Eric G. Wilson's smart, probing new book Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away sets out to explain what lies beneath our collective fascination with death and suffering. And if the ubiquity of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise is any indication, boy, are we fascinated.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck isn't some holier-than-thou polemic out to cure us of our dark leanings. "Well, if fascination with the macabre is unethical," Wilson writes, "then I'm one heinous bastard." And it doesn't seek definitive answers. Instead, it simply aims to help readers gain "a fulfilling response to two of life's greatest, most pressing and persistent questions. What is the meaning of suffering? What is the significance of death?"
Getting to that response, the book's slim, peripatetic chapters cover an awful lot of erudite territory, as Wilson draws ideas and research from a delightful grab bag of academics, artists and thinkers. Aristotle, Freud, Kant, Goya and Hardy all make appearances, alongside an assortment of sociopaths and serial murderers.
There are also great stories. Wilson attends a live re-enactment of the Passion and explores the market for serial killer "murderabilia." He gets lost on a Gettysburg battlefield and is reprimanded by a "brusque" Joyce Carol Oates. He wastes a day on YouTube watching teens knock each other silly in suburban fight club videos. He sips wine from a coffee mug among "a life size figure of Fidel Castro, made of wax; a document signed by Ted Bundy; a large likeness of Charles Manson, with a bloody knife in his hand," and — wait for it — "the skeleton of a baby" at Joe Coleman's "Odditorium" in Brooklyn. Amid all this, the author manages to fold in one of the most wonderfully concise summaries of the Greek pantheon I've ever read.
Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck's explanation for the rise of dark tourism provides, perhaps, the best response to Wilson's two questions. That is, we're curious about death and suffering because we want "truth (we all die), beauty (we had better appreciate people and plants and animals while they last) and goodness (we all suffer, so let's take care of one another)." To further explain, most of us, Wilson points out, die under the watchful eyes of the medical industrial complex, which largely regards death as failure. "The hospital hides the morbid, the macabre," he writes. Such marginalization of death's truth creates a psychological imbalance, so watching people die on TV, for example, helps right the ship.
Wilson also describes how the fact of life's brevity makes it all the more beautiful. Citing Keats' "Ode on Melancholy," he says "we can experience the comeliness of a creature only when we realize its mortality." Finally, in its noblest form, morbid curiosity is an expression of empathy. "Our attraction to the macabre is on some level a desire to experience someone else's suffering."
The Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University, Wilson suffers from bipolar II mixed disorder, and he describes how he was once too depressed to kill himself: "I was apathetic, and apathetic about being apathetic." But with the help of therapy, medication and family, Wilson has learned to value his affliction. "I can see it now as an indispensable energy in the shaping of my identity," he says, "my love of contemplation, my honesty about life's troubles, my willingness to endure confusion and discover solutions."
After spending time with Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, you might learn to see your own dark side in the same way.