Thursday, August 02, 2012

Was Aristotle right?

Another article by Oliver Burkeman on our fascination with horror, in which he seriously entertains new findings by Eric Wilson 'from conversations with psychologists' that it stems not from feelings of power/relief (there but for the grace of god) or sadistic excitement or any of the other conventional explanations, but from a desire to empathise. He cites horror films and people rubber-necking at car crashes - and personally, in these cases I'm not in the slightest convinced - but then moves on to consider tragedy in literature and art:
Recently, researchers at Ohio State University investigated another psychological eccentricity, not unrelated to morbid curiosity: the enjoyment we derive from sad films. On the face of it, this makes little sense. But their work – which involved having 361 people watch Atonement, interrupting them at several points to administer questionnaires – revealed that the film triggered thoughts about the viewers' own relationships. It stimulated empathy, "reinforcing pro-social values". Gratitude for good relationships was part of it, but more generally it just felt stirring to focus on what mattered. We crave meaning and connection, it seems, far more than cheeriness. Neither tearjerkers nor morbid sights offer the latter – but they do offer the former.
I don't think there is a relationship here with morbid curiosity, but I do agree that tragedy works in this way - Aristotle's catharsis: it really is more of a question of identification by the reader/viewer. Which means the current emphasis on the 'heartwarming' and 'entertainment' is short-changing us sadly.
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