You know the story. Someone walks to their mailbox for a moment and they’re never heard from again. A person goes for a walk near their home and vanishes without a trace. A local goes to their favorite bar and surveillance footage shows them entering but never leaving. These kinds of stories send a shiver down your spine and make you darkly curious. What could have happened to this person?
Why are we so fascinated with these grim tales? Let’s take a look at the psychology of unsolved mysteries for more insight into why we seem to be taken with the idea of people vanishing without a trace.
The open-ended nature of unsolved mysteries leaves them up for interpretation. People who like to study paranormal phenomena flock to unsolved mysteries because their pet theory could be responsible. For instance, if a person goes missing on a hike near where UFOs have been reported, then UFO enthusiasts could latch onto that mystery as evidence of someone being abducted by aliens.
Even among the more realistic theories, interesting possibilities present themselves. Could the person have simply faked their death in order to start a new life? Maybe they were the victim of a murderer, or simply fell into a freak accident?
Part of what makes these stories so compelling is trying to put yourself into the shoes of a detective and piece together what may have happened. The lack of physical evidence in many of these cases leaves them almost completely open to interpretation.
Many of us fear our own mortality as a natural part of being human. The thought of no longer being around is a weird one, and dwelling on it for too long can make you feel uneasy. However, that emotion can be turned outwardly in the case of missing people. Hearing stories about others who found themselves in danger allows our minds to safely play out hypothetical scenarios that we have no desire to ever find ourselves in.
In this way, learning about these unsolved mysteries is a bit like watching a scary movie. The characters onscreen go through horrible events that would psychologically scar most people. However, as the viewer, we’re able to distance ourselves from the action on-screen and still feel the thrill of being put into a life-threatening situation. This allows for catharsis, a release of primal emotions that is necessary for healthy psychological development.