Shock Horror: Folklore of Disaster 17

SHOCK HORROR: The Folklore of Disaster


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© Warren Fahey



AAP NEW RELEASE 24-09-2001

Dick Smith and Big Kev are joining forces to buy Ansett.
The airline will be called Big Dick, and they plan to chase Virgin.
The marketing phrase will of course be “I’m excited!”

The recent accidental death of singer-turned-television presenter ‘Shirley’ Strachan shocked Australians and jokes were circulating within days of this popular entertainer’s death. Once again jokes played a role in allowing us to address the subject of death and, in this case, of an individual who was known to the community as a public figure. We feel like we ‘know’ such people however it is usually their public face that we actually know. A typical joke enquired:

Q: Why did Shirley Strachan die?
A: Because he didn’t have Skyhooks to support him.

This joke only works when the audience knows that Shirley was lead singer of the rock group Skyhooks and has an understanding of the folklore associated with the mythical concept of sky hooks. Of course this joke is simply an obvious play on words however it is also assumed that the listener knows that he dies in an air crash. This is another reason why such jokes have a use by date.

Disasters come in all shapes and disguises – the 1980/90’s collapse of several of Australia’s most successful financial youngbloods was certainly viewed as a disaster by those who lost their money. Christopher Skase escaped to the island of Majorca to avoid prosecution and humour only got its revenge after his death in 2001.

Q: What is the difference between Pixie Skase and The Aussie cricket team?
A: At least Pixie got to take the Ashes home

Let it be said that joking is an inevitable and socially therapeutic response to disaster and possibly the desire to have the last word on the subject before resuming normal life.

Similarly the collapse of the Thredbo snow village in 2000 shocked Australians until one survivor, Stuart Diver, was discovered under the debris. It was a dramatic and sad time however having a survivor, even if only one, played an important role in the shared healing surrounding the many deaths. Once again we relieved the tension with jokes.

Q: Did you hear Stuart Driver has returned to Thredbo?
A: He wanted to see some of his old flat mates

The Palace Backpacker Hostel fire in 2000 was a distressful media event surrounded by mystery. The following joke, although set in far away Mexico, is obviously related to this fire.

 A backpacker got bored with Australia and travelled to Mexico. Three travellers, a fat-cat from a first-class hotel, a family man from a motel, and the backpacker from the hostel all wind up serving time in the same Mexican prison for buying dope from their local bartenders.

They are going to be executed — because they couldn’t pay enough of a bribe. When the big day comes, the fat-cat is against the wall with the firing squad ready to shoot him. The captain of the firing squad says ‘Ready, Aim…’ and the fat-cat shouts “Tornado, Tornado!”. The captain and the firing squad all run for shelter and the fat-cat escapes.

The next day, it is the family man’s turn to be executed. The captain says, “Ready, Aim…” and the family man shouted (copying the fat-cat’s idea), ” terrimoto, terrimoto (earthquake) !” Again, everyone fled for shelter and the family man escaped.

A day later, it was the backpackers turn to be executed. Remembering the fat-cat’s and family man’s way to freedom, he figured to do the same thing. So when the captain said “Ready, Aim…” the backpacker shouted, “Fire, fire!!”


In 2001 Australia experienced an invasion that created definite rifts in the fabric of its society. Boatloads of illegal refugees were coming from Iraq and Afghanistan via our neighbour Indonesia. Being a massive island, Australia is an obvious target for such illegal entry. The Government ran a scare campaign as an election issue however the fact remained that these were genuine refugees in a real problem. Many Australians were horrified by the entire episode and especially with the many associated unnecessary deaths. Once again, it was not a time for humour however folklorists know that racism, which was certainly at the root of this problem, has a particular association with black humour. John Thompson wrote this parody based on a medley of traditional Christmas carols. It is included to show that the art of parody is alive and kicking.


I saw three ships come sailing in to Christmas Bay, to Christmas Bay
I saw three ships come sailing in to Christmas Bay in the morning.

