TikTok’s love of crime scene cleanup is bloody complicated
The expression “Dracula chic” could well describe the music on hold of Sadie Marshall’s company. Exaggerated organ music greets a caller from Sadie’s Pro Cleaning, who then receives various extensions that cover services such as “biohazardous raw sewage”, “animal hoarding”, “radical insect infestation and “elimination of disgusting odors”. And, of course, the set I was composing it for: murder, suicide, unattended death, and crime scene cleanup.
To be clear, I didn’t need his services. Marshall’s company, which offers services in Connecticut and Florida, is one of hundreds of private crime scene cleanup companies across the country. But unlike most of their competitors, Sadie’s Pro Cleaning has become an unexpected household name.
“Almost 80 million people on TikTok know who I am,” Marshall proudly told The Daily Beast. Sadie’s Pro Cleaning has over 500,000 subscribers on the platform, and the company has been featured in an A&E reality series that has touched countless others.
Meet the companies trying to be the Uber of funerals
“Have you ever touched death flies?” reads text on a video, as the punchy bassline of Icona Pop’s “I Love It” blares. A figure in a yellow jumpsuit with black rubber gloves brushes mountains of black pupae with a broom, lifting handles to share them in front of the camera. (Lethal flies, by the way, can be blow flies, flesh flies, or other types of flies, gnats, and beetles.)
These videos found a place on TikTok (and before that on Instagram) despite vague content moderation policies condemning violence and gore. Even when these videos are tagged as sensitive content on TikTok, they still rack up hundreds of thousands of views, both from people who stumble upon them or actively search for them.
Marshall, predictably, doesn’t see the content she shares as bloody gratuitously. “To me, honestly, it’s educational,” she said. “People really want to know more about this industry. And every reputable company should have a digital wallet.
“People are dying every day. There are a lot of people in America dying on their own for whatever reason — heart attack, diabetes, they swallow their own saliva, or they don’t live on their own,” Marshall said, using the TikTok lingo for suicide.
An understanding of internet ephemera and psychology may help explain TikTok’s fascination with corpse-cleaning content: science suggests that their popularity depends on a combination of humans’ natural curiosity about death and death. a fight or flight response that interrupts doomscrolling.
TikTok crime scene cleanup falls at the center of a few viral subcultures on the platform. In one corner is CleanTok, where the appeal comes from satisfying before and after shots and a healthy dose of ASMR thrown in for good measure. True Crime TikTok – where armchair sleuths watch and chat under the guise of “solving mysteries” – also plays a part in the appeal. And, finally, horror fandoms, whose videos are full of jump scares and cosplay gore paying homage to characters from popular video game and movie franchises.
What is horror and death do for us psychologically speaking, however? Despite its social and economic impact, morbid curiosity is an understudied phenomenon, but the research that does exist provides insight into why we’re so obsessed with blood and gore.
Suzanne Oosterwijk, a researcher in social psychology at the University of Amsterdam, devotes much of her research to the foundations of morbid curiosity. In a study published in Plos ONE, she gave dozens of university students 60 different choices of paired images related to nature, social and physical categories. (For example, a physical threat included an image of a person having their hair pulled with their arms behind their back, a natural threat included an image of a gaping great white shark, and a neutral image consisted of a group footballers.)
After showing the two images as thumbnails for two seconds, students were then asked to choose one to look in-depth. For the most part, the students in the study chose to focus on negative social images rather than neutral images, but opted for neutral physical and natural images instead of their negative counterparts.
“Participants did not consistently avoid images depicting death, violence, or evil, but instead chose to explore some of them,” Oosterwijk wrote in the study. One theory behind the observed morbid curiosity of participants is that they are unconsciously seeking information. “[P]People can explore stimuli that depict death, violence, or evil, as this gives them helpful footholds to deal with future negative situations.
A 2020 follow-up study published in Scientific reports seems to confirm these conclusions. Using brain scanning technology, Oosterwijk and a team discovered that reward centers in the brain were triggered when viewing negative images, compared to neutral and positive images. Morbid curiosity may represent a conflict in the brain – choosing to see something it “wants” but “dislikes,” the study authors write.
Other research found that unpleasant movies generate “freezing responses” when shown to people, measured by reduced heart rates and body sways. Freezing responses can cause literal immobility, preventing the viewer’s eyes from fixing on a screen and preventing their thumb from moving to the next video. A preference for horror can also develop during childhood and adolescence, just as people connect to social media sites and create communities there.
But for some, watching horror doesn’t have to be horrible. According to the findings of a study, morbid curiosity could have helped individuals prepare and educate themselves during the Covid-19 pandemic. Coltan Scrivner, a morbid curiosity scientist and author of the study, has written elsewhere that morbid curiosity may actually be a beneficial trait that some people exploit to learn and prepare for dangerous or gross threats.
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Death is clearly the ultimate and inevitable threat. Our brain learns to face our fears by confronting and preparing for them, watching what happens next in the realm of the living and from the comfort of our screens. Watching videos of crime scenes, unattended deaths, and even disgusting smell removals is, for many of us, a test of what will happen to all of us one day.
That’s a good point, but technically, the focus of crime scene cleanup videos is often not so much death and decay as the cleaning process. Is it possible that people are afraid – and by association fascinated – of having to deal with human remains? Marshall said it’s more common than you might think.
“If you look at the comments under my posts, you’ll see it left and right: a lot of people have had to clean up the death scenes of their loved ones without any formal training,” she said. “I can’t even imagine having to do this without the proper tools, training, or PPE.”
This story is part of a series on death innovation – how research and technology are changing the way we lay the deceased to rest, how we mourn, and how we perceive death in the future. Read the other stories here:
People turn to the “black mirror” to bring back the dead
Meet the companies trying to be the Uber of funerals
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