“We’re not freaks, we’re not weirdos”: the online community that watches people die

More than 200,000 people use Reddit to watch videos of death every day. Why?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“Can I make a request for the video of a suicide bomber failing over while riding a hover board and killing himself?”

So reads a comment in the subreddit r/WatchPeopleDie, an online space which is exactly what it sounds like. For five years, the forum has been a place for people to watch videos and gifs of strangers dying, and has now accumulated 240,543 subscribers. These subscribers – and perhaps many more followers who don’t dare click “subscribe” – share deaths, upvote them, comment on them, and even make requests.

“It’s nothing that you can’t find in the mainstream media,” says Reddit user T_Dumbsford, a moderator of the sub, who deletes posts or comments that break its rules. “The only difference is that they edit out the bit where someone actually dies and we don’t.”

Watch People Die is a shocking sub – but it isn’t a Shock Sub. Many online spaces that share deaths (such as the notorious website rotten.com) are deliberately designed to shock with violent content that is often pornographic, scatological, or profane. Moderators like T_Dumbsford (who didn’t want to give his real name, preferring to be identified by his username) have worked hard to keep the space different.

“[It has] more of a respectful tone to it than some of these other gore and death type subs, it didn’t strike me so much as gawking as a genuine interest in the topic,” explains the 46-year-old, who lives in North Carolina and works in computer security. After his divorce, T_Dumbsford got involved in Reddit and now enjoys acting as a moderator for a huge number of subs – of which Watch People Die is just one. “In the afternoon and evenings Reddit is pretty much a hobby for me. Since the divorce and stuff I don’t really have much of a social life anymore,” he says, explaining that he has made friends on the site.

What type of person enjoys watching people die, every day? And why do they do it?

These are the questions the sub immediately provokes – and something its community talk about often. R/WPDTalk is a companion subreddit where people can discuss the sub, and a popular type of post is a user asking others why they watch the videos. “I’m now aware of just how fragile human life truly is and it’s made me appreciate my day to day life much more,” says the most popular explanation – perhaps, justification – on the sub.

“People just have to realise that you don't have to be a serial killer or a murderer or crazy to be interested in death,” says Jeff*, a 31-year-old Canadian man who occasionally visits the sub, but is not subscribed. Jeff was first exposed to videos of death in the early days of the internet, when downloading content from Napster often resulted in the accidental viewing of extreme content. “I really don't like gore or anything really nasty or extreme, that’s not what I get out of it.”

Jeff says he is drawn to Watch People Die because of a “morbid curiosity” about the “elephant in the room nature of death”. “Sometimes it’s just like… this is something you're not supposed to see, something you hear about and see in movies and stuff but you never actually see the actual thing,” he explains. “It’s just that curiosity I think that sometimes gets in me.” As Jeff also works in an industrial setting, he watches workplace deaths to make him more aware of the dangers of his work.

“We’re not there to shock people and shake people up, it’s a genuine attempt to display this particular aspect of reality in a world where people die every day and it’s something we all have to confront,” explains T_Dumbsford.

Listening to T_Dumbsford and Jeff justify visiting the sub is convincing, and it’s theoretically easy to see how watching death can inspire a love of life. Yet visiting the sub will leave many immediately unsettled – even if you don’t dare click play. Posts like “Truck runs over and visibly squashes a man”, “Couple enjoying a glass of champagne are interrupted by a suicidal man landing near them, his head on fire”, and “Dimwitted cops use taser on guy who poured gasoline all over himself” can provoke an immediate, visceral disgust. On WPD Talk, requests for certain videos (“[REQUEST] Car crash in India – child stuck in seat visibly bloody, spitting blood – fairly recent”) are undeniably disturbing.

“I don’t think we have a lot of weirdos who collect death videos on their PC,” says T_Dumbsford, “The majority of it is probably perfectly healthy normal people who have, like I said, a genuine morbid curiosity or a desire to learn about death.” A survey undertaken on the site years ago found that many of its subscribers work in what T_Dumbsford calls the “death industry”, as first responders, morticians, coroners, or soldiers. “At least half of our subscribers have some connection to this type of subject matter in their real life,” he says – though as the data is self-reported, it must be taken into consideration that users could easily lie.  “We don’t get so many people who are in it for the shock value.”

It’s hard to quantify how many of the subreddit’s subscribers think like T_Dumbsford and Jeff – and as these were the users who were willing to speak with me over the phone, perhaps they’re the most in tune with – or least ashamed of – their motivations. Though comments on r/WPDTalk do show that many find watching people die helps them appreciate life, the sub also has a chat on Telegram – an anonymous messaging app. On here, things are undeniably gorier and more disturbing, with its 405 members sharing memes, jokes, and pictures designed to shock.

“I guess it comes with the territory, the nature of the subject matter – it’s a really sensitive area,” says T_Dumbsford. “You are literally watching other humans die so I think a lot of people are just trolling.” T_Dumbsford and his fellow moderators work hard to eliminate racism on the sub. “It’s almost predictable like if a video features a black person or a Muslim dying you're always going to get one or two jerks in the comments who are like well they deserved it or they had it coming… But that's not just true of our subreddit, that's true of Reddit, and I think the entire internet at large.”

Another moderator, Greedeater, explains that “[We’re] basically just saying don’t be a racist dickhead”. Dark humour, he explains, is fine – almost expected – but racism is not. “With this political environment, with whatshisface that tanned fucking muppet Trump running the show, you get a lot of nationalists”. Yet despite this, the most popular video ever shared in Watch People Die is entitled “Man gets run over by insane girlfriend”. In it, a man in a kaftan is attacked by a goat.

Beyond the racism and the Telegram group, critics might also note that frequently watching people die could have a negative impact on mental health. Jeff says he nearly always regrets watching the videos, whereas T_Dumbsford conversely feels desensitised (when I ask how many people he has seen die he says: “Hundreds, hundreds. At least. Maybe thousands, I don't know, definitely hundreds.”)

“In the early days I had trouble with some of the more brutal ones. Now – you know, honestly this is going to sound callous and I don’t mean it to be – but... if you see a few Isis beheadings you’ve seen them all.” T_Dumbsford believes “average” people will have no problems visiting the sub too often, but warns that it could be detrimental to anyone who is unstable, suicidal, or “in a dark place”.

Professor Mark McDermott, of the University of East London, recently carried out a study which suggested that being aware of your own mortality can be beneficial. “Post-traumatic growth” means people can grow psychologically from traumatic experiences, and McDermott says this theory means thinking about death can help us become psychologically stronger. Yet when I asked him what he thought of Watch People Die, he expressed concerns.

“I am doubtful that watching videos of death every day is necessary to cue mortality awareness in order to accrue any psychological benefits,” he says. “Indeed, I would have thought that if someone is doing this every day, then it possibly indicates a more morbid fascination with death that might be associated with social isolation and low mood states.” McDermott expresses concern that those who frequently watch people die will become unfeeling towards such videos, a process known as “habituation”.

“For people to orient positively toward mortality, I think it is more likely that reminders of the finitude of life need only be experienced intermittently, occasionally.”

There are clearly an array of motivations driving the users of Watch People Die. Many say the sub has helped them practically – so they take more care crossing the street or visiting dangerous countries or, in T_Dumbsford’s case, checking that the elevator is actually there when the doors open. Some users are just curious. Others are trying to be edgy, some may be sociopaths, some lonely, isolated, and addicted to gore.

 “Am I a bad person for binge-watching this thread?” asked a concerned commenter, two months ago.

“I hit it up. Then I drive more carefully, and hug my children more. I am also more thankful to be alive. It's life affirming to watch,” came the top reply. A month earlier, different users had a markedly different exchange. After one shared a photograph of dead bodies after the Manchester Arena bombing, another replied: “That guy in purple got a nice ass crack”.

Perhaps the subreddit’s myriad of users aptly reflects the myriad of ways it is possible to die.

“Part of me thinks it's naive to be like ‘Woah, what kind of sociopaths sit and round and watch people like that?’,” says Jeff, the Canadian user. “But I also understand some people don’t have the mind that’s interested in stuff like that and really can't fathom it.”

T_Dumbsford concurs. “We understand why we're here, we have a common interest in this subject matter. We’re not freaks, we’re not weirdos. At best it’s educational and eye-opening and at worst it’s just morbid curiosity.” His advice to any new users of the sub is to avoid Isis and Mexican drug cartel videos, and instead look at CCTV footage.

“I think people need to get comfortable with death because we’re all going to die. I think it’s probably all the better if you can learn to accept that and learn to appreciate life while you have it. So I think the desensitisation… that could be in some ways valuable to people, so they learn to not fear so much and maybe embrace life a little bit more.

“And if you're really, really sensitive to that kind of thing… I mean, you’re probably not going to be able to stare it down.”

* Names have been changed

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh