As research goes, the fact-finding that Eric Wilson did for his new book is about as weird as it gets.
“Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away” (Sarah Crichton Books; $22) explores morbid curiosity – from an intellectual and historical perspective, and from Wilson’s own point of view.
Wilson, a Wake Forest University English professor who loves Gothic literature and horror movies, wondered why humans stare at grisly auto accidents, why we take pleasure in others’ pain, why we’re fascinated by evil.
His work involved lots of standard academic book-reading research. But he also set out to find people who are, as he puts it, “professionally morbid.”
He met an Atlanta man who’s been collecting obituaries since childhood and a guy whose business involved selling art created by serial killers.
He also visited Joe Coleman, an artist who runs The Odditorium, a Brooklyn museum filled, its website says, with “sideshow oddities, serial-killer ephemera and wax-museum dioramas.”
And, to explore why we sometimes take pleasure in others’ misfortune, Wilson spent time on YouTube, watching funny videos of people falling down.
Wilson, whose academic specialties include William Blake and filmmaker David Lynch, has made a career out of exploring the darker side of our natures. In his 2008 book, “Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy,” he argues that sadness gets an unfair rap in happiness-obsessed America.
In this new book, Wilson argues that there’s an upside to our fascination with the morbid.
Confronting death, he says, “becomes a special invitation to think about life.” When we think about our numbered days, “life become full, electric,” he says. “It’s far from morbid. It’s life-affirming.”
To make his case, Wilson touches on subjects as diverse as the Tiger Woods sex scandal and the ultimate tear-jerker movie, “Steel Magnolias.”
But he begins and ends with the can’t-look-away event of our lifetimes – 9/11.
As the book starts, it’s Sept. 11, 2001, and he’s glued to the television, unable to turn off the images, despite his wife’s prodding.
As it ends, it’s 2010, and he’s visiting the Ground Zero Museum and Workshop, contemplating how rescuers’ work became an act of worship, how that place became holy ground.
As he leaves, he buys a book of 9/11 photographs, returns to his hotel, opens it to a page and shows it to his wife and daughter.
“Look,” he says.