It’s a dirty job—but someone’s got to do it.
The phrase “Dracula chic” could accurately describe the hold music of Sadie Marshall’s company. Over-the-top organ music greets a caller to Sadie’s Pro Cleaning, who is then given various extensions that cover services including “biohazard raw sewage,” “animal hoarding,” “radical bug infestation,” and “disgusting smell removal.” And, of course, the extension I was dialing her for: murder, suicide, unattended death, and crime scene cleanup.
To be clear, I was not in need of her services. Marshall’s company, which offers services in Connecticut and Florida, is one of hundreds of private crime scene cleanup firms 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 followers on the platform, and the business was featured in a reality series on A&E that reached countless more.
“Have you ever touched death flies?” reads the text on one video, as the thumping bassline of Icona Pop’s “I Love It” blares on. A figure in a yellow hazmat suit with black rubber gloves brushes mountains of black pupae with a broom, lifting up handfuls of them to share on camera. (Death flies, by the way, may be blowflies, flesh flies, or other types of flies, gnats, and beetles.)
These videos have found a home on TikTok (and before it Instagram) in spite of vague content moderation policies condemning violence and gore. Even when these videos are labeled as sensitive content on TikTok, they still rack up hundreds of thousands of views—both from people who stumble upon them or those who actively seek them out.
Marshall, predictably, doesn’t see the content she shares as gratuitously gory. “To me, honestly, it’s educational,” she said. “People really want to know about this industry. And every reputable business should have a digital portfolio.”
“People die everyday. There’s a lot of people in America who die by themselves, from whatever reason—heart attack, diabetes, they swallow their own spit, or they unalive themselves,” Marshall said, using TikTok lingo for suicide.
An understanding of internet ephemera and psychology can help explain TikTok’s fascination with dead body cleanup content: Science suggests their popularity hinges on a combination of humans’ natural curiosity about death, and a fight-or-flight response that interrupts doomscrolling.
Crime scene cleanup TikTok falls at the center of a few viral subcultures on the platform. In one corner, there’s 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 detectives gawk and gossip under the guise of “solving mysteries”—plays a role in the appeal, too. And, finally, horror fandoms, whose videos are full of jump scares and cosplay gore as homage to characters from popular video game and movie franchises.
What does horror and death do for us psychologically speaking, though? Despite its social and economic impact, morbid curiosity is an understudied phenomenon—but what research there is gives some indication into why we’re so blood and gore obsessed.
Suzanne Oosterwijk, a social psychology researcher at the University of Amsterdam, devotes much of her research into the underpinnings of morbid curiosity. In one 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 great white shark with its mouth agape, and a neutral image consisted of a football huddle.)
Once shown the two images as thumbnails for two seconds, the students were then asked to choose one to look at in depth. Most of the time, the students in the study chose to focus on negative social images over neutral ones, but opted for neutral physical and nature images instead of their negative counterparts.
“Participants did not consistently avoid images portraying death, violence or harm, but instead chose to explore some of them,” Oosterwijk wrote in the study. One theory behind participants’ observed morbid curiosity is that they are subconsciously seeking information. “[P]eople may explore stimuli that portray death, violence or harm because it gives them handholds that are useful in dealing with future negative situations.”
A 2020 follow-up study published in Scientific Reports seems to support these findings. Using brain scanning technology, Oosterwijk and a team found that reward centers in the brain were triggered when viewing negative images, when compared to neutral and positive ones. Morbid curiosity may represent a conflict in the brain—choosing to see something it “wants” but doesn’t “like,” the study’s authors wrote.
Other research has revealed that unpleasant films generate “freezing responses” when shown to people, measured by reduced heart rates and body swaying. Freezing responses can cause literal immobility, keeping a viewer’s eyes glued to a screen and their thumb from swiping to the next video. A preference for horror may also develop during childhood and adolescence, right when people are logging on to social media sites and building communities therein.
But for some, watching horror doesn’t have to be horrible. Being morbidly curious might have helped individuals prepare and educate themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the findings of one study. Coltan Scrivner, a morbid-curiosity scientist and the study’s author, wrote elsewhere that morbid curiosity may in fact be a beneficial trait that some people harness to learn and prepare for dangerous or disgusting threats.
Death, clearly, is the ultimate and unavoidable threat. Our brains learn to face our fears by confronting and preparing for them, by 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 are, for many of us, a test run of what will come for us all someday.
It’s a fine point, but technically, the focus of crime scene cleanup videos is often not death and decay so much as the process of cleaning it up. Is there any way that people are fearful of—and by association, fascinated by—having to deal with human remains? Marshall said it’s more common than you’d 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 their loved ones’ death scenes without any formal training,” she said. “I just can't even imagine having to do that without the proper tools, training, or PPE.”
This story is part of a series on the innovation of death—how research and technology is changing the way we put the deceased to rest, how we grieve, and how we perceive death moving forward. Read the other stories here:
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