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Hoarders: Why We Love Them

March 23, 2010

For those of you who are not obsessed with incredibly depressing reality television shows, let me introduce you to a new one that just hit the airwaves…”Hoarding: Buried Alive” on TLC. This show is new to TLC but the concept, and the format, are not new to television. A&E has a show called “Hoarders” which was a spinoff from their show on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) aptly named “Obsessed.” All of these shows, as well as the shows about drug and alcohol addictions – “Intervention” and “Addicted” – tell the true stories of individuals whose lives are focused on a self-destructing behavior, from collecting knick-knacks that eventually force people to buy a second home just to have space to breathe, to people who shoot up so much heroin their veins harden in protest.

And man do we LOVE to watch them. Why else would TLC pick up similar shows – and their format, there is hardly any new spin – than people were watching in droves? And many of the fans are probably addicted too. “Intervention” used to begin with the addict saying and spelling their own name then listing their drugs of choice. On forums discussing the show the same joke shows up over and over again: “My name is James, J-A-M-E-S, and I’m addicted to Intervention.”

Here’s the question: WHY are people such fans of these shows?

First, I think that these shows highlight how many families deal with these issues and have to keep quiet about them. Often there is an unsaid rule to never talk about your strung out sister, your alcoholic parent, or your “weird” aunt who seems to like being surrounded by trash. These shows make viewers going through these issues feel less alone, and more empowered to do something about the problem.

Second though is that misery loves company. I’m not saying that fans of these shows (myself included) are mentally unstable or are at risk for becoming self-destructive. But there is an element that binds these shows together: the individual is trying to avoid thinking about something, or dealing with the negative emotions that come with the thinking about the something. From the worst offenses – being molested, raped, abused – to the more common – losing a job, the death of a loved one, a divorce – to the uncontrollable – accidents, natural disasters, etc. So instead of thinking about those things, people think about other things or find a way to live that makes those worries meaningless. If your entire goal is to make $100 a day to keep up your heroin addiction there is no time or mental space available to think about whatever it is that drove you to use in the first place. Hoarders are able to lose themselves in the endless possibilities that come with the things they hoard, or the memories that they psychologically bind with the objects from their past.

These people are psychological escape artists.

Fans, it seems, also want to get away. One friend of mine (N) claimed “Sometimes when I’ve had a bad day, I just like to watch someone else who has it WAY worse.” Getting away in our minds is a coping mechanism for stress. That’s what distractions and hobbies are for right? So when we want to get away, and we get to watch someone else getting away, we feel on a gut level what that instinct is like and we’re drawn to it. But most of us are able to go back to whatever it is we’re trying to escape and deal with it in a more constructive way.

Then there are some people who watch to be able to judge these people’s lives and their decisions. But they can only usually watch a couple episodes before becoming frustrated at the person’s inability to just change their ways through fierce will power.

Either way, I’m pretty sure that TLC doesn’t care…they just want the ratings now that the Gosselin’s have imploded and they can’t make a dime from them anymore.

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