Book review: ‘Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away' by Eric G. Wilson

Morbid curiosity. Rubbernecking. Schadenfreude. From our national obsession with celebrity crackups to the popularity of gore fests such as “The Passion of the Christ” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Americans lead the world in the urge to wallow in everything grotesque, blood-spattered and shocking -- as long as it’s happening to somebody else.

What in the world is wrong with us? Or, if Eric G. Wilson is to be believed, right?

In his last book (“Against Happiness,” 2008), Wilson talked about why the world needs melancholy -- a connection to sadness, grief, even despair -- and examined the current overemphasis on cheer, arguing that a permanently, exclusively happy individual would be a kind of monster. Now, he asks if looking away -- or being unable to -- from horror and misery is just as inhuman.

“Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away” examines our collective “addiction to the grim” in 50 brief but erudite essays. Perhaps, Wilson suggests, the urge to slow down at a horrific car wreck, gawk at a two-headed baby in a jar or even observe the artifacts of annihilation at the 9-11 Museum in New York City conceals a deeper need, “a hunger to penetrate the most profound mysteries of existence.”

A professor of English at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wilson freely admits to his preoccupation “with the gothic” and his passion for romantic, gloomy, death-haunted poets such as Coleridge, Poe, Dickinson and Keats. He has battled “devastating depression” and been treated for bipolar disorder, a chapter about which, toward the end of the book, movingly reveals how “the morbid nadir carries traces of the apex.”

In an attempt to make sense of his own dark obsessions -- “my terra incognita,” as he calls it -- Wilson delves into as many gruesome diversions as he can find, alternating his personal experiences with illuminating testimony from philosophers, filmmakers, writers, biologists, theologians, sociologists and other experts in the field.

Every rock he pries up reveals a wonder of perversity, whether it’s a gore-hound’s collection of “murderabilia” -- self-portraits, used toothbrushes, and other “relics” of murderers and serial killers -- the grisly "reality" of a modern evangelical Passion play, or the erotic hanging of a woman in a black silk dress that forever influenced writer Thomas Hardy.

Nothing is too morally repugnant: Wilson considers the appeal of fight clubs, torture porn, and “dark tourism” -- the habit of visiting disaster areas such as hurricane-battered New Orleans, Civil War battlefields, or the Genocide Museum in Cambodia, site of the Khmer Rouge’s worst atrocities.

Part of our lust for the morbid kicked in, Wilson says, when hospitals and funeral homes took over the management of death in the 1950s. Before then, “people usually suffered and died in their own homes,” he writes, and we were well-acquainted with dying; even children knew “its sounds and its smells, the agony of it, and its peace.”

Death may have disappeared behind closed doors, but deep down, we know “our brief time on earth” will end, and may be vicariously slumming, through the medium of car wrecks or slasher flicks, for a closer look. In that sense, the appeal of darkness, Wilson says, is also the appeal of the sacred, the sublime. We look for a catharsis; “horror makes us human,” he quotes Mexican horror film director Guillermo del Toro, “because it reminds us of our imperfection.”

Which brings us to the popular (and bloodless) American sport of schadenfreude, German for “harm-joy,” translated as the pleasure we take in other people’s misfortune. Often reserved for tracking which celebrity has fallen farthest into the abyss (think Courtney Love or Charlie Sheen), it’s the happiness we feel when “luxuriating in the warm glow of imaginary imperviousness that other people’s life-destroying stupidities invariably provide.”

“We are enamored of ruin,” Wilson says of us. “The deeper the darkness is, the more dazzling. Our secret and ecstatic wish: Let it all fall down.”

Well, maybe not all. Wilson’s a stickler for meaning, without which the morbid veers into dehumanized pornography. He is sensitive to popular concerns, such as the fear that excessive amounts of violence in the media will desensitize us, turning us into zombies who crave more of the same -- and worse. One chapter examines the effect of fictional violence on children, including the work of author Maurice Sendak, whose “morbid imagination” has entertained generation of kids who react to his “Where the Wild Things Are” -- not with fear, but with “unbridled merriment.”

As poetic as it is down-to-earth, “Everyone Loves A Good Train Wreck” remains nuanced rather than definitive, contemplative rather than conclusive; exploring what makes us tick without judgments, no matter how firmly entrenched we are in “weirdtown.”

Wait, you say: Not me! I would never gawk at a 10-car pileup. Maybe the subtitle of Wilson's book should be "Why Some of Us Can't Look Away."

But by the time you finish this enlightening survey, you’ll probably recall at least one time where you, too, gazed overlong at something you shouldn’t have, a time when you, too, felt “exhilarated, inappropriately, and ... ashamed.” What’s more, you’ll have a deeper understanding of why you, like the rest of us, couldn’t resist.


"Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away"

Eric G. Wilson

Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22, 224 pages