Asking for Thorns in a Bed of Roses

Art by Jocelyn Wong
Why do we like unsettling experiences?

It seems paradoxical to like discomfort. Anything that entails an absence of relaxation, ease or pleasure is surely something to avoid, let alone actively seek out. So why do so many people turn to it for enjoyment? More specifically, I’m interested in the reasons why our society has an insatiable love for horror movies, a morbid fascination with true crime, and a willingness to participate in extreme sports. What is to be enjoyed about purposely engaging in experiences that unsettle us and make us squirm, scream, or shudder?

Drawing on my own experience, as well as a bit of a Bing search (if that isn’t unsettling, nothing is), I’ve come up with three criteria that can make these experiences enjoyable. Without being scientific, I hope it offers some thought-provoking ideas on why discomfort becomes something we seek out.

First of all, there is a temporal aspect to our discomfort exposure. Discomfort is bearable when it doesn’t last forever, and we’re able to return to a comfortable state. Horror movies illustrate this well. Irrespective of the content and regardless of how gut-wrenching, nightmare-inducing or disturbing the film is, they always finish. One can start a horror movie knowing that, in a matter of hours, it will just be a memory. Of course, this doesn’t account for the nightmares it does induce, but the intentional exposure is for a limited duration.

Another notable facet of horror movies is the knowledge that, a lot of the time, they’re fictional. In the back of the viewer’s mind, they know that what they’re seeing isn’t real; thus, they’re able to reason away the lingering fear knowing it was just CGI and actors. However, this reasoning does not apply to the curiosity so many of us have with true crime. This leads to the second aspect, which is self-inflicted exposure. Although podcasts and mini-series also eventually end, we can’t apply the same ‘fictional’ criterion to a true story. We engage with it knowing that what we hear, see and read actually happened to real people. At least in my experience, part of the ‘enjoyment’ of this content comes from my ability to manage my exposure; that is, I engage with it on my terms, when I want to. It becomes less unsettling when we’re able to choose when we look and when we look away, mainly because we have time to prepare and the ability to regulate exposure. Retaining this agency leads to a sense of power, which in turn reduces the fear, which reduces discomfort. It’s easier to be curious when it’s not threatening, and easier to enjoy when it’s on our terms. We can always turn it off, close the tab, or turn the page to something better.

This is a nice segue to the final factor, which is that the feeling of discomfort is limited to us. Although this seems intuitive and obvious, it has crucial implications. Extreme sports provide a good example, because the people who participate in them are only making themselves uncomfortable (I acknowledge that this doesn’t account for the potential discomfort of onlookers). To put it another way, nobody can skydive for you. Only you can score G.N.A.R. points for your line. A key reason someone might expose themselves to such extreme discomfort for enjoyment is because, like before, they are the only one who suffers the consequences. But it may also be because there are very few, if not zero social costs to the activity.

Despite ‘leaving your comfort zone’ being heralded as a step towards positive personal development, I’m sure most people would agree that this has its limitations. Much of our daily lives are spent conforming to unwritten standards of behaviour and speech. I think these norms are comfort zones themselves, providing society with a sense of security about the actions they can expect from others. Consequently, social comfort zones, which accommodate groups of people, are best preserved, unless an individual wants to suffer the consequences of violating norms and offending the sensibilities of a crowd.

For something unsettling to be sought and enjoyed, I don’t think it can entail anything more than a small social cost. Otherwise the uncomfortable experience would last longer, and its control would be out of the individual’s hands. It’s worth noting that this is different to people who can’t fathom your curiosity, or who cringe at what you’re interested in. I’m thinking more of the consequences of your behaviour. Despite being vulnerable to misunderstanding, interest and engagement with these experiences isn’t uncommon in our society, and wouldn’t be surprising or shocking to many people. Thus, you don’t risk getting shunned by watching The Silence of the Lambs or big wave surfing. The discomfort that it causes is all on you.

In summary, people do unexpected things, sometimes for unexplainable reasons. Why we intentionally expose ourselves to uncomfortable, scary, disturbing or – unsettling – experiences is something that may always be subject to speculation. But there are also reasons it can be palatable, even enjoyable. When we know it won’t last forever, when we’re able to regulate our exposure, and when we’re the only ones exposed and affected, our experience of discomfort might not be so bad after all. At the end of the day, it begs the question of how unsettling it actually is.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.