I don’t have an answer for this, so if you’re expecting one a few hundred words from now you will be disappointed.
The question is why human beings like to look at strange, frightening and even disgusting things.
There is, for example, the case of the Montreal teacher who asked his students if they wanted to watch the video that appears to show the murder and dismemberment of a university student. (Adult-film actor Luka Rocco Magnotta is under suspicion in the case, which has made headlines for the last few weeks.)
Almost all the students in the class wanted to watch. Why?
There’s curious, then there’s something else.
Down in Oregon, a dock that floated across the Pacific Ocean from Japan after last year’s tsunami is now a tourist attraction. Those who live nearby regard it as an eyesore, but thousands have visited the beach to look at it.
That’s curious. I’m OK with it.
In a pre-trial conference in Kamloops this week, lawyers argued about whether a video of two women having sex in a jail cell should be protected from possible dissemination on the Internet.
The issue there is a different kind of curious.
As this is written, Nik Wallenda of the famous Wallenda daredevil family is preparing to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. The attempt will be covered on TV and, no doubt, curious thousands will have turned up at the site.
By the time you read this, we’ll know whether he made it (chances are he did, since he was required to wear a safety harness, which led to some criticism that it took away much of the risk factor, which made it less exciting).
So now we’re getting beyond normal curiosity.
Yesterday morning, many commuters gawked at a serious auto accident on Westsyde Road. Not that they could avoid seeing it in that case, but let’s admit that any time there’s a serious accident a crowd will gather.
If a guy stands on the ledge of a tall building, a crowd will form to see if he actually jumps. Sometimes, they’ll dare him to do it.
In the olden days, watching someone being burned at the stake, beheaded or drawn and quartered was considered good weekend entertainment – bring popcorn and Twizzlers and settle in for the matinee.
Public torture and executions are, for the most part, a thing of the past but the strange form of curiosity that makes good people want to watch bad things is still with us.
We’ve made new rules, but we haven’t quite caught up to them.
Most of us can find entertainment in the fakery of horror films. The more blood and the louder the screams the better.
But it’s when the line is crossed, when there’s real suffering and death or, at least, the prospect of the real thing, that it becomes truly frightening.
Columnist Warren Kinsella touched on the subject recently when he noted the readiness with which photos of war atrocities are traded around the Internet.
“Perhaps,” he wrote, “we have become so desensitized to violence and misery and pain, there is no image or words left to stir our collective conscience.”
But if that were true, nobody would care about watching this stuff.
No, I don’t have an answer, but it’s a reminder that we have a distance to go before we can properly define ourselves as “a civilized society.”