I can’t stop watching Hoarders. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don’t want to stop watching Hoarders. This isn’t an Intervention-level addiction—if you made me quit Hoarders cold turkey, I would manage, though I’d definitely feel bummed for a while. I don’t know that I’d experience much if any withdrawal, but chances are I’d latch onto another deeply compelling reality series as quickly as possible.
I’m not actually concerned with the amount of Hoarders I watch, especially given that there’s a limited supply. My bigger issue is what my obsession with Hoarders says about me. I watch each episode in horror, fascinated and disgusted by the collections these people have amassed, but yes, there is pleasure in it, too. Am I watching Hoarders the same way certain people watch NASCAR? Just as they wait for a fiery crash, am I hoping for the discovery of a mummified animal? And because I consider myself a reasonably compassionate individual, I’m forced to consider the implications of all this. Simply put, does watching a Hoarders marathon make me a bad person?
I can’t come up with a clear answer. There’s no denying that watching Hoarders is a bit like gawking at a car wreck. And saying “it’s human nature” is a cop-out: it’s also human nature to take things that aren’t ours and use violence when we feel threatened. We’re supposed to keep these impulses at bay, and a lot of us do a bang-up job. Of course, I’m not harming anyone by watching Hoarders, but I may not be giving its subjects the respect they deserve. Sure, they’ve all agreed to being on camera, but almost every one acknowledges the embarrassment of revealing the inside of their homes.
But in exchange for appearing on camera, these compulsive hoarders receive the treatment they need to move on with their lives. (It’s not always successful: as with A&E’s Intervention, the final results are in the addict’s hands.) In that way, Hoarders may be a necessary evil—if it is exploitation, it’s also a way out for people who are literally trapped in their homes. And I still feel a little crappy about it! There was a time when carnival sideshows were the only way people with certain disabilities could make ends meet. So yes, go see the “Siamese twins” and help them earn a living. But at the end of the day, you’re still just ogling the “freaks.”
Obviously none of these concerns have stopped me from watching Hoarders. In my defense, I do feel satisfied when they get their houses cleaned. It’s not all about the schadenfreude of seeing what a mess someone else has created—it’s the thrill of the classic reality television redemption story. You start off seeing how bad things can get, and then you watch in amazement as they find a light at the end of the tunnel. The difference between watching Hoarders and watching a car crash or a sideshow is that the end result is a positive one. After the horror has passed, these people (ideally) move on to a better life.
There’s also a certain level of empathy involved, and it’s taken me a while to acknowledge that. I’m not the best housekeeper myself, and while I have never lived among boxes stacked to the ceiling, I’m well aware of how things can get out of hand. Part of what makes Hoarders so scary is the fear that it could happen to us. Sometimes you reach a breaking point, or something just snaps, and suddenly you stop caring. Maybe it starts small—I know I’ve left clothes on my bed for far too long—until it becomes so overwhelming that it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I will never get to that point (I’m posting this on the internet, so you know it’s true), but in the back of my mind, I understand how it could happen.
Maybe that’s what separates Hoarders from more exploitative entertainment—but it could just as easily be true of shows like Intervention and Obsessed as well. The act of watching someone at the lowest point of his or her life is indeed ambiguous. And I think yes, simply tuning in to judge is a pretty crappy thing to do. But if you can find that empathy and root for the person’s success, maybe it’s not so bad that you also enjoy the “real-life drama.” After all, you’re only human.
Crossposted to Huffington Post Entertainment here.