Welcome to the age of ‘dark copers’ – where morbid curiosity is a means of survival | Emma Beddington

From haunted dolls to horror films, there is a big appetite right now for fear-as-fun. Are we all just practising for what 2023 throws at us?

A friend gleefully informed me that you can buy haunted dolls – “vessels” for unquiet spirits – on eBay. Rebekkah Sexual Spirit (“her vessel is missing an arm … she says she does not care”) has been snapped up, but you can get Maggie (“NOT A TOY”; “a vast mass of dark energy”; “can make you feel very unwell” – all of which sounds like me on an average Tuesday) for £225. You know the kind: horror movie trope dolls with smooth porcelain faces and blank eyes – absolutely terrifying. The first one startled me so much I twitched, accidentally clicked “buy” and had to carefully navigate backwards to save myself. Then I went back and looked at more.

Why? They gave me that prickly, uncomfortable feeling: nasty but compelling. I’m not a thrill-seeker (except the thrill of racing the bin out as the lorry rounds the corner), but I’ve become quite enamoured of creepy recently. I spent a while freaking myself out studying the eerie images produced by the AI tool Midjourney when prompted to create photos of “people”. At a quick glance, nothing seems amiss; look closer and these preternaturally shiny wraiths smile with mouths crammed with perfect teeth, there are far too many long, tapered fingers everywhere and one digital changeling seems to have an extra collarbone. Argh!

I’ve also enjoyed – if that’s the right word – reading about Deli Mike, the haunted Turkish Airbus. It apparently turns its lights on and off unbidden, won’t retract its landing gear, sets off alarms and can be “persuaded” to fix faulty flight instruments if you talk to it. An electrical fault, you say? I say brrrr.

This is not about real fear. We have a surfeit of that. I’m scared of climate collapse, Putin, US-style healthcare and putting the radiator on. If you’re not flooded with adrenalised cold dread that makes your fingertips tingle within an hour of getting up, you’re probably not paying attention (and if you’re managing to do that, consider offering the rest of us masterclasses). There should be no more worlds to conquer when it comes to horror and terror in 2023 – just unlock your phone.

Despite that, we seem to have a renewed appetite for fear-as-fun: the pleasurable sense of the uncanny and the ineffably – but somehow manageably – horrible. We are in a horror renaissance, with movie market share at its highest ever in recent years.

The Washington Post declared 2022 “a huge year for horror” and campy AI-doll horror flick M3gan went viral based only on its trailer, and has grossed five times its budget in two weeks. There’s a real appetite for creepy thrills.

Are we gluttons for punishment? Having only recently become aware of the wonderfully named Recreational Fear Lab in Aarhus, Denmark, I’ve been exploring its oeuvre. The lab identifies a category of fear-seeker it calls “dark copers”: people who report that “watching scary movies helps them control negative emotions of anxiety and depression that might arise from thinking about the more difficult aspects of life”.

That’s not a new idea – the theory of recreational fear as “uncertainty management” and a way of rehearsing how we would cope if the worst happened is well established. But it’s especially interesting in conjunction with “morbid curiosity researcher” Coltan Scrivner’s paper reporting that horror fans and the morbidly curious were more psychologically resilient during Covid. (You can test your morbid curiosity on Scrivner’s scale, incidentally – options include: “If a head transplant was possible, I would want to watch the procedure.”)

With that in mind, our current appetite for scaring ourselves silly becomes eminently sensible: it’s prepping for whatever fresh hell 2023 has in store. We’re pushing the frontiers of artificial intelligence, eyeing our creations, Victor Frankenstein-style, with foreboding, and wondering what tech advances mean for our notions of personhood. We’re edging towards a natural world we no longer recognise and will struggle to survive in. We’re wondering whether some other, doubtless self-inflicted, pandemic is around the corner. Is it any wonder we’re all becoming dark copers?

• Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist


Emma Beddington

The GuardianTramp

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