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Yes it's normal to look – but also to look away

We find it hard to resist sensational headlines. But when we cross the fine line between curiosity and prurience, we claim it is for educational reasons

How interested are you in the case of the three girls who were abducted in Cleveland, Ohio? What details do you want to know? Were they tortured? Were they raped? If they were raped, in what way, and how often? What kind of torture?

As these question form in my mind, I have a sense of discomfort. Because I am aware that I am interested in the answers – up to a point. I am, in short, prurient. In this, I am strictly mainstream. A glance at the queues outside the London Dungeon or Ridley's Believe It Or Not museum testifies to that.

Prurience, strictly speaking is "having an unhealthy obsession with sexual matters" (OED), but the popular wider definition includes a dark curiosity about anything dark or grisly – death or murder in particular. It is hardly a new phenomenon – the Penny Dreadfuls and the Police Gazette of the 19th century were harbingers, as was the fascination with Jack the Ripper. Before that, hangings passed as public entertainment.

Prurience is not so much an aberration as an everyday part of everyone's psyche, and inextricably wrapped up with a natural curiosity and eagerness to know. Certain manifestations of it could be considered healthy. To watch footage, as I remember doing, fascinated as a teenager, of corpses at Auschwitz being bulldozed into mass graves, made an impression on me that was, finally, moral. I have never forgotten that image and its horror – or its lessons.

Yet interest in Auschwitz, or any other kind of mass murder, is not so far from prurience. We consider it "educational", but it is also a dressing up of a morbid fascination that infects us all, as it does with sex. Interestingly, the root of the word "prurient" comes from the same as the verb "to itch" (hence the skin complaint pruritus). It also shares etymological roots with "to dig", (as in digging up the dirt). It is an itch, then, to go under the surface of things.

This is present all the time in popular culture, and needs no further elaboration. But is the so-called enlightened consumer of media any different? Is an Independent on Sunday reader of reports about Amanda Berry and her co-captives, different from someone reading the same story in the Daily Star? Perhaps we dress up our dark impulses as educational in order to sanitise them. The Daily Star reader is merely less hypocritical. Similarly, our intrusion into the privacy of victims is limited only by law and our own capacity for self-restraint.

Pop psychology would hold that the thing that obsesses about dark acts is an urge within ourselves to do the same thing – just as watching pornography is an exercise in wish fulfilment. This I find hard to believe – I'm not convinced that there's a secret part of me that wants to abduct and rape young girls – but then I would find it hard to believe, wouldn't I? Many psychoanalysts would consider that I was simply in denial about my Jungian "shadow".

After all, I, too, will slow down to rubberneck the car crash, in the secret hope of seeing some novel horror. If do see something ghastly, I am unlikely to announce my delight in this primal desire being fulfilled – I will rather profess revulsion and pity and sympathy. These may be present too, of course – but they do not eradicate the attendant delight and fascination in the spectacle in and of itself.

The issue of prurience is examined in Wendy Lesser's book Pictures at an Execution, which examines our fascination for murder. She makes a distinction between an aesthetic fascination in prurience and prurience itself, remarking that "art is obliged to be especially interested in prurience, since prurience is a disease of the imagination. Prurience is not unimaginativeness, a failure of the imagination, but a corrupt success of it."

The writer Janet Malcolm, quoted in the Lesser book, continues that prurience is "the avid interest of some of us of being insiders or getting the inside view of things". I think that is close to the truth. In that sense, prurience is not that different to pulling the wings off flies to see how they are made, or those gynaecological images on porn sites. Lesser continues: "We want to be inside, but also removed, fully involved by being safely hidden, getting the experience through a protective wall of glass or a television screen."

I published a novel, The Seymour Tapes, in 2005 about voyeurism – which is merely a rarefied version of prurience. In this, the protagonist starts, prompted by a female voyeur who sells surveillance equipment, to secretly watch his family – including images of his teenage daughter making out with her boyfriend. Eventually, his supplier of fantasy equipment becomes obsessed with him – and eventually ends up flaying him, in order to "see inside". This for me was the logical end of extreme prurience.

The Amanda Berry story has more than the normal elements of prurience – it also conforms to a certain mythology that satisfies us at the same time as it repels. Amanda, simply by escaping her fate, has already been dubbed a heroine, although she was simply screaming her head off.

The story also confirms the ultimate triumph of good over evil, of life over death, and the power of justice, which now will come to Ariel Castro and result inevitably in his incarceration (and, we hope, his remorse and regret). This is the other function of prurience. We need to pore over acts of evil in order to define ourselves as good. But the irony, of course, is that in doing so we are providing sustenance for the very forces that we seek to deny.

The spectrum of myth/healthy interest/morbid interest operates throughout this story, as in a way it does in all dark news stories – and it's no coincidence that most news stories are dark. Many of these stories are of "legitimate interest" as they say – but legitimate interest is legitimate only so long as it is limited. You need, as it were, a gag reflex to be operative.

I have always been a fan of murder narratives, such at the Capote and the Mailer books. However An Evil Love, the story of Fred and Rosemary West, by Geoffrey Wansell, I found so repulsive in its style and content that I could not get further than the first few chapters. I clearly found limits to my own prurience.

The world would be infinitely duller – or at least less trivial – without news of horrors and depravities to absorb us. After all, where would gossip be without prurience? But prurience is the difference between the alcoholic and the social drinker. The prurient personality is not subject to a disease of the liver, but a disease of the soul, that will leave the sufferer not with hardened cells but anaesthetized responses to the world.

For prurience can be dangerous. Howard Brodie, the sketch artist, wrote about his recording of the last execution in a gas chamber in California, noting that the experience was "the most dehumanizing memory of my life".

It is my instinct that the smaller and more inadequate a mind is, the more it tends towards prurience. But perhaps the corollary is also true – that the more the mind tends towards prurience, the smaller and more inadequate it becomes.

To be morbidly fascinated occasionally is a guilty pleasure, but to seek out morbid fascination compulsively is a sickness that will rot you from the inside – not in a physical cellar like the Castro victims, but in the dank basement of your own imagination.

Tim Lott's new novel, 'How to Be Invisible', is published by Walker Books on 6 June