One night, Heinrich breathlessly summons everybody to the TV, which is playing plane crash footage. This greatly excites the children. On Friday of that same week, the family congregates around the TV and is completely absorbed by footage of floods, earthquakes, mud slides, and volcanic eruptions. The following Monday, Jack has lunch with Murray and a group of the American Environments New York émigrés, who indulge in bizarre intellectual conversation. When Jack asks the department chairman, Alfonse Stampanato, why people are so drawn to tragedy when it’s broadcast on TV, Alfonse says, “Because we’re suffering from brain fade. We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information.” This leads to a discussion about disaster footage which yields, absurdly, to a highly-detailed, academically-inflected conversation between Grappa, Lasher, and Cotsakis about using their fingers as toothbrushes.
The Gladneys’ obsession with disaster footage once more establishes their fascination with death, but Alfonse takes this idea one step further when he argues that people are drawn to calamity because they are searching for a way to “break up the incessant bombardment of information.” In keeping with Murray’s belief that humans are always receiving “psychic data” and messages, Alfonse frames disaster as a focal point, a way to shape an otherwise formless existence. Death therefore becomes a defining element of life, but only insofar as it pertains to other people; in the context of one’s own life, death remains a fearful uncertainty.