Fast and Furiously, Why We Love Exploding Cars


Why do we love high speed and exploding cars so much?

Fast & Furious 6,” starring Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, earned a projected $98.5 million in domestic release so far this weekend, and will $122.2 million by Memorial Day.

“Hangover” only brought in $42.4 million and will skid to a halt at $52 million for the weekend.

In “Furious,” Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel lead a team in London against the threat of deadly device called the “Night Shade.  “Hangover” sends Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis back to Las Vegas.

OK. First of all, do cars that flip over or hit a highway overpass support really blow up?  Nope.  Cars run on gasoline, which is flammable but not explosive unless it was vaporized and mixed with air in a certain ratio.  A car crash would just cause a small fire.  And auto collisions are ordinary.  Mangled front ends don’t thrill us.  Smash-ups annoy us by causing traffic to back up by having to drive around them.  More irritating is when we end up in the lane where the befuddled participants are exchanging insurance cards, and no one will let us into the adjacent lane.  Most irritating is when we hit someone or someone hits us.  By “us” I mean our cars, but we merge the two.  If we’re lucky, we’ll just have adjusters and/or tow trucks to deal with, not lifelong injury.

Of course, really horrendous accidents are enticing.  We all slow down, or want to, as we observe crushed cars in the gully by the highway.  If there is an ambulance present, we try to pick out a body being dragged from a vehicle.  But the accompanying feelings are more like curiosity or shock than excitement.

The common belief is that action movies trigger adrenaline.  Adrenaline is a hormone that prepares the body to defend itself or to run, i.e., “fight or flight,” by increasing heart rate and blood flow.  People in danger experience that.  So do athletes, who desire it to give them an edge.  One method of controlling adrenaline flow, which can jeopardize the heart, is to relive a stressful situation—sight, hearing, smells, tactile sensations—and get yourself “psyched” by forcing air through your mouth and nose and making grunting noises.

But even if adrenaline flow was the reason we like explosions, we don’t want to fend it off.  We wouldn’t want to grunt or do deep-breathing exercises in a movie theater.

Adrenaline junkies are not the same as risk takers.  When a threat has passed, we lose the adrenaline.  Risk takers don’t lose their edge.  Most people progressively lose their drive as danger increases.  Danger motivates thrill seekers.

So adrenaline doesn’t explain why some people are explorers.  That group includes scientists researching dangerous diseases and entrepreneur’s backing new ventures, as well as deep sea divers, mountaineers and tightrope walkers.  It’s dopamine, the neurotransmitter that inspires us to seek out the new, and rewards us when we accomplish something difficult or treacherous. Molecules which lay on top of brain cells and are called “autoreceptors” determine how much risk we desire.  Fewer autoreceptors let more dopamine flow.  So dopamine is like gas.  Maybe that’s why advertisers like to describe action films as “high octane.” But dopamine may also be likened to turbocharged engines.  The cars, as well as the drivers, have a lot of horsepower and rapid acceleration.

The dopamine volume is not the same for everyone.  People who enjoy life and death situations may have been genetically blessed.  They represent a pretty small percentage of the population.

Psychologists have determined that our brain processes are the same whether we do something or visualize doing it.  Brain scans of people utilizing a skill and  those that imagine the utilization of it are identical.  The people that meditate on an action actually do better at it.  A study of basketball players showed that the group that visualized free throws, for example, showed significant improvement over players that just practiced.  A violinist and composer bettered her ability to write music by playing Pachelbel’s Canon in her head every night.  A kind of combination of thinking and doing may be pilots in simulators, soldiers in drills and paratroopers doing practice run.  They are all aware that it isn’t the real thing, but they respond as if it is.

In the movie theater, we’re visualizing instead of doing.  We get to drive fast, swerve around trucks, flip in the air over roadblocks, swerve, spin and roar through tunnels, all the while firing automatic weapons out of windows, through the windshield or clinging to the roof.  You may not have the reflexes, the skill or the experience to drive a fast car, and you may not have any idea how to use a gun.  But, of course, you have actors and stunt people doing it all for you.

Perhaps the appetite for destruction draws on our thanatos or death wish, which psychoanalysts believe is intrinsic to every human psyche, especially the psyches of daredevils.  But there is also a characteristic in us called schadenfreude, the relief we feel when something bad happens to someone else and not us.  So there may be a yearning for suicide within us, but we’d rather see is played out by risk-takers on screen than deal with it ourselves.  We like to watch crap blowing up because we’re not next to it, or in it.

We know about how watching violent movies makes us violent.  In one study, students seeing violent movies got hostile with those conducting the experiments.  Prolonged exposure to gratuitously violent films seems to escalate hostility in response to provocation.  People exposed to “gratuitous” violence (is there any other kind?) were more willing to use violence as a means of resolving disagreements.  This cause and effect applied to both male and female subjects.  And the effects of these films were not short-lived either.  They lasted a lot longert than researchers thought they would.  But then violent video games are supposed to desensitize us to violence.  So which is it?  Do we get more revved up or slowed down by watching violence?  We’re already numbed by poverty and illness and depredation in the world.  We are initially both horrified and fascinated by the Boston marathon massacre, but we can do nothing about it, so we forget.  We habituate ourselves to tragedy and death.  We close up, focus on our loved ones and our jobs, distract and intoxicate ourselves, and imagine winning the lottery.  Lack of sufficient dopamine in our brains makes up apathetic.  It takes away our motivation.   Motivation is what drives explorers, and keeps the  rest of us at home.

But for a while, watching a bright screen in a dark room, we do feel motivated.  We feel a bond with the characters, we care about whether or not they’ll get hurt.  And we love to see the bad guys get theirs.  The villan’s car blows up and we think “Yeah!” or maybe even shout it.

Anyway, movie producers know that “crash and burn” brings in moviegoers.  That’s why “Fast and Furious” earns twice as much as the bronze medalist, “Hangover.” “Furious” pulls in more than teenagers (or sponsored preteens).  It has to, for it to earn such high numbers.  A lot of us want to experience fast action, while doing nothing.  It’s a reality that keep producers repackaging the same scenes into star-studded sequels with serviceable or nonexistent plots.

And no acting skills are required.





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