Shock Horror: Folklore of Disaster 1

SHOCK HORROR: The Folklore of Disaster


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© Warren Fahey

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This is a book about disaster folklore and how we unconsciously use humour to share grief. It is also about how we create humour and pass it on to our immediate circle and beyond. In particular it shows us the role of the Internet as a new means of circulating humour and folklore. 

There is little doubt that the world changed forever after the terrorist attacks on America, September 11, 2001 and, because of the immediacy of modern communication, many of us will go to the grave with the horrific images we observed ‘live from New York’. Our world has seen horrors before and, sadly, we do not seem to learn from our shared history. One of the most startling and repeated comments that emerged from stunned television viewers was that “watching the live broadcast was very similar to watching a familiar thriller movie”. Have we become so insensitive to violence and pain that we have such blurred vision? 

It is now some months since the attacks and the governments of the world continue to encourage a return to normalcy as they attempt to explain the how, why and where behind the terrorism. Some say this is the opportunity the world needed to reassess the role of government, business and religion whilst others point to the retaliation attacks and the still bloody war zones in every corner of the globe. If anything it has made us more aware of our vulnerability and, hopefully, the importance of international harmony. In the meantime America continues to clean up ‘Ground Zero’ and, at the same time, reduce Afghanistan to a veritable rubble heap.  

Folklore has played an ongoing role in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and it makes for a shocking reminder as to who we are, where we have come from and where we are going as a global community. Confusion appears to rule supreme as we aggressively question civil liberty, the power of governments, the role of religion, the separation of church and state and the wealth inequality of nations. Personal and business confidence is at an all-time low and every second person is looking around for someone to take the blame.  At the same time it is important we actually cope with these stressful situations even though, in these media-driven times, it is a communal learned response rather than an individual one. Government leaders can make political and humane speeches, monuments can be erected and vigils staged however we humans crave for something closer to our communal being. Tragedy creates unique stresses and one of the characteristic ways in which the human psyche responds is through the use of humour. This is a relatively new mechanism and if one were to place a date on its adoption the assassination of John F Kennedy would be a logical starting point. This type of disasters is treated differently from the more immediate catastrophes such as cyclones, floods, bushfires or vehicular accidents. In such cases, emotions are suppressed as individuals put aside their personal feelings and join a community effort to assist through donation or direct action. Folklorists have employed the term ‘media disaster syndrome’ to cover disasters like Kennedy’s assassination and the recent attacks on America. This syndrome produces a variety of folklore response including hero-myth, urban myth, deitification and humour.

The attack on New York, as a ‘media disaster’, was watched by millions of people as they were continually shown the review footage of the actual event. The normal response to a disaster would be to encourage support action however, in this instance, the viewers were stunned as the events appeared ‘unreal’ and distant from our lives making viewers feel as if there was nothing they could do to help. Because of this feeling of inadequacy the public falls back on a variety of symbolic improvised responses as a way of signaling solidarity with the people directly affected by the tragedy. A rush to donate blood was the first American public response following a casual remark by one of the safety workers on the site.

The role of the media in the attack on New York, and our response to it, is a delicate tightrope. We had ‘live’ coverage of a tragedy that involved us in an intensive way and to avoid the horror all we had to do was flick the switch to an innocuous program on another channel: New York disaster to the Music Channel then to Cartoon Corner and The Disney Channel. Worse still we move from devastating news coverage to commercials for brand name products. This could be dismissed as typical insensitivity of major media corporation mentality however it is our acceptance, almost expectation that commercials follow such news reportage, which is insensitive. We have been conditioned and the media is the manipulator with the message machine. The media, especially the American cable providers, have come in for understandable criticism over the way it manipulates the news and also the grief process.

Folklore is a confusing word and carries a considerable amount of baggage. At the same time it is becoming an increasingly important tool as we track our cultural roots and especially how we cope with these stressful modern times. In a nutshell it is the lore we unconsciously create or pass on to our family and associated community to distinguish ourselves as a people. We use folklore as the wheels of our lives passing on, among other things, traditional wisdom, values, customs and family history. Pundits now preach that we are rapidly headed for a global world where we have one currency, one language and one government. One assumes that they would also like to add the words ‘one culture’ to that scary list. Some say globalisation is tantamount to treason however the fact remains that we haven’t been able to make the present systems work effectively and the world continues to sit under the gloomy clouds of local war, poverty, greed, racial inequality and religious fanaticism. Because our lives have become so fractured we need to look at folklore to provide us with keys to some of the puzzles we face.

One of the main showcase arguments of the global community is the promotion of world culture and in many ways this has created an economic dilemma. When one considers the massive investments the popular culture machines of Hollywood, New York and London now make in their supposed blockbusters films, hit recordings and mass-marketed books then it is clearly obvious that they need larger markets than their domestic one to recoup their investment. Australia, being an English-speaking nation, is a prime target for such cultural invasion and this needs to be stacked up against our Government’s rulings on such things as Australian content levels on radio, television and in publishing. Personally I don’t think we have been very successful in protecting or policing our cultural content levels however that is another argument for another platform.  For the time being we should also assume the description ‘world culture’ be interpreted as ‘cultural imperialism’.

Small nations, and Australia is a relatively small population, need to be aware of protecting their culture. It is inevitable that the blockbusters will keep coming and, to be brutally frank, who would want to be the spoilsport to stop them? What we do need is to accept that there is such a thing as an international culture and, at the same time, be very aware that we also have our own homegrown culture. Both can and should live in harmony even if nations appear unable to achieve such a relationship. In the case of Australia we are indeed fortunate in being an island floating in the Pacific Ocean and not a country surrounded by borders and other directly intrusive cultures.

Such physical isolation begs the question whether this is the key to our collective sense of humour. Australians have a reputation for possessing a laconic sense of humour best described as ‘dry’. It has always seen the perverted comic side of misfortune be it the convict referring to his cat-o-nine-tails flogging as ‘getting a new red shirt’ or the pioneering family facing a seemingly never-ending circle of flood, drought, bushfire and pestilence and commenting that things were ‘as good as it gets’. It was during the pioneering nineteenth century that we really honed many areas of our national identity. The fact that the majority of our population lived in the bush rather than on the coast played a leading role in that identity and also explains why so many urban-dwelling Australians still see themselves as bushwhackers complete with R.M.Williams’ clothing, Akubra hat and four-wheel drive. We are conditioned to natural disasters, which possibly has prepared us for unnatural disasters. Somehow-or-other we continue to shrug our shoulders, roll up our shirtsleeves and carry on. Of course this does not halt compassion but it does provide the circumstance to carry on in times of trouble.