Gallows Humor: Laughing at the Grin Reaper

by M-Gillies

Oscar Wilde was an Irish writer and poet and was destitute and living in a cheap boarding house when on his deathbed. His reputed last words were, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."

Gallows Humor (n): idiomatic: Comedy,  humor that makes unpleasant situations and topics, such as death, tragedy, drama or perfectly hopeless situations funny.

There’s a time and there’s a place for a good joke – one to leave an audience snickering and smirking long after you have left, but is there no worse time to crack than just before they put a noose around your neck or prepare to drop the guillotine? Clearly there isn’t when it comes to that grotesquely macabre wit that stares down death with a grin and chuckle known as gallows humor.

It was in Central Europe, when the use of the gallows platform was a common form of execution that a new grim and sardonic form of humor arose. Known as gallows humor, this form of acerbic tongue-in-cheek witticism came about in response to the hopeless situation arising from stressful, traumatic and life-threatening situations in which circumstances such as death were impending and unavoidable.

Because of that, it was not uncommon for condemned prisoners to use their final words as a means of inspiring grim self-deprecating jokes, often directed towards distraught friends and family members, and soon this art of inciting humor during a time of grief and tragedy soon became a coping mechanism for those faced with a certain psychological and emotional trauma. However, while many forms of gallows humor may sound exceptionally cruel or insensitive, its purpose only served to fill a void during the uncertainty of impending doom.

“We may laugh about everything. We must laugh about everything – even death… Especially death. After all, does death show any qualm about laughing at us?” Pierre Desproges.

While seen as a form of bravado; a necessary defence mechanism designed to articulate genuine fear, gallows humor have also served in situations of great anxiety, allowing an individual facing the peril a means of relieving some tension. As Alan Dundes Thomas Hauschild wrote in his 1983 book, Western Folklore “Nothing is so sacred, so taboo or so disgusting that it cannot be the subject of humor.”

Even famed neurologist Sigmund Freud discussed his theory of gallows humor in his 1927 essay Humor, stating that “The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.”

While gallows humor does depend on the context of the joke, such as whether the joke is being told by the threatened person themselves or by someone else, gallows humor has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors.

As American author Wylie Sypher once said, “To be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them.”

Throughout the years, this form of humor has found its ways spoken by those awaiting their final hour.

As medieval Catholic legend goes, Saint Lawrence of Rome was martyred by being roasted to death on a gridiron. After roasting over a hot fire for a while, he supposedly told his torturers, “I am done on this side; you may turn me over.” The Catholic Church in turn decided that because of this, he would be considered the patron saint of cooks and chefs. In similar vain, St. Sebastian, who was tied to a tree and shot full of arrows became the patron saint of lacemakers, while Bartholomew the Apostle – who had been flayed alive and then crucified – was made the patron saint of tanners and leather workers.

But the gallows humor only continued to grow in popularity during condemnations of hanging. In one incident, convicted murderer William Palmer was found guilty of the murder of his friend John Cook in 1855. The following year, as he was led to the hangman’s noose, Palmer looked at the trapdoor and exclaimed, “Are you sure it’s safe?”

Meanwhile, in 1928, convicted mob boss, George Appel was condemned to execution. As he awaited his final moment, Appel’s last words were “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.” Likewise, convicted murderer James French was quote as saying, “How’s this for a headline in tomorrow’s paper? French Fries,” as he was led to death by electric chair in 1966.

While gallows humor has often been used during the last moments of impending death, it hasn’t stopped others from instilling their own blend of dark witticism to overshadow the severity of a grisly and traumatic situation. For instance, in late 1999, former member of the Beatles, George Harrison, survived a knife attack by an intruder in his home. He had just hired a new groundskeeper a week before a fan broke into his house, stabbing the musician nearly to death. As Harrison was being escorted by paramedics with stab wounds in his chest and a punctured lung, he reportedly looked up at the new groundskeeper and asked, “So, how do you like the job so far?”

Meanwhile, as Francois-Marie Arouet – or better known by his pen-name Voltaire – lay on his deathbed, he responded to the remark put forth by his bedside priest who had asked him to renounce Satan. “Now, now my good man,” Voltaire quipped. “This is no time for making enemies.”

Even in the 21st century these forms of gallows humor have been used in particular instances of severe medical illness, such as French humorist, Pierre Desproges, who after being diagnosed with cancer said, “If it weren’t for science, how many of us could enjoy cancer for more than five years?” or even recently Christopher Hitchens‘ acerbic wit toward his losing battle with cancer. Using the trope of gallows humor as a therapeutic means of coping with his illness, Hitchens penned a series of articles for Vanity Fair entitled Topic of Cancer (a play on words of Tropic of Cancer), saying that because his cancer was so developed he had “joined the cancer elite.” and further stated that “I make preparations for living and dying every day, but with the emphasis on not dying, and on acting as though I was going to carry on living.”

The truth of the matter is this however, in recent studies, it has been shown that laughter releases the same chemical endorphins in the brain that activate the same receptors as drugs like heroin, creating a pain-killing and euphoria-producing effect. Further in that very same study conducted by Oxford University researchers, it was shown that viewing or participating in comedy led to higher pain tolerance.

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