Fascination with the unpleasant

A quick look at the entertainment world – books, movies, songs, fairy tales, mythology – tells us that we are fascinated with the unpleasant.

Why is that? I can find several reasons for why I am drawn to it….

The most obvious is that these things (death, pain, cruelty etc.) are part of human life, and this is a way for me to get familiar with it in a safe way. I get to explore it without putting myself at risk. And I get to prepare for it should it happen to me or someone close to me. If or when something like it happens in real life, I am somewhat prepared.

It is also a way for me to find more of my own wholeness. Whatever I see out there in the world and others are qualities and characteristics that are right here. The essence is identical, even if it may be experienced or expressed in quite different degrees and quite different ways (often less extreme than some of what I see out there).

There is also a process aspect to this. Any story about the shadow is not only a mirror of qualities and characteristics in ourselves, but also a reminder of the process or dynamic of how our relationship with the shadow may play itself out. Some stories, such as stories of killing the dragon or the bad guys, show a partial resolution. Not as healthy or complete as it can be, but not too unhealthy either. Some show what happens if the shadow takes over, and serve as a warning. And some, such as Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver, show a more mature, healthy, and complete process. In the Jim Button story, they capture and contain the evil dragon (the shadow) instead of killing it, and it turns into a golden wisdom dragon.

By imagining into these stories, I can find empathy for those who go through it – whether it is others or myself. And by finding in myself what I see in others, I can find empathy for those parts of myself and for the other people I see it in.

And as usual, I may come up against my own beliefs and shoulds, and find what is more honest for me. I see a movie where someone is unfair or cruel, my beliefs about it come up, I get to notice it, and I may explore these and find what is more honest.

In an evolutionary perspective, it makes good sense to be fascinated by the unpleasant. It helps us become familiar with it, which is good since it is part of human life. It helps us prepare. The other reasons may also be part of why this is selected for, for all I know.

Of course, it is possible to do this in an apparently unhealthy way as well, especially when we get caught up in horror in ways that reinforce reactive emotions and rigid views. But it seems that’s the exception. In most cases, it is a thrill and a way to get familiar with the terrain.

Trigger: I posted this cute summary of The Call of Cthulhu on Facebook, and got this response:

I read this in high school. This pretty much sums it up, except without the nail-biting terror experience. Probably the folks who made this video were trying to exorcise their own fears. Grr..

Which was a reminder of how much I appreciate just that fascination with the unpleasant, horror, and fear, whether it comes up in me or others. It seems innocent and healthy. Even when it takes a “wrong” turn, it is part of the process of exploring human experience and ourselves.

To be fair, I am pretty sure the person writing this knows this as well as I do. He just chose to emphasize the other side which is not only fine, but good. It shows that he has the freedom to shift from one to the other.


  • fascination w. horror, sadness, pain etc.
    • exposed to a mild degree, movies, literature etc.
    • reasons
      • practice, get familiar with, learn to relate to
      • also, find in oneself, longing for experiencing more of oneself, more of ones wholeness
      • empathy w. oneself/others + understand what may be going on for others
      • and come up against beliefs, find what is more honest, real

– best case: exploration, familiarity, insights, empathy etc.
– although, may also rehearse reactivity etc. (rehearse rigid views)



  • draw
    • experience itself rewarding
    • possibility….
      • get familiar with terrain, practice for own life
      • empathy with self/others
      • wholeness
        • own wholeness – familiar with shadow
        • humanity – familiar with wholeness of human experience
    • not so good….
      • rehearse reactive emotions + beliefs (blame, making others wrong,
      • ….


Probably the folks who made this video were trying to exorcise their own fears. Grr..

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