta said...

A great post, Barbara, and I think you nail your point. Thanks for bringing the psychologist's viewpoint to the discussion!

Sybil Johnson said...

Another interesting post. Another thing for me to ponder.

Eve Barbeau said...

One of my most important reason for reading mystery is to get to know the characters. Every pursuit of a red herring is a little getting to know you session with someone in the book. The why of it all is always more important than the who for me. Why do people do the things they do?

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Lots to think about here. I agree, for whatever reason, we humans seem fascinated by trouble – War on the front page of a newspaper guarantees sales (closely followed by Royal Weddings). As for crime fiction, as you say, we plunge the depths so we can soar to the light. Interestingly, i read a study recently that said the least violent places in the world produce some of the most violent crime fiction (Japan being one) and some of the most violent places produce the most cozy crime. I'm not sure if it's true but it's something else to think about.