On a recent autumn afternoon I met Coltan Scrivner in an Andersonville shop cluttered with the gruesome, the disgusting, the terrifying and, his specialty, the morbid. That tiny shop, Woolly Mammoth, tucked into Foster Avenue, is a curiosity cabinet of the uneasy and disturbing, though for Coltan Scrivner, who studies morbid curiosity, it was more like taking a trip to Target.
But no plastic Halloween ghosts here.
Think giant clown heads, and devil heads, and witch’s brooms, and Ouija boards, and two-faced taxidermied goats, and (supposedly authentic) shrunken heads, and an antique portrait of Lizzie Borden, and Victorian funeral wreaths, and death masks, and lots and lots of real skeletons.
“Here’s a good example of what I do,” he said, stopping at an old photo of a child in a bed. “This is a Victorian postmortem image of a dead baby. But if I showed you this and said it was a sleeping child, that would change how you respond to it. What we don’t entirely understand yet though is why, if I tell you that it’s picture of a dead baby, you would still be tempted to look.”
This is morbid curiosity.
“Morbid curiosity means there are two emotion systems going within you,” he continued, stopping before another image. “One is information gathering, one is revulsion, but which one will win out?”
He nodded at a small doodle hanging on the wall.
A small doodle of Hitler, drawn by the Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
It felt wrong, it felt gross. And so I leaned in for a closer look.
“Beyond it being just bad art, there are so many levels of wrong going on here,” Scrivner said.
And yet he wonders: Why, biologically, evolutionarily, is it so difficult to look away?
Scrivner, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, is not cadaverous, though he is long and thin, with a playful passing resemblance to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from the Marvel superhero movies. His field of study is not unheard of — science has long tried to understand why many of us have an appetite for the horrifying — yet as a line of inquiry, this remains mostly outside of mainstream psychology. It’s also not often greeted with the sort of attention that Scrivner is getting He’s been published in serious scientific journals, he’s received more than $50,000 in grants (including from the esteemed Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society in Hyde Park), he’s drawing media attention to pretty wonky studies — such as a recent one on why horror fans are weathering the pandemic better than the rest of us. Scarily enough, he’s even been hired by Facebook to continue research at their headquarters.
His work, eerily, feels right for 2020.
“When I started (at University of Chicago) I wasn’t even sure of what I wanted to study,” he said. “But I knew that I was interested in how people experience things, so I started thinking of cognitive paradoxes — those things people do that don’t make sense. And it turns out, there’s a lot of that.”
“Yes! But why do we gravitate to negative things — philosophers think about this, artists paint this, even video game designers try to capture it. Yet relatively few try to understand it.” Indeed, the day after we met, Scrivner had a Zoom meeting with a group of clinical psychologists at Harvard, curious about his research. Understanding how to overcome anxiety, for example, could be one area where the study of morbid curiosity might prove valuable. Dario Maestripieri, the Italian behavioral biologist and UC professor who made his name studying overlaps between humans and primates (and also acts as Scrivner’s advisor), said in an email that Scrivner is creative, rigorous and also that his work “has the potential to result in a general theory that explains what morbid curiosity really is, why it exists and how it relates to other aspects of human psychology and behavior. More broadly, it can help us understand human individual differences at a deeper level.”
Scrivner began coming to Woolly Mammoth last year to gather materials for one of his research projects, which had been humming along last spring until the pandemic shut it down. Here’s what he did: He invited several dozen Chicagoans into his lab at the university and showed them a series of objects, some morbid, some not. The morbid ones he found at Woolly. He placed them in a curio cabinet and made up stories about each. He told the subjects that many were on loan from local institutions such as the Field Museum. Then he asked them move in closer … if they wanted.
He told them that a skeleton key came from a guillotine, and that scientific vials had been used in a fatal poisoning, and that a mold of teeth had been taken from the mouth of a cannibal serial killer. He gave each object backstories, and most importantly, he outfitted his subjects with eye-tracking glasses, to see where eyes went. But again, he was just starting when the pandemic shut it down.
