By Sanchita Sharma
Feb 07, 2015
What is it about gruesome videos that have us hooked? Why do we feel compelled to watch people get tortured and violated? Going by the videos that have made it to the top of the charts over the past few months, something clearly does.
This week, Islamic State (IS) henchmen burned a Jordanian pilot alive and millions watched him on YouTube as he writhed in pain as his skin melted away. Some watched it more than once. Others spent time searching for longest, unedited clip, even when they cannot comprehend a single Arabic syllable.
Over the past six months, the beheadings of Syrian soldiers and British and American hostages with what appears to be a small and very blunt knife got hundreds of thousands of views across websites.
And it's not just footage of IS's serial executions that get more eyeballs within days than the Katniss Everdeen's gritty survival saga (The Hunger Games franchise, for those with blinkers) does all year.
Two separate videos of five men gang-raping women went viral after an activist posted them online asking people to help identify the gleeful rapists. The sleazy videos of the distressing rapes had been circulating on WhatsApp for six months before they reached the activist.
Even the white tiger in Delhi Zoo had its 15 days of fame after someone circulated a grainy phone clip of it mauling a young man to death. As the YouTube hits rose, so did visits to the tiger enclosure.
Flirting With Fear
Its human nature to flirt with fear, say psychiatrists. "Fear and aggression is innate in human nature and it drives us to seek violence in film and video in the safety of our homes and offices," says Dr Sameer Malhotra, head, mental health and behavioural sciences, Max Healthcare.
The dissociation from the threat offers an added sense of catharsis, of having had a brief brush with something dark and dangerous without getting hurt.
"The relief that follows that it's not happened to you or someone you know is tremendous and works as an anxiety buster," says Dr Rajesh Sagar, professor of psychiatry at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
Some degree of voyeurism also plays a role. As the success of almost all reality shows demonstrates, most of us are intensely curious about everyone else. We want to know what's happening around us, and the more macabre and weird it is, the more likely are we to seek it.
"Curiosity is a very strong human emotion and it prods even the mildest of people to click on the videos with warnings of violent graphic content," says Dr Sagar. They may hate every second of it, but they will be compelled to watch it. "Part of the appeal comes from the thrill of watching something that is clearly very wrong, something we won't see in our day to day lives," he adds.
First among Equals
Then, of course, there's the need to have been there and done that before everyone else. "In today's super-connected world, people are under immense pressure to be ahead of the others on the information superhighway," says Dr Sagar.
In a milieu where everyone has an opinion on everything, ignorance about what's happening around you is social hara-kiri. "News and events get outdated within hours and everyone needs to know more than the next person to ensure their standing among their peers. Not knowing can get you ostracised," says Dr Malhotra.
Simply put, if you haven't been the first to post or share a link with your friends, you should at least be able to say you've seen it already.
Its children who are in danger of losing out in the equation and develop latent fears and traumas. "Watching violent videos lead to some amount of desensitisation, especially in young children who cannot understand why someone is being so cruel and unfeeling to another person. You have to explain violence to children and adolescents in a language they understand," says Dr Sagar.
"Children should be familiar with the violence around them while knowing it is wrong and they should never condone it," he says.