Morbid Fascination For The Win!

Does intellectual overthinking inevitably lead to morbid fascination and depression?

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

The other day, my 74 year-old mother pulled me up on what she called my “tendency to view everything with a morbid fascination.”

“You certainly didn’t inherit it from me,” she said. “You must get it from your father.”

Now, this isn’t the first time she’s accused my father of passing down highly suspect, malignant genes — her pain is understandably still raw some 28 years after their divorce — but those are other stories for other times.

A morbid fascination for everything

Back to this “morbid fascination” accusation.

Obviously, I have no clue where she gets these ideas about me. But when pressed to elaborate, my mother readily responded with a litany of examples. These included:

  1. The poem I wrote when I was 10 years old, titled “Why life is not worth living.” This piece of homework caused my alarmed English teacher to imagine I was suffering all manner of horrific abuse at home (I wasn’t), prompting her to demand an urgent meeting with my parents which resulted in embarrassment all round.
  2. My childhood obsession with dissecting innocent worms and countless species of bugs.
  3. My teenage belief that life must surely be a punishment for something bad we all did in a previous incarnation, in another realm of existence.
  4. My affinity for real-life crime documentaries, gritty kitchen sink dramas, grim poetry, depressing song lyrics, and other realist artforms.
  5. My default “Eeyore” attitude to life, the universe, and everything.
  6. The fact that I had planned my funeral in my twenties and subscribed to a funeral insurance plan in my thirties.

Well, I admit she may have a point, but is it really so bad to get real and plan ahead?

Nevertheless, her remark has been playing on my mind ever since, and has prompted me to ponder potential explanations for what, according to my mother, is “a weird personality trait.”

Am I morbidly depressed?

Could this so-called “morbid fascination” explain my 25 year reliance on anti-depressants, for instance? Might it explain my constant anxiety about everything life-related, while I only experience a sense of lighthearted relief whenever I imagine the day the grim reaper comes knocking at my door? (Is it wrong to admit that I’m actually looking forward to the eternal, dreamless sleep state? God knows I need the rest!). I really do believe that death is underrated.

If this is the case, then I’m genuinely curious as to which came first — the depressed chicken or the morbidly fascinated egg? Am I depressed and anxious because I am a realist who fixates on morbid ideas, or is this morbid fascination caused by clinical depression and anxiety? Maybe I’ll never know.

Is there an alternative explanation?

In the past — having never really thought it through — I’ve always proffered an alternative explanation. Whenever anyone asked why I was so fascinated by those grisly serial killer documentaries, or why the hell The Smiths was one of my favourite bands, I would reply that:

a) I find the human psyche fascinating, and I want to understand what motivates people to do unpleasant things;

b) Apart from the obvious fact that The Smiths just are one of the greatest bands ever, I admire people who identify and comment on aspects of ourselves we don’t usually like to acknowledge.

I have always thought these to be perfectly valid, if not worthy, reasons for my love of warts-and-all realism, but it turns out my mother has an entirely different theory.

Her hypothesis is that I am “too intellectual.”

I have to admit that I almost choked on my blood orange when she came out with this. When I questioned her reasoning, she replied, “You always think too deeply about everything. It’s not good for you.”

Am I “too intellectual?”

Thinking deeply about this for a day or two, I attempted to unpick her logic. I think what she meant is that when we try to analyse and understand any given situation or experience in depth, we leave ourselves wide open to the possibility that the ugly truth of the matter may reveal itself. And ugly truths aren’t good for us because they just cause us to be anxious and depressed.

Again, she has a point.

Is ignorance really bliss?

I feel the urge to apply some critical thinking here.

First, let us examine some of the outcomes that may result from not thinking intellectually and never subjecting ourselves to realism:

  1. Finding we can only bear to consume positive, lighthearted forms of art, TV and other imagery — fantasy novels, Disney films, happy-ever-after dramas, heart emojis, etc.
  2. Simply accepting everything we see, hear, or read at face value, without applying any critical thinking.
  3. Being in constant denial about many unpalatable aspects of life, including corruption, abuse, disease, climate change, poverty, and death.

Now, like most people, I have been known to roll with the odd chick-flick (are we still allowed to say that?) and the occasional Fay Weldon novel.

