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

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

by Eric G. Wilson

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Why can't we look away?

Whether we admit it or not, we're fascinated by evil. Dark fantasies, morbid curiosities, Schadenfreude: As conventional wisdom has it, these are the symptoms of our wicked side, and we succumb to them at our own peril. But we're still compelled to look whenever we pass a grisly accident on the highway, and there's no slaking our

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Why can't we look away?

Whether we admit it or not, we're fascinated by evil. Dark fantasies, morbid curiosities, Schadenfreude: As conventional wisdom has it, these are the symptoms of our wicked side, and we succumb to them at our own peril. But we're still compelled to look whenever we pass a grisly accident on the highway, and there's no slaking our thirst for gory entertainments like horror movies and police procedurals. What makes these spectacles so irresistible?

In Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, the scholar Eric G. Wilson sets out to discover the source of our attraction to the caustic, drawing on the findings of biologists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, and artists. A professor of English literature and a lifelong student of the macabre, Wilson believes there's something nourishing in darkness. "To repress death is to lose the feeling of life," he writes. "A closeness to death discloses our most fertile energies."

His examples are legion, and startling in their diversity. Citing everything from elephant graveyards and Susan Sontag's On Photography to the Tiger Woods sex scandal and Steel Magnolias, Wilson finds heartening truths wherever he confronts death. In Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, the perverse is never far from the sublime. The result is a powerful and delightfully provocative defense of what it means to be human—for better and for worse.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Wilson (Against Happiness) offers up his own half-guilty attraction to horror films and the like as the starting point for this meandering and self-conscious cultural analysis of morbid curiosity. Bite-size chapters point toward the idea (culled from a variety of sources but borrowing in particular from the life of Thomas Hardy and a definition of imagination by Coleridge) that pain and perversion avoid reproducing themselves when properly channeled through art, and that morbid experience is itself, at least potentially, the seat of ennobling insight. To this end, Wilson delves into fight clubs or the obsession with serial killers, as well as morbidly minded experts like artist Joe Coleman. At the same time, Wilson manages to overwhelm a sensational topic with too many self-reflecting one-liners and chipper self-effacement (“I’m as callous as the next guy, or gal. Hence this book: my effort to understand my insensitivity and become a better man”), which do little more than detract from already hurried treatments of complex issues—although he gets credit for trying to abide by author and interviewee Joyce Carol Oates’s unsparing dismissal of his line of thinking on serial killers as, among other things, “naïve.” While the book does not pretend to rigorous analysis, its consideration of its fascinating material matter might have run deeper. (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
A book posing questions that have obvious answers. Followers of pop culture pick up a copy of People to read about tawdry celebrity scandals. Most drivers rubberneck to get a better look at an accident on the highway. "The exploitation of a suicidal starlet; the assassination of a world leader; the hypnotic crush of a hurricane...whatever our attraction, we are drawn to doom." So why are we so morbid? There are two fairly simple reasons: We're sympathetic to the victim, and we're glad it's not happening to us. Wilson (English/Wake Forest Univ.; Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, 2009) has a legitimate personal reason for wanting to explore this phenomenon--his emotional reaction to 9/11. It's a poignant starting point for a book, but the sense of heartfelt emotion disappears quickly. Wilson lumps our fascination with films and TV shows like Dexter, Hostel and Saw with our curiosity about 9/11, a problem in that it trivializes the history and gives undue credit to what is often disposable material. The author might have been able to pull it off with a sense of intensity or consistently electric prose, but Wilson commits the crime of dullness. His tone drifts from pedantic to casual in what could be construed as an attempt to appeal to academics and non-academics alike, but this approach may be offputting to both. While far from a train wreck, this odd little title is slight, rambling and trivial.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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“Don’t look.”
That’s what she asked, more than once. I heard her distinctly each time, and told myself I should oblige, and even once partially turned my head in her direction, but I just couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. I engrossed myself again, and again submitted to the anger, the sorrow, the fear, as well as guilt’s perverse pleasure: I felt that I shouldn’t be doing this, but I was doing it anyway, and got a peevish thrill from my transgression.
It was evening, dinnertime, and this had been going on since morning, right before I left for work. I had just finished breakfast. I had my satchel over my shoulder. It contained my books for that day’s class (on Keats’s “To Autumn”) and also my lunch (a peanut butter sandwich). I had my hand on the doorknob, ready to leave, when Sandi, my wife, ran up to me, phone in hand, and said, “Turn on the TV.”
I did, and there it was. Too slowly, a jet, brilliant white, wide enough to seat a hundred, plowed into a narrow rectangular tower, luminous and silver in the September sunshine. The blast silently boomed, and the skyscraper turned black billow, spume of flame: an immense sinister candle.
There was a stop, and the sequence rolled once more, soundless, with the same dilatory tempo. It repeated, each time more mesmerizing and meaningless, someone else’s eerie dream. No words explained it—fit it into a familiar story, with reassuring causalities and characters. It was unmoored destruction, sublime. I watched, and watched.
We all know what this was, and likely remember our need to witness the eruption one more time, and also to look when the events became more horrific: another fiery collision, and then buildings sucked to the ground, leaving only rubble and crushed loved ones.
Sandi’s voice broke my morbid trance that morning: “Come here.” When I faced her, she appeared to me in the fullness of her three-month pregnancy, holding in her smooth belly a little creature who would soon be pressed from the warm darkness into this glare.
We hugged, not confessing our terror: an infant in this Armageddon. We sat down together and watched the catastrophe worsen.
After an hour, I made my way to my office at the university where I teach. I had seen the attacks on the towers probably twenty times by then. I turned on my computer, went to the Internet, and found the scene again.
But I had classes to teach, and so reluctantly left the screen. I held the students only briefly in each of my three sections, telling them that we would pick up with Keats the next class—even his wisdom did not that day suffice—and urging them to go back to their dorms and call their families and friends. Between classes, I persisted in watching the footage, breaking only to call Sandi, to comfort and in turn take solace.
I returned home around five. Sandi was in the kitchen preparing dinner, food that would best nourish our baby. The small television beside the coffeemaker, like the other sets in our house, was off.
After giving my wife a hug, I clicked the set on: the conflagration in the sky, now strangely comforting, like a wound you can’t imagine not having. More than that, the footage at this point was, as shocking as this might sound, gruesomely beautiful: swelling ebony smoke against the blue horizon. And the film inspired this staggering thought: “Here is one of those rare ruptures from which history will not recover, and I am alive at its occurrence.” I felt exhilarated, inappropriately, and I was ashamed.
“Come on,” Sandi said. “Turn it off and help me chop the vegetables. Don’t look.”
But I did, though she asked me again to stop, and I continued into the night, brooding.

Copyright © 2012 by Eric G. Wilson   

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