When you live near Niagara Falls, as I did for 20 years of my life, its magnitude and mystique begin to stream through your lifeblood. My parents honeymooned there; in later years, we schlepped all of our out-of-town guests there upon request; and one woman's threat to jump with her child into the rushing waters led to that child's adoption into my extended family. In fact, plunges over the Falls (whether accidental or suicidal) are so common that only the very rare survivors make big news.

Needless to say, then, it was more than curiosity that compelled me to watch Nik Wallenda's historic high-wire walk over the Falls last weekend: it was my own history and heritage beckoning.

Yet, the sheer spectacle had a pull of its own, too, as it apparently did for the estimated 112,000 people who gathered to watch on the American and Canadian sides of the Falls and the 13.1 million who viewed the feat on television along with them.

Yes, we are a rubbernecking species, drawn irresistibly and inexplicably to the drama posed by danger and death. Whether our own or whether experienced vicariously in our role as voyeurs, our fascination with risky behavior is attributed to various possible causes: Freud's death wish, genetic predisposition, risk-taking personalities, the adrenaline rush, and simply the pleasure of relief that comes when we witness someone other than ourselves suffer.

But more than the psychological, sociological, and scientific explanations, I am intrigued by the aesthetic accounts of our infatuation with danger. In The Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke famously distinguishes between the beautiful and the sublime, linking each to a primal ...

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