But chasing rainbows and riding unicorns every minute of every day can perpetuate an “ignorance is bliss” attitude, whereby we bury our heads in the sand to prevent us from seeing things we would rather not see, in a misguided belief that this will protect and deliver us from evil. This is, at best, unhealthy and, at worst, utterly catastrophic.

I say this because everything we see, hear, read, and watch plays a part in shaping our opinions and beliefs. So, once we stop questioning, scrutinising, analysing, and fact-checking the deluge of information and opinions we take in on a daily basis, we run the risk of starting to believe anything and everything we expose ourselves to.

If we all behaved like this, we’d soon turn into those miserable animals in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (excluding the pigs, obviously).

Certainly, it must be nice to blithely trust that everything is rosy in the garden, or that things will change for the better, but if we turn our backs on realistic representations of people or things as they actually are, we are essentially denying truth and reality itself.

Yes, the truth can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow, which is why it may seem easier to simply avoid it, but evading it is just a cop out when all’s said and done.

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t mean to disparage people who would rather not apply intellectual thought and rational analysis to the world around them. I’m merely saying that being out of touch with reality is also a symptom of insanity.

I’ll just leave that there.

How intellectual is too intellectual?

Wikipedia defines an intellectual as “a person who engages in critical thinking, research, and reflection about the reality of society.”

People who my mother would describe as “too intellectual” (i.e. me and my friends) aren’t purposely being awkward, or trying to assert our superiority over “lesser beings,” as she seems to believe.

We would simply rather not leave ourselves vulnerable to blatant political corruption, the suspect practises of much of the mass media, and rainbow-patterned unicorn poop.

Intellectual thinkers refuse to blindly believe what they’re told without first establishing the facts and examining the motives behind the language people use. This involves intellectual practises such as studying, interpreting, analysing, and concluding — all of which require the skill of deep critical thinking. Generally speaking, most intellectuals are realists by definition.

Of course, there is a downside to this, too. It can be disheartening and demotivating when you feel compelled to always seek a logical conclusion to everything. This is because most logical conclusions are depressing by default.

Applying pure intellectual logic to any given situation inevitably leads to the realisation that you’re an insignificant, meaningless collection of atoms in an unimaginably vast universe, akin to a proverbial drop of water in the ocean, a tiny crumb from a fruit cake the size of Jupiter, or a mere ultramicrobacterium on the sole of Goliath’s left foot.

From here, you have two options. You can either surrender to excruciating existential angst and bottomless depression, or you can marvel at the bizarre mystery of it all, in the manner of Brian Cox attending a children’s birthday party at the London Planetarium.

If you take the “bottomless depression” route, then I guess you really can be “too intellectual for your own good.”

All of which, in my case, leads me to the conclusion that:

a fascination with the morbid + intellectual thinking = depression.

With this in mind, let’s now consider the potential motivators behind morbid fascination.

What are the psychological motivations behind morbid fascination?

Studies have shown that most people are familiar with that feeling of not wanting to look, but not being able to look away, at something that‘s scary, gruesome, or disgusting. The horror film industry would be on its knees if this wasn’t the case.

But people with a stronger tendency for morbid fascination have a more ingrained need to see, feel, hear, touch, or interact in some way with something seen as unpleasant, socially forbidden, or even prohibited by law.

Some psychologists believe that social rebels are more likely to display morbid curiosity. Since many so-called “morbid topics” are either outside of, or on the periphery of social norms, a fascination with the morbid might even be perceived as a rebellious act.

I actually think there are different motivators for what I propose are two distinct types of morbid fascination.

The first could be described as a pro-active “intellectual” type of morbid curiosity, and the second as a passive “gut reaction” fascination with the morbid.

The intellectual type is motivated by a desire to understand life and the world we live in (as discussed above), whereas the gut reaction type might be more to do with self-assurance and self-justification.

Let’s take the concept of “schadenfreude” to illustrate the latter.

