Art by Braden Leung

Traumatic attraction: the role of fictional experiences in reality

If unhappiness was a choice, would anyone ever choose it? The answer may seem obvious, but when psychology teacher Christopher Farina asked himself this question, he said the answer wasn’t so simple. 

“The issue is that it’s hard to experience happiness without having some understanding of unhappiness,” he said. “Happiness is something you experience in relation to unhappiness,” Farina said. “If you are familiar with what unhappiness feels like, it can make you more grateful for experiencing happiness, and vice versa.”

The popularity of fictional trauma in movies, books and other entertainment has risen significantly in recent years, with movies like the “Joker” directed by Todd Phillips becoming widely acclaimed, and books like “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara going viral on Tik Tok. Paly alum Paloma Tracy said it could be attributed to the lack of such trauma in people’s everyday lives. Tracy, who studied public health at the University of Michigan, said her classes she has taken in her major have led her to believe attraction toward second hand trauma is caused by the rising comfortability of life for some groups. 

“Now that some groups of people are safer and more comfortable in their homes compared to the past when people lived shorter, harsher lives, they may need to seek out trauma from the media to fill a trauma void,” Tracy said.  

Farina agrees and said seeing fake trauma without actually experiencing it allows people to have something that guarantees to be worse than reality, and provides a warning to see what the worst could be.  

“Fictional trauma allows you to have some exposure to what living through something devastating would be like, without actually having the repercussions,” Farina said. “Like I can walk away from that book, and I’m back to my life.” 

But junior Lauren Saleh said she appreciates fictional trauma for the way it helps her deal with her own issues. 

“Weirdly enough, I’ve actually found myself gravitating towards books or movies that remind me of my traumatic events,” Saleh said. “I think I subconsciously want to get over triggers I’ve maintained in the past.” 

Saleh said traumatic media is a source of comfort for her. 

“I feel like it desensitizes me, like maybe if I keep watching or reading things for long enough, I will get over my trauma,” Saleh said.

When asked about her favorite sources of comfort, Saleh mentioned the novel “Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides as an example. 

The 1993 debut novel is about the fates of the Lisbon sisters, told through the lens of a group of boys who live in their neighborhood. Although the group of boys are originally obsessing over the five sisters, the book reflects the struggle the sisters endured which caused their mysterious death. 

“The book brought up the topic of depression and suicide that girls can get from the stress of always trying to fit the beauty standard,” Saleh said. “It made me feel better that I wasn’t the only one who felt the pressure.” 

Like Farina said, people aren’t attracted to the emotional brutality of fictional trauma.  Rather, fictional trauma helps people find an ultimate sense of peace either through distinguishing between feelings of happiness and unhappiness, or as a source of relatable comfort. 

“People may take for granted what the feeling of unhappiness does for their happiness,” Farina said. “But in reality, it’s a balance between the two.”