The results so far?
One person said she didn’t “want to be the basic white girl who picks up true crime stuff, then went to the true crime stuff.” Men went for gorier objects. Some were curious about the seedier objects though unwilling to touch; some touched bad stuff to counter the good stuff they touched. Results have been promising, he said. But of course: There’s a reason for Chicago walking tours of serial killing sites and gangland slayings. There’s a reason your parents told you not to stare. There’s a reason terrorists release beheading videos, and why TMZ exists. There’s a reason why the bodies of Bonnie and Clyde were looted for mementos after their shootings, and why artists once kept skulls to remind themselves of the fragility of their lives. No less than Carl Jung has written of our shadow selves buried deep who demand that we acknowledge our uglier thoughts.
This basic urge — to look at what we know we probably shouldn’t look at — may even contain a more basic desire to empathize. In his 2012 book “Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away,” Eric G. Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina who specializes in the link between literature and psychology, argued our itch to stare into a horror may be partly about recognizing some primal connection with those who have suffered.
Scrivner’s work, though, is more biological, more interested in how and why our bodies react to, say, the vaguely ominous yet actually safe. Such as a clown. “What I like about Coltan’s work is he’s approaching these issues in an empirical, scientific manner,” said Stephen Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College who has written about our fascination with monsters. “He’s collecting data to show deeper patterns of cognition. … He’s interviewing and surveying subjects, hooking them up to galvanic response sensors, tracking eye movements. What he uncovers about curiosity generally and morbid curiosity specifically will help us better understand the human mind.”
Mathias Clasen, Scrivner’s Denmark-based colleague (and the co-author of some of his papers), imagines the study of morbid curiosity eventually applying to not only the creation of more effective scary movies but behavioral science, even traffic control — think rubbernecking.
Scrivner grew up in (no joke) Slaughterville, Oklahoma.
He’s 28, and yes, he’s a hardcore horror movie fan. But no, he never did have a goth or emo phase. He did his masters in forensic science, focusing on DNA. He worked for a while at the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City, and yes, he keeps actual human bones in his Hyde Park apartment. But no, he doesn’t know exactly why Facebook wants to help his research. He suspects it has to do with scary images and violent videos, though when he was interviewed by the company, he told them he doubted his research did fit Facebook. He said they disagreed with him.
At the moment, albeit still early into his study, I asked if his work has a takeaway yet. He said that he thinks that maybe humans have developed their morbid curiosity as a way of making sense of the violence or trauma that they expect to withstand themselves eventually.
What a gruesome thought, I said.
“I wrote a paper on gruesomeness!” he said. “Basically, it doesn’t take a lot to kill someone but some people, you know, they like to go the extra mile. Why, for instance, does someone put heads on stakes? We’re drawn to faces, OK I get that. But why is that seen as worse than a dead body?”
Maybe it’s seen as a warning of what the people are capable of, I said.
“Which was our conclusion! But how do you test that?” He gave subjects a story of a gruesome act. Rather than show who who committed the act, he asked them to imagine the perpetrator. He used an example that didn’t require vast strength — someone using a pocket knife to cut an eyeball out of a corpse. This someone was often imagined as stronger than larger than average.
I told him that I grew up in a community where the craziest bastards were almost always the shortest. You could always rely on them to overcompensate — a kind of Joe Pesci syndrome.
Yes, he said, noting that small terrorist groups often favor brutal videos, perhaps because it makes them appear more powerful and, well, because they also understand our innate morbid curiosity.
Central to Scrivner’s research is the Morbid Curiosity Scale he developed at UC, a survey he employs to predict behavior. It’s constructed as a series of statements that you respond to. If you saw street fight and were not involved, would you watch? If you lived in Medieval Europe, would you attend public executions? Would you like to learn about witchcraft? OK, how about autopsies?
The more you think about your answers, the more uncomfortable this gets.
We sat on a bench outside.
If there was a car wreck right here, he asked, would I look at the victims?
I said I don’t think so.
He smiled the smile of someone who knew better.
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