Schadenfreude

Literally meaning “harm-joy” in German, schadenfreude is the pleasure we take in other people’s misfortune. We can participate in the unpleasantness via several media channels — for example, the red-top tabloid newspapers that gleefully chart the “shameful” downfall of countless celebrities, and TV documentaries about embarrassing health problems or bodily peculiarities (think “Embarrassing Bodies” and “The Fattest Man in the World”), etc.

With this type of morbid fascination, we experience smug self-assurance as we witness and mock an individual’s breathtakingly stupid choices and undeserving misfortunes. This has nothing to do with trying to reach a deeper understanding of the world we live in, and everything to do with ourselves. We simply feel better when bad things happen to other people.

Schadenfreude makes us feel relieved that we are not that person.

It makes us feel vindicated because rich celebrities deserve to know what suffering feels like.

We enjoy it because it proves that even the mighty can fall.

It makes us feel justified because we can say, “I might be a bit overweight, but at least I’m nowhere near as fat as that 75 stone bloke on the telly.”

“The deeper the darkness is, the more dazzling. Our secret and ecstatic wish: Let it all fall down.”
Eric Wilson: Everyone Loves A Good Train Wreck.

I think most of us constantly traverse the line between these two types of morbid fascination. However, I believe that some individuals are more firmly rooted in the intellectual camp, while others spend more time in the gut reaction camp.

Each type could perhaps be viewed on a spectrum with possible associated behaviours to illustrate the point.

A bit like this …

Your daily choices and behavioural responses to external stimuli will determine which camp you are in, and where you are on the spectrum, at any given moment.

A final word about death

Of course, we can’t talk about morbid fascination without a nod to the grim reaper himself.

Once you reach the age of 50, death goes from being a distant spectre, to staring you square in the face (believe me, I know). Ageing parents, alarming bodily changes and new health concerns all begin to raise their problematic heads above the parapet, serving as mocking reminders that the end is surely nigh.

For many people this can be a fearful time. But, what if a modest dash of morbid curiosity could reduce this fear of mortality and engender a healthy acceptance of death as an ordinary part of life?

Those who refuse to fear or shy away from the harsh realities of life and death may even be more resilient, and better equipped to accept the inevitable. A 2020 study found that morbidly curious individuals were more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic, though more research is needed to determine why.

So, rather than being inherently bad, shameful, or unhealthy, a mild intellectual fascination with the morbid might potentially be a psychologically useful tool.

I really do believe that death is underrated. After all, it is what gives life meaning — to know your time is short and your days are numbered.

Of course, it also helps to remember that death is only the end if you assume the story is all about you.

Just putting that out there …

Approaching the end (literally and figuratively)

OK, so let’s get back to my mother’s original accusation. Just to recap, her argument was that I have a tendency to survey every situation with a morbid curiosity, and that this is because I am too intellectual, which leads me to overthink everything, which inevitably leads to existential angst and clinical depression (or, as she tactfully put it, “it’s not good for you”).

Three days later, having applied high-level critical thinking skills to carry out this extensive research, I told my mother that I agreed with her premise that overthinking things can lead to morbid fascination, depression and anxiety.

I even conceded that over-analysing everything can make intellectual thinkers hypercritical, not just about the world and everything in it, but also about themselves. (Could this explain why so many great historical thinkers famously suffered from mental health issues, with a significant number even taking their own lives?).

Yes, I swallowed my pride and admitted there can be downsides to viewing everything through the murky lens of the morbid.

But then, applying the kind of rational logic peculiar to morbid overthinkers — and inadvertently proving my mother’s point for her, yet again — I presented her with the other side of the coin.

I said that if using your intellect means uncovering morbid realities about life and death, then so be it. I would rather face up to these uncomfortable truths than live a life of denial. I would rather be more resilient, less fearful, and more enlightened. And, although I love the sound of the phrase, “blissful ignorance” — it has a magical ring to it, don’t you think? — I simply cannot adopt it as a constitutional policy for my life.

No, I would much rather wear my morbid fascination as a badge of honour. I am not afraid of death. In fact, I would say, “bring it on” but I still need to tie up some loose ends before I depart this mortal coil, and it would be ideal to have the time to deal with these first.

See you on the other side …

Want to know the extent of your own morbid curiosity? Find out by taking this morbid curiosity test.

Then let everyone know just how morbid you are in the comments.

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