Shock Horror: Folklore of Disaster 2

SHOCK HORROR: The Folklore of Disaster


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© Warren Fahey

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Communities create and use folklore in many ways to record their history, celebrate successes, express frustration and, of late, to share despair and grief. It can be seen as a mechanism, which allows us to look at our emotional sense. The epic poems and ballads composed centuries ago and passed on down through the years are folklore. The old bush songs of Australia that tell of our pioneering days are folklore. I use these two musical examples because most people associate folklore with folksong. The truth is that we all create and pass on lore and nowadays it is more likely to be an urban myth, yarn, word usage or some custom that seems to be a natural part of everyday life. Our lives abound in folklore and especially when we look at how we celebrate, for example, a death, birth or wedding. We take such customs and habits for granted even though much of the meaning behind the lore is symbolic and often long forgotten.

Jokes, be they spoken or transmitted electronically via the Internet, have become an important part of the folklore process and especially in these times of international uncertainty. Much has been spoken and written about the terrorist attacks on America and most agree that this was indeed an unprecedented and horrific event in modern world history however this has not stopped us creating and passing on humour related to the horror. The interesting aspect of this particular disaster is that we in Australia were intimately involved through the direct television coverage and the Internet. There was, of course, the fact that a number of Australians were working in the targeted buildings.

It is all very well to say that jokes trivialise the horror associated with disaster however folklorists know that as sure as night follows day, jokes will flow soon after such events. Of those who have seriously sought to understand jokes, most have explained that jokes are a form of aggression – a socially acceptable way of showing contempt and displaying superiority. We do this unconsciously and that is why when asked to explain the meaning of jokes we tend to dismiss them as meaningless and far too obvious to warrant explanation.

As a folklorist I act as a ‘recycling unit’ gathering in folklore as it travels its ever-winding path. I attempt to make sense of the findings and then return them, suitably packaged, to the ‘folk’ as a way of showing how the collective process works. Folklore is a fascinating study because it knows absolutely no boundaries: be it the circulation of old bush yarns; locating remnants of long-forgotten songs; tracking traditional working skills; recording disappearing home crafts or even the traditional singing of lullabies. Folklore makes our lives more interesting because of how we adopt and adapt and pass onto the next step. Most importantly it is a communal creativity that knows no master or ownership.

No one really knows where jokes come from but we do know that they come in all shapes and sizes and have a habit of returning just when you thought they had disappeared. Some say that there are only a dozen or so original jokes and all others are simply clever variants. I do not subscribe to this train of thought and believe human creativity extends a hell of a lot further than a bakers’ dozen! I have heard the same argument about traditional music in that there are only a handful of basic tunes and all others are but variants. This is insensitive nonsense aimed at undervaluing traditional creativity and it doesn’t stand the test of time. Traditional tunes are like pearls that have been honed in their shells with every new wave adding a new polish to the gem. The same process applies to stories and, to some extent jokes, in that they are continually changing depending on the whim and will of the person currently ‘minding’ that story.

I attempt to explain in my ‘Classic Bush Yarns’ (Harper Collins. 2001) how the joke, or in that particular case, the Australian tall story, was created and passed on in the tradition. I also suggested that because of the dramatic ways we have changed our entertainment patterns: being entertained rather than entertain each other, the role of the joke teller has changed. This book clearly shows how contemporary entertainment continues to change rapidly and especially the dominating role of the electronic media and the World Wide Web in particular.

The Internet has come to the forefront in disseminating jokes. We still tell jokes across the dinner table and at the club and pub but it is obvious from this recent study that the Internet has emerged as a major, if not the major, distribution vehicle. I would suggest that because email now plays such an accepted and widespread role in most offices it stands to reason that they would also be used for non-office work including entertainment. I also believe, because of the growing number of people working from home offices, the art of email conversation has become an important diversion. Jokes are ‘passed on’ via emails in a conversational style reminiscent of the idle chatter one would find in the office coffee room. 

Remember when the folk circulated jokes on printed sheets? Many of these were work subject related and dealt with stress, sex and office management and as often as not they would depict a worker in some unfathomable dilemma. Being preposterous they were usually funny and aimed at getting a shared laugh from the casual passer-by. They were mini posters and stuck to walls, doors and filing cabinets. Sometimes they would mysteriously appear on the office notice board explaining ‘new office regulations’ or ‘ten reasons why the boss is a bastard’. Folklorists called these ‘photocopy lore’ and true to folklore’s ‘here today gone tomorrow’ spirit they seem to have almost disappeared to be replaced by the same cartoons, sets of rules etc arriving on desks via the small screen. The beauty of email is that it can blast the folklore to many screens in one push of the send key. Instant folklore!

The real wonder of the Internet is that it not only zips all around the office but can also instantly send the message all over the country and all over the world. The jokes coming out of the terrorist attacks on America certainly showed the relevance and vitality of net transmission arriving on Australian desks at the very same time as American desks.

The attack on America resulted in several types of folklore being created and distributed. There were standard jokes in the several categories of accepted joke telling including one-liners, ‘what if…’ jokes and the usual recycled ‘situation’ jokes. Then came the novelty items such as song parodies, fake weather reports and musical hit parades. The most prolific creation was what, for want of a better description, I call PhotoShop folklore – realistic images modified by computer design packages. Many of these were extremely clever whilst some were extremely amateurish. They portrayed President Bush, Osama bin Laden and umpteen dozen other topical individuals in extraordinary situations and characterizations. As with jokes they came in all shapes and sizes including variants of the same image. How many of us received the classic image of the unsuspecting young man, binoculars in hand, staring out the window of the World Trade Centre however, the viewer could see the airplane headed directly for him. It looked real however it was a clever fake and would have been a natural for television’s Australia’s Funniest Home Videos.

Another aspect of folklore is that it helps in the propaganda efforts associated with situations like war. It seems that all wars throughout history required a face to identify the enemy. In ