The Strange Calm of Car Crash Compilation Videos

I have been watching a lot of very easily bingeable media and one thing I really like are compilation videos: they can be hours long and I don’t have to skip around and they provide consistent noise; something I need while working either at my day job or the myriad of other projects I’m a part of. What I didn’t expect was that I’d find a very strange sort of serenity in watching the world at its most chaotic: during car crashes.

There are countless hours of dashcam footage from cars all over the world. Some of it records aliens, meteors, space launches, ghosts and most importantly: car crashes. Car crashes scare the hell out of me; like most people, realistically. I’ve been in a few accidents but very few actual crashes, to which I know I am quite fortunate but my anxiety around cars has stemmed from a pretty nasty accident I got into when I was just starting to drive. I’ve never felt entirely safe or secure in the car, especially if I’m driving; it’s still one of my least favorite things to do. I much rather be a passenger and let someone else do the driving. I never found it freeing, relaxing or anything; it’s always been a chore to take up with a sacred solidarity because as someone operating a car, you are in fact in control of a two-ton death cage careening at high speed. When I was in driver’s education, the deadly aspect of driving was really hammered home and that’s a fear I’ve taken with me some 15 years later. And to be perfectly honest, dash cam culture is a fascinating look into people who trust no one (valid) and record everything; sparking some interesting conversations about surveillance culture, consent to be filmed and just what is one to do with literal hours of footage.

But in my hunt for content that I rarely need to engage with as a means to minimize distractions in a world full of them, I’ve found dashcam footage from car crashes, brake checks, road ragers and more and; well, let’s talk about it. 

Car crashes are horrifying but much like train crashes; it’s hard to look away. A mangle of metal, a tangle of tires, a barrage of bumpers. It’s all a horrid and profane symphony and honestly, some of them are just beautiful. The force required to turn a car into a crushed soda can is immense but also can be so random. I’ve watched hours of crash content and the things that have caused accidents are vast and capricious: just like the things that can endanger real human life as well. 

I noticed something odd, though, when I would watch these crashes often during hours-long segments as some means of horrible crunching white noise: I would relax. My body would ease, sag into the sofa, I would become at ease and let out a held breath. I could finally be rid of the tension held in my shoulders and just let a small wave of endorphins and calm crash over me. I could finally relax and it immediately caused a dissonant type of concern for my brain chemistry and my sanity once I came back to my senses. When I realized that such a thought process was not only not normal but also a little worrying, I started to examine just what about literal disasters was so damn soothing to my anxious brain. And that was the key; there it was: my anxious brain. 

Anxiety is a perversion of the brain’s typical defense system and desire to shield our flesh prisons from danger. The world is a scary place and if you think of our ancient ancestors, the upright apes, they were surrounded by threats to their lives from literal giant eagles to sabertooth cats and direwolves. Being anxious and weary of the world around them was a vital aspect to survival; it was the unwise that ran ahead into the option field that got yoinked out of existence by a giant bird. Anxiety is a fear of the unknown in every facet of the word and a sense of dread about a threat that one cannot see or feel yet. It’s being on edge about the car that could hit you or the person that could kidnap you. It’s the call that might be about the death of yet another family member or the fear that one mistake at work will end your entire career and leave you homeless and destitute. That’s what it’s like living with anxiety; it’s all build up with no climax, it’s constantly living on a razor’s edge waiting to finally fall and never actually falling. 

I’ve been honest about my struggle with depression and generalized anxiety and I realize now, I’ve had this condition for most of my life. There’s something about facing loss and grief so early in your years and experiencing trauma that leaves the mind on edge and hypervigilant. My mind is always assuming that if only and if I had just would be enough and could have in fact changed the directory of my existence despite the futility of such thinking.  

That’s why car crash videos felt so good to my brain that is already constantly braced for impact and prepared for the collision of metal and flesh. My brain finally registers that the crash has happened and I can finally let go of my breath and relax. Once I’m free from the fear of the crash coming I can then move on and process the rest of the trauma. In this instance, with just videos, I can come back down and recognize the damage done and gawk or gasp accordingly. 

I did talk to my therapist about this and he mentioned wanting to see the dopamine release that clearly I’m getting from this via MRI and I agree with him. I’d also love to see the obvious chemical reaction I’m getting from watching literal car crashes. I’m sure it’s likely a little scary to admit but so is living with general anxiety.