And what was in these ships all three in Christmas Bay, in Christmas Bay,
A half a thousand refugees in Christmas Bay in the morning

And what were they all looking for in Christmas Bay, in Christmas Bay,
They sought a friendly foreign shore in Christmas Bay in the morning

But Santa Johnny he said no in Christmas Bay, in Christmas Bay,
Piss off you bastards, Ho ho ho, in Christmas Bay in the morning

It matters not from where you’ve come to Christmas Bay, to Christmas Bay,
It’s peace on earth, goodwill to some, in Christmas Bay in the morning


Hark the herald angels sing, travelling is a dangerous thing
Doesn’t matter if you ran from the vicious Taliban
Santa disapproves of you, if you try to jump the queue
SOS won’t stop the danger,
Here it stands for “sod off stranger”


You’d better not shout or whinge or complain
Arrive on a boat, go home on a plane,
Philip Ruddock’s coming to town

He’s making a list of those who can stay
Then tearing it up to throw it away
Philip Ruddock’s coming to town

He won’t use any kindness to fill his camps because
He locks up foreign visitors, so look out Santa Clause

So fill in a form to stay in this nation
Or we’ve got a camp to improve concentration
Philip Ruddock’s coming to town


Away in a container, no crib for a bed
The little Afghani lay down his sweet head
The staff from immigration looked down where he lay
“There’s no room at the inn.  And get your feet off our hay!”

 No doubt psychologists could analysis these jokes and joke tellers and deliver an insightful verdict. The fact is that we do not always want to hear such verdicts waving it away with protests of “too much information!”

There is a pattern or similarity not only in the kind of jokes specific tellers tell, but also in the kinds and subjects of jokes to which specific listeners can and will listen with pleasure or at least with forbearance. Also positive taboos as to what kind of jokes  – or even words – they will not listen to and cannot stand. It is important to realise that the distinction between teller and listener is one of the least real or rigid social rules.

It is a fact very few people actually make up or invent jokes, or would even be capable of doing so. If they say they are then they are invariably repeating the jokes they have heard – usually quite recently – sometimes with minor changes. I have never made up a joke neither have I ever met anyone who has. Most people who believe and insist that they have made up jokes, or that they can do so usually operate in the area of verbal puns that are by no means the same thing as jokes. Since the jokes that are told are really only being repeated from previous listening, in the deeper sense teller and listener are indivisible and identical. It must never be overlooked that the tellers of jokes are also the principal audience for jokes. Jokes tend to be told to the people from whom you hear jokes, as a sort of exchange. The fact that the Internet is now a major distributor of jokes will change this because we simply have no control to stop the flow.

As with all jokes the teller visibly reveals himself in the choice of his subjects and in his special handling of them, although it is not always possible to put an exact psychological name-label to what one sees. The teller usually wants to remain masked and this most probably highlights the anonymous role played by the Internet. Often this veil is pretence that he is retelling a true anecdote or he is simply trying to fool the reader/listener. Sometimes it is a test of endurance – the telling of a brutal story, sometimes for the thousandth time – is really offered to test the listener and also to test the teller yet again.

The idea that horror-stories of this kind have some sort of cathartic value for either the teller or listener is brought out by the sheer number of people who obviously felt compelled to pass on the New York disaster jokes. I see this immediate transfer or sharing of humour as a way of retaliating, especially the ones that directly attack or belittle Osama bin Laden. When you make a joke about those more powerful than yourself, and even those who in some way determine your life, it is a way of striking back. Some observers say that the main type of joke is one made by people about those they imagine are their inferiors or jokes made by those with power about those who are powerless. There are many such jokes especially in the racist genre but the reverse also thrives. A good example of this being the large body of jokes from the 1930s and 1940s Jews made about Germans and the jokes that Russians made about Soviet Communism. The intention is to ridicule your oppressor and in doing so disarm him. Humour can do this very effectively and the jokes about Osama bin Laden are aimed at reducing the terrorist’s supposed power.

There is no escaping the horrors on the attack on New York where thousands of people, including many Australians, died a most terrifying death. To joke about such horror and to prepare a book such as this may seem ghoulish however the reality is that this event, and the other examples cited here, did happen and the humour was a universal result of that event. It is how we attempted to cope with  devastating and unprecedented horror stories. Joking about the horror and death is possibly an attempt to answer something that cannot be answered. Joking returns some sort of balance to a world turned upside down. Psychologists will tell you that by confronting a demon you can have power over that demon. If you can laugh about it, it hasn’t completely won.

Also by Warren Fahey

Pint Pot & Billy
Eureka: 107 Australian Folksongs
The Songs That Made Australia
The Balls of Bob Menzies
While the Billy Boils
When Mabel Laid the Table
Diggers’ Songs
Ratbags & Rouseabouts
Classic Bush Yarns