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A Nation of Gawkers

Emily GodbeyGoogle “Hurricane Katrina” and you’ll get 10,900,000 hits.“Plane crash” results in 19,000,000. Plug in “tsunami” and you’ll find 30,100,000 results; “9/11,” a whopping 157,000,000.

Everyone seems to love a disaster.

Graphic images, books, videos, artifacts, DVDs, TV shows and even e-mails pervade our culture and flood the media and Internet .“No one wants to be in a disaster, but we all want to look at it,” says Emily Godbey, Ph.D., visiting National Endowment for the Humanities chair. Godbey is writing a book, American Rubbernecking, The Visual Culture of Catastrophe, that examines why images of both natural and technological disasters play such a huge role in popular American culture.

Disasters certainly aren’t new. Hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and floods have been around since the beginning of time. However, in the late 19th century, attitudes toward them began to change, Godbey says. Godbey, a photo historian, discovered that there were all kinds of postcards depicting disaster images on eBay. “Train wrecks, fires, floods, there was all kinds of stuff,” she says. And the images were used not just for entertainment purposes. Flip over a 1913 postcard depicting the horrific Dayton, Ohio, fire and flood, and you’ll see an advertisement for a sewing machine that claims it will stand up to anything.

A Nation of GawkersCommercialized rubbernecking—gaping at accidents, disasters and catastrophes—began to increase with the rise of industrialization and “clock time.” Gone were the days of the farmer or laborer who worked 24/7. People actually began to have time for leisure. But, with leisure also came boredom. People began to seek out thrills. They wanted the “experience of having an intense reaction and really feeling alive in the moment,” Godbey says. “They paid for tickets to see plays and movies about accidents and disasters. They bought books, newspapers and postcards. They even paid to see staged train crashes,” she says.

Godbey also looked at paintings that featured trauma as their central theme. The Raft of the Méduse by Theodore Gericault portrays the 1816 wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, in which 135 people died. Fifteen people survived, but they endured 13 days of starvation, dehydration, cannibalism and madness before being rescued. “There’s nothing happy about the Raft of the Méduse,” says Godbey, who adds that there was even a play about the infamous wreck.

Currier and Ives, a 19th century printmaking company (1835-1907), best known for prints depicting idyllic winter scenes commonly seen on Christmas cards, actually made most of its profits from disaster prints. “Fires and steamship explosions were big sellers,” says Godbey.

From 1896 until the early 1930s, people even paid to see staged train crashes. In a chapter titled “Train Accidents on Demand, Thickening Time,” Godbey talks about the first staged train crash on May 30, 1896, in Buckeye Park near Columbus, Ohio. It attracted 30,000 people. Crowds of spectators eagerly rushed the smoking ruins to gather souvenirs, while photographers and cinematographers captured images they would later sell.

“Nineteenth century audiences learned that—from a comfortable chair—disasters and accidents are thrilling, even enjoyable,” Godbey says in her book.

But the audiences who witnessed these crashes weren’t so different from today’s audiences, who continue to seek out and pay for this type of “entertainment.”

“It doesn’t take long in a contemporary movie to see something explode or a good car chase where someone runs into the wall,” Godbey says.

Lexington postcard

A Courier and Ives lithograph of a fire on the steamboat Lexington in 1840.


Tourists can take a bus for $35 to drive around New Orleans’ Ninth Ward to see the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. The Discovery Channel’s new show,“Destroyed in Seconds,” airs clips of the most shocking destructions caught on tape, from implosions and rampaging tornadoes, to mid-air collisions and terrorist attacks. Even older tragedies like the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 are still profitable, Godbey notes. A Google search finds 29,800,000 hits, including ones for the Oscar-winning movie, an exhibition of artifacts and a computer game.

Viewing disasters is “risk-less risk,” Godbey says. “We only desire to look at something if we’re not forced to be in it. Certainly no one chose be at Ground Zero when the towers fell,” she says.

Thanks to modern technology, today’s profusion of images makes it possible for people to be spectators to horrific events. In Roman times, for example, if someone witnessed a volcano erupt they would describe it in words. “Can you imagine if we only had descriptions of the Katrina aftermath or what Ground Zero looked like? It’s just unimaginable without the pictures,” says Godbey.

Over the years the mediums have changed. At one time a disaster may have been seen on a postcard or a lithograph. Today it will be on YouTube. And if anything, says Godbey, with the escalation in coverage, “our appetite for it has only increased.”

The biggest tourist attraction in Dallas, Texas, is the site where President John F. Kennedy was shot more than 45 years ago. There is even a live web cam showing the site from the sixth-floor window where some of the fatal shots originated.

Fortunately for the disaster entertainment industry, or unfortunately for those who will be affected, there will always be a disaster to gawk at. “There’s always one [disaster] that’s going to be just around the corner,” Godbey says. “Mother Nature is smarter than we’re ever going to be, and she wins every time.”

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