Sensation Seeking and the Taste for Vicarious Horror
Marvin Zuckerman University of Delaware
And much of Madness and more of Sin, and Horror the soul of the plot. -- Poe, The Conquerer Worm ( 1843)
The taste for morbid, frightening, and horror-invoking stimuli is nothing new, only the media have changed. Spectators at gladiatorial contests or public executions did not consider their recreation abnormal or perverted. No Roman wrote articles asking why people enjoy watching humans being eaten by wild animals. The monster myths related around the open camp-fire and the Grand Guignol theater have been transformed by modern technology to the film and television media. The media improve their techniques to bring more graphic violence to the screen. Older horror films are almost detached compared to the modern genre with Technicolor gore and special effects to image dismemberment and torture. Life imitates art and the nightly local television news programs largely bring us real murders, assaults, fires, and accidents (or their aftermaths) with detailed accounts by bystanders and victims.
Analyses of the people who unashamedly enjoy these spectacles, and there are millions of them, range from the sociobiological to the purely sociological. Psychoanalysts invoke instinctual sadism, repressed aggressive tendencies, or fear mastery. Sociologists point to the deterioration of urban society and the real terrors in the streets of our cities. The people who produce the media and reap the profits shrug their shoulders and say, "That's show biz."
Once we accept the fact that the phenomena has always been with us and that it is not necessarily a sign of psychopathology in the individual or the culture, we can answer a more meaningful question: What are the sources of individual differences in interest in morbid events and spectacles in normal personality variations? Many of the same questions have been applied to interests in explicit portrayals of sexual events in the media and the sources of