As a 20-something, I hopefully have several decades to go before I need to start thinking about leaving my grandchildren my finest china. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking about death and gore constantly, obsessively, secretly.
I have surgery videos bookmarked online like other people save images of shoes they want to buy. I’m the person my friends confide in when they experience something medically graphic. I regularly peruse a website where users upload footage of accidental deaths or corpses in unlikely scenarios.
I used to look forward to sick days in elementary school. “Trauma: Life in the E.R.” was always on at noon on TLC, and seeing a dagger slice through a cranium broke up the monotony of the day. It was thrilling, although at age 7, I didn’t understand why.
Now I know what drives me to seek out gore. Between my dad discussing the vivid details of his ulcerative colitis diagnosis with me and my mother answering my questions about her career in medical research and life sciences, topics that others deemed gross bonded me and my parents.
Later, when I stumbled upon stomach-churning surgery videos online, I came to realize I crave the high of being privy to something usually confined to medical textbooks and clinical trials. I was being let in on a secret, and that felt empowering to someone who never felt like they quite fit in. The artist in me reveled in the feeling of ease with which I dealt with topics normally reserved for academics. After months of feeling like a medical intern, I had learned a new code.
I regularly peruse a website where users upload footage of accidental deaths or corpses in unlikely scenarios.
Many of those videos force me to think about the role my body might play after I die. Before my obsession, I had no intention of becoming an organ donor, but now, the thought of being of use to someone’s life while I’m dead is highly satisfying — and makes the end seem, well, not like the end at all.
When a patient dies in a video or receives a transplant from a cadaver, I feel an overwhelming sense of compassion toward both the deceased and the donor. In looking at and accepting another person in an imperfect state, I feel like I offer them the support and compassion so often lacking when we talk about the human body, illness and decay. I offer them the support and compassion I rarely give myself.
While the closest I’ve actually been to something medically disgusting was a drunk friend puking outside the bar, having a soft spot for the body in all its unpredictable forms has made me a better person. My friends know to talk to me when they’re experiencing changes in their body that involve blood and fluids. They’ve told me things about their digestive tracts and reproductive systems they were too shy to tell their doctors — and guess what? Because of my encouragement, they finally obtained the medical attention they needed. Got a funky purple cyst somewhere? An ingrown something or other? Nothing I haven’t seen online — or even on myself.
As a journalist, it’s my job to be curious. I use my title as permission to explore the taboo, to reassure myself I’m not some perverted voyeur behind a screen.
I’ve read theories about why someone might be fixated on gore. None of them quite ring true for me. For some, there’s the thrilling fantasy about saving the victim. For others, there’s the idea that seeing someone in distress produces a sense of safety ― since you’re not in their position.
But to me, all these images offer a cautionary tale. They prepare me for my inevitable fate, be it the result of cancer or a car crash. Understanding what it looks like to suffer and die eradicates much of my fear.
From an early age, I was told stories about my late grandparents whom I never met. I heard about how my grandmother used to prank the family by placing saran wrap over the toilet seat, how she brought her finest fur and jewelry camping in the woods. I loved hearing about the way she treated everyone like family at the bakery she co-owned and how she left her door open for the neighbors to waltz in. So when my dad described the way the ambulance took her unresponsive body to the hospital without bothering to turn on the siren, I cried. It didn’t matter that I never met her. From those stories, I knew her.
These images ... prepare me for my inevitable fate, be it the result of cancer or a car crash. Understanding what it looks like to suffer and die eradicates much of my fear.
I’m interested in death because it’s easy for me to feel connected to people I never had a chance to meet. Every night I read obituaries about strangers who passed away, scanning the comments from old friends recalling their days together. It’s too late to get to know them in person, but through third-party sources painting pictures of their past, I can still try to grasp their essence. Like organ donors, they leave legacies worth exploring and honoring.
Watching a family member die firsthand is a lot different than hearing about it. I was 16 years old when my grandfather passed away from congestive heart failure. In the back room of the funeral home, he lay in his casket coated in foundation thick enough for Broadway. It was terribly hard to watch, but because I had seen shows like “Trauma: Life in the E.R.,” I had an idea of what to expect. Starting my habit young had saved me from future discomfort, like getting your ears pierced as a child. Exposure therapy is something I now regularly seek out. Luckily, there are others online like me.
On the gory website I frequent, I initially assumed the comments would be as horrible as the content itself. Instead, an overwhelming majority of users brought a sense of pathos toward the victims.
A video of a Syrian father holding his two deceased young daughters after a chemical attack inspired me to call my own dad. I found any excuse to keep him on the phone for as long as I could. I thought, What if I never get the opportunity to talk with him again? Thanks to a video of a woman standing over a man’s decapitated body in the wilderness, I’ll never again go to bed mad at my husband lest one of us dies in our sleep — even when the crescendo of his snores prevents me from drifting off.
It can still feel wrong to gawk at people in their most vulnerable state, but I also fear what would happen if I repressed my insatiable curiosity. For now, I’m happy to relegate my habit to my laptop as it casts an eerie glow under my chin. Just please clear my browser history when I die.
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