Have you ever wondered WHAT “MORBID” CONTENTS ARE?

An analysis of morbid content as a narrative device with a boomerang effect, since even when it generates an audience, it tends to kill the media source that resorted to using it (updated version).


An analysis of morbid content as a narrative device with a boomerang effect, since even when it generates an audience, it tends to kill the media source that resorted to using it (updated version).


In our language, and according to the “Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy), morbid means “a change in health […], illness”. We may deduce that something is morbid when: 1) “it causes illness”, or 2), “causes unhealthy mental […] reactions”.

In English, and according to the Oxford Dictionary, “morbid” refers to someone “ …characterized by an abnormal and unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease…”.

In literary terminology, a morbid device is used to attract people’s attention; it’s a “hook”. In previous articles we established that works with family-oriented contents, “cleaner”/”more wholesome” ones (that is: those that least violate the values, ideas and beliefs of their target public), tend to be the most successful. So, isn’t it an inconsistency to accept we can use morbid devices to get people’s attention nowadays? No; let’s see why not:

Firstly, a morbid device is a hook, although not the only one. Secondly, it’s a hook having a very brief, intense, but also volatile, impact, compared with others such as evocative devices (cfr. Cawelti; “Adventure, Mystery and Romance”; Univ. of Chicago Press; pp. 14 and 303 #2). Thirdly, it’s a hook that ultimately destroys itself, so that in the end ─and like a boomerang─ it destroys the media source that used it.

Let’s examine the previous three statements: The four devices used to structure contents, which function as “hooks” to attract audiences, and that I have been able to identify to date, are suspense, hopeful anticipation, morbidity and humour. The works of Agatha Christie (who never had to resort to describing a cadaver’s decomposition to interest readers) provide a good example of the first; fairy tales comprise a classic example of the second; pornography is an extreme example of the third; and some examples of the fourth are: the Asterix comic-books, the cartoons, Gila‘s shows, Chespirito’s (Roberto Gómez Bolaños) programs, or the 19th century “comedies of manners” by the Hermanos Álvarez Quintero (the Alvarez Quintero brothers).

[In 2011, 16 years after this article was first published, the communications media are also exploiting cognitive devices ─rather than literary ones─, that generate such high levels of stress (oppression, anguish and anxiety) in their public, that they may well ultimately destroy the media source and the program using them. A prototypical example is the US television series 24 (24 hours in the life of Jack Bauer in Wikipedia),  that immerses viewers in a succession of extremely serious situations, often life-and-death ─all about to explode; and which never provides us with all the information about what is happening despite the severity of what is being narrated ─the cameras don’t even show complete scenes, in addition to the fact that the camera brings us into them “in media res” (in progress), without showing us how the crisis situations arose, in order to increase vulnerability and anguish in viewers─.

What’s more: When one of these situations is resolved, they automatically start one ─or more─ new “narrative lines”, equally anxiety-producing, in order to maintain the cognitive arrest generated in the public, with its corresponding physiological sensations (check out your pulse, etc., before, during and after viewing it). This generates such a high level of stress, that the viewer cannot stop watching… ─but not because he/she’s enjoying him/herself, but rather because he/she’s suffering─. And when the program ends, in fact, most people feel relieved, not dreamy, happy or delighted…]


Returning to the topic at hand, that of morbidity as a narrative “hook” with short term impact:  What are the disadvantages of resorting to it…?

Let’s look at a few examples:

a.1) Nowadays [that is: 1994-1995, when this article was originally published] Mexican children still listened to songs by “Cri-Crí”, eight times as often as those by Gloria Trevi, in spite of the fact Trevi was then enjoying her greatest success (“And Cri-Crí is Still Number 1”; Reforma, October 15, 1994) ─inoffensive contents, as a general rule tend to be, not only those that sell the most, but also “longsellers”: those that remain on the market for a long time─.

a.2) People don’t like Madonna anymore, and so her record company is in financial trouble (‘The Objectified Woman’: Companies worried about over-the-top Madonna‘s declining popularity”; “El Heraldo de México”, May 4, 1994) ─the enormous investments made to launch and then maintain her on the market, in fact, weren’t recovered by her patronizers; and while they lost fortunes, she kept on, changing investors…─.

a.3) Gloria Trevi’s new calendar, sold only 10 % of the copies printed (“Celebrities”; “El Heraldo de México”, January 21, 1995) ─and that was before the scandal broke about how she and her manager lured in young girls with promises to launch their singing careers, only to exploit them in extreme ways─.

a.4) In November of 1994, 39 % of the films people chose to watch on pay television, were Mexican ─most of them old, including the Cantinflas series─; that is: not new films, and not “adult” films─ (“Cultural Consumption in Mexico City”; “Reforma”, February 15, 1995). [for more up to date information, including Spain and the United States, see “El Misterio del espectador perdido” (The Mystery of the Missing Spectators).

Let’s look at an even more clear example: The third version of “Corazón salvaje(Wild Heart) ─the one starring Edith González and , r.i.p.─, captured the public’s attention during the first thirty episodes [we aren’t referring to the strange hybrid version by the same name, but far less successful, aired in 2009-2010]─ .

In spite of the diminishing quality of “Corazón salvaje’s” most successful version, a large part of the public watched it through to the end and continued to speak highly of it. They managed this due to the evocative power of the first episodes, able to make viewers dream ─to draw/take/transport them in to the work’s fictional world; that is: using the ability to instill the viewers with hopeful anticipation. Its evocative power was easily measured: The day’s episode ended, and people remained seated in front of their televisions without turning them off ─as though waiting for the show to go on─; after a few days, people still thought about the episode, and more importantly, they talked about it amongst themselves. This steadily increased the work’s audience (in spite of the absurd time slot), and reinforced its message, establishing a bond of loyalty between the creators and the receivers.

For a work with morbid contents to achieve comparable impact, we would have to resort to extreme transgression, and we would have to do so in an extremely graphic, crude and detailed way. But just attempting it, would be enormously risky. For instance:

b.1) It’s likely that people, feeling attacked, would reject the work without even giving it a chance ─How many people in our country watched “Natural Born Killers”, for example…? Or “El crimen del P.Amaro” (The Crime of Father Amaro), to give a more recent example…? In fact, to get “anybody” in Mexico to go to see the latter, even just at one of the few theaters in the few cities where it found an audience, they had to show it, either to empty theaters for longer than was commercially viable, or for free at a few theaters (The Bucareli Cinema and The Hollywood, in the Federal District, for example).]

b.2) The people who did “receive” the work, and experienced its tremendous impact, wouldn’t want to think about it later, nor would they be interested in any “products” related to it ─much less any other works by the same author─, and

b.3) they wouldn’t talk about it with others, unless it were in order to recommend not going to see it.

In business terms, these constitute three obvious disadvantages. And not only in a strictly business sense, since ultimately all creatives hope to communicate with their audiences: If they reject them, why go on writing?


Note added in 2012:

Furthermore: For such a work, to attract the attention of the majority, it would have to resort to a number of “cultural authorities” ─to get everybody talking about it, as well as to a massive propaganda program ─almost staged─ in all communications media. And even so, this would only work with a truly extraordinary text, due to its intrinsically/biologically unpleasant nature.

We have a recent example of this (2005-2012): The Millenium trilogy by , which ─as Mario Vargas Llosa stated, in his review dated September 6, 2009, in “El País”─ shows Sweden, and today’s world in general, “as branches of hell, where judges prevaricate, psychiatrists torture, police and spies commit crimes, politicians lie, businessmen defraud, and both institutions and the establishment in general, appear to be trapped in a [tremendous and deep-rooted] pandemic of corruption”, with no hope of finding any solutions or relief. And besides, it is as Vargas Llosa himself says “a novel (that is) […] formally flawed, [although] exceptional…” How can one not be surprised, then, that the author begins his review with the following extreme panegyric?: “I read ‘Millennium’ with the feverish excitement and happiness with which I read Dumas and Dickens as a boy. Fantastic. This trilogy secretly comforts us. [!!!] Perhaps all is not lost [!!!] in this flawed world”…

The fact that many people have read it proves that, not only does the general public have less and less faith in institutions ─as shown in the saga; but also that an extremely expensive, well designed propaganda campaign, still works ─although less and less so, and at increasing expense─. But it works while continuously eroding the credibility of the communications media, the “cultural authorities”, and the aggressive marketing strategies required to promote …a work that is so painful to read. Using them to promote products of this kind, only gets in the way of the institutional and financial recovery of cultural industries, and the figures related to them.


Let’s compare today’s films with the “racy” ones the Torreon ranchers (Coahuila, Mexico) watched on Saturday nights ─at the Pathè cinema─ back in 1934 (for 40 cents!). Those “daring” “pornographic” films seem innocent to us today. Nevertheless, the ranchers’ excitement was comparable to what we can observe today at adult movie theaters. Thus, the actress’ bare ankles did not excite the men, but rather the transgression of socially accepted boundaries did. Therefore, in spite of the gradual liberalization of censorship in our country (in terms of language, sexual and violent contents, not agendas), the numbers of viewers at adult movie theaters have not increased very much (according to the employees); and many theaters have even closed down. In fact, and in contrast to what is commonly thought, pornographic film production companies, which do indeed crop up continuously all over the place, usually experience financial failure at an even faster rate


This clearly indicates that:

  • Firstly, morbidity draws attention, precisely because it exploits the forbidden (no prohibition, no attention…); and
  • secondly, that merely getting people’s attention is no guarantee of their enjoyment or the producers’ financial success.


But, why is this so?

Every society, all human groups, establish a series of rules by which their members may coexist. The transgression of any of these limitations, immediately gets the attention of the other group members ─this is how it works as a “hook”. Bearing in mind the sociological assumption that societies tend to self-regulate, the boomerang effect is easily explained, as well as proven. After just over ten years, Italy, a pioneer in exploiting morbidity in the “commercial arts” (including advertising), was forced to reverse the tendency. Today [1995], the “cleanest” photo-novels/photo-books I’ve ever seen, are published in Italy. And this happened for three reasons:

c.1) because the publishers and production companies steadily lost their most capable employees, as each one’s personal limits were reached and then surpassed;

c.2) because in the same way, they reached and then surpassed their large public’s limits, who ultimately stopped buying the products; and

c.3) because morbidity desensitizes the public ─which is why, in fact, they had to commit increasingly salacious transgressions to continue to stir public interest─

(cfr. amongst many other sources, the following three articles…

Regarding the impact on adults:

° Linz, D. G., , and S. Penrod; “Effects of long term exposure to violent and sexually degrading depictions of women”; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55 (5), pp. 758-768;

° Thomas et al; “Desensitization to portrayals of real-life aggression as a function of exposure to television violence”; Journal of Personality and Social Psycology, 35 (6), pp. 450-458;

and regarding the impact on children:

° Cline et al; “Desensitization of children to television violence”; Journal of Personality and Social Psycology, 27(3), pp. 360-365).


Morbid contents desensitize their receivers, since the more often transgressions are shown to us, the more “normal” they appear to us ─the more they …cease to call our attention─. That is: The “hook” is no longer a “hook”, since it no longer piques people’s interest.

In itself, even if morbidity didn’t present any other problems, this alone leaves it out of the running as a market tool: By forcing users to continuously broaden the limitations on acceptability, there is ultimately nothing left to show. When everything becomes acceptable, nothing is a transgression any longer; and the media therefore are left without these “hooks”.


Regardless of all this, morbidity is a lazy device used by poor writers, poor directors, poor actors ─poor creatives. Let’s admit it: Using suspense and hopeful anticipation (especially this one), to trap people, is a challenge few creatives ─elite or popular─ can rise to.

And to trap people with humour ─with a healthy chuckle─ [note added in 2012], one has to at least be a genius!



Source of illustration: Bank of images DreamsTime.com




Blanca de Lizaur;  “Alguna vez se han puesto a pensar…, ¿en qué consiste el ?” (“Have you ever wondered…, what “morbid” contents are (what does morbidity consist of)?”), Humanidades-UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) # 101 [1995], pages 3 and 9.

Currently available… (current repository):  http://www.bettermedia.org


This article was cited by:

Mª Pilar Lema Quintana; “El morbo: ¿Sólo atracción malsana? Análisis de su conceptualización en dos culturas” (Morbidity: Only Unhealthy Interest? Analysis of its Conceptualization in two Cultures), in “Espejismo” (Mirage) (on-line magazine by students, graduates and professors at the Department of Spanish Language and Literature, in Poznań, Poland), in 2006: http://www.espejismo.republika.pl/morbo2.html#_ftn1

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About Blanca de Lizaur, PhD, MA, BA