Life! Death! PRIZES!

Printed in The Student, 13 October 2009

It was like a grotesque set of dominoes. Instead of uniform black-white dotted tiles toppling over each other, it was gran that had lost her balance. She fell into her grandson and in turn into granddad, and so it went on in gut-churning slow-motion.

My mother and I stamped on the emergency stop sign of the escalator, unaware the stop button was underneath. A cool-headed Good Samaritan ushers us out the way and brings the machinery along with the horrid spectacle to a halt. A medical student appears and looks the crumpled family members over as an ambulance is called.

It’s at this point I see a woman parked in one of the cafe seats that looks onto the escalator. Her bags are arranged around her, her pudgy hands folded in her lap and a look of morbid fascination plastered across her face. She’s relished every moment of this hideous scene. She has no intention of helping, she shows no sympathy, she’s just captivated by the sight of human suffering.

She’s not alone. True, put in a situation such as this, the majority of people would try to help, they would feel empathy. However an industry does exist for people who enjoy such things: books and magazines that shy behind the title of “human interest”. Read as “the suffering of others distributed for entertainment”. The subheading of Chat! magazine probably sums it up more succinctly, and more brutally: “Life! Death! Prizes!”

Chat! is by no means the sole offender, other publications to be singled out include That’s Life!, Pick Me Up and Take a Break which has an incredible weekly circulation of 920 000. A typical front-page will consist of splash headlines designed to shock: “I ran over my fiancé – No wedding just a funeral”, “Dying? But I’ll have a boob job first!”, “I slept with my hubby’s brother FOR A BET”and “Ancient Egypt’s King Tut gave me a baby”. Combine this with the symmetrical grinning face of an attractive woman (but not so attractive as to be intimidating), the promise of money to be given away and some cute pictures of animals or children, and you’ve hit the target market.

You could argue that these magazines have a legitimate role, people only read these horror stories to feel better about their own lives and those who contribute them receive payment. Catharsis and compensation, everyone’s a winner, or at least has a chance at winning a “family seaside holiday in Blackpool.” But that’s before you look too closely at how some of these stories are written. The writers, editors and interviewers have an admirable talent for portraying people in the worst possible light yet in an apparently sympathetic fashion.

Last week Closer excelled itself in covering the story of a woman who had been ravaged by drug addiction. Next to a picture of her grinning with decaying teeth and her skin patchy with broken blood vessels, the article tells of how she took GBL daily and her ex-boyfriend “used to put it into my Pot Noodle”. These magazines have a very cynical idea of the intelligence of both their sources and their readers and exploit them accordingly.

Many of the stories, dramatically titled “True-Life!” are distinctly surreal, bizarre to the point they are beyond irony, particularly in the way they written and the skewed perspective they give on the world. My personal favourite centred on a woman who claimed to have objectum-sexuality; she had a physical attraction to walls. The article was loaded with cheap gags such as “I knew he would stand by me” and “I go for the strong, silent type” and a gratuitous picture of the Great Wall of China captioned, “Do walls do it for you?” Worse still, it details how she married the Berlin Wall (“The sex was amazing, just touching the hard brickwork and rough edges sent me into a frenzy.”) and was “horrified” when “her husband” was torn down in 1989. The fall of communism in Western Europe pales into insignificance by comparison.

Perhaps I’m getting too worked up. Maybe I’m just bitter after selling one too many “Painful Lives” biographies or because a woman never took piggy eyes off me, or stopped masticating on her panini, when I once cried in a cafe. Public humiliation used to be an effective method of punishment (and continues to this day in the form of televised X-Factor auditions) and executions were public events, witnessed by children and adults. Upon reflection, morbid fascination is nothing new and magazines such as Chat! cater to an unpleasant aspect of human nature . They are a slightly lesser evil to public hangings and who doesn’t love a Sudoku?

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