To be completely transparent, the focus of this post is death and how it is portrayed in the media. I’ve held it back for weeks because of the bleak theme and I’m dreading the prospect of this heading my blog until I write something more cheerful. This is a genuine content warning, I even made myself depressed writing it. If you are new to my blog, it is not normally this dire and I promise the next one will be about kittens, unicorns or rainbows. Please leave a comment, your feedback is always welcome.
I don’t possess much curiosity. I’m not tempted to open a door that forbids me to enter, if someone taunts me with ‘I know something you don’t’ I frustrate them with my indifference and if a news reader warns me of distressing footage, I leave the room. I’m not devoid of it, there’s that little bit of morbid curiosity within me that makes me crane my neck to glimpse a bingle on the motorway. And while it is founded in curiosity (‘what’s happening?’), there’s also worry (‘is it someone I know?’) and concern (‘are they OK?’) and empathy (‘I feel for them’). And I think it exists to offer us resilience and the bravery to run towards the fear and offer help.
Seeing and living tragedies is clearly different to watching them with a more detachment on television. I clocked a fair few childhood years before I noticed any news broadcast. I suppose my parents switched the TV off if they deemed the content too ‘adult’ but the first news event to register with me was the Challenger disaster. It had a huge affect on me – image after image on every channel of the shuttle disintegrating in mid air. We learn about the crew members – five men, two woman. One of those a teacher who had children my own age. In my pyjamas, from the comfort of the living room, I realised “we are watching these people die”.
This thought has never left me. From the Hindenburg disaster to more modern day events, whether accidental or intentional, whether captured on film or digitally recorded – we are watching people die. And sometimes I think we forget this basic truth, we become so mesmerised by the spectacle we lose sight of the tragedy. On TV you can watch those sensationalised documentary programs investigating serious traffic accidents, plane crashes and heinous crime. They break the incident down into such fine increments you are almost able to relive the terror. Some of these incidents are only a few years old. What about the families of those who died? Were they asked? Are public tragedies public property? If it’s not your country is it legit?
How do we decide what footage goes too far? Does it depend on who, or where? And if it’s worthy of the warning “some viewers may find the following images distressing” – why show it at all?
I receive chain emails from friends. They contain light hearted jokes or cat videos or cute animal pics or beautiful photography, but occasionally something upsetting seeps through under the guise of humour. Like a Porsche with its roof peeled back because it drove under a truck – real traffic accidents in which people have died. They were probably released into the public as lessons against speeding or drink driving – at what point does this deserve a funny caption?
The chain email that lead me to write this post had a video attachment, simply titled, ‘That’s not a handrail!’. The footage began innocently enough on a train platform in India. In the background your eye gravitates towards a man walking atop an electric train who then accidently takes hold of the live wire. He dies. I will not describe it. I thought I was going to be sick, it replayed in my brain for days as my brain tried to process its horror. I feel sick now making myself remember it. Perhaps more disturbingly, someone I knew emailed it to me and they didn’t feel revolted by it.
In this digital age, there’s an ever increasing likelihood of capturing disturbing events on film. I’m not saying we should remain trapped with these horrendous visions in our minds, or relive them as we first saw them. It is natural for us to heal and adjust, but I don’t want to lose sight of what I’m looking at. I don’t want to become immune to the horror, because if I become immune, then it’s not horror, and if it’s not horror, then what is it?
Then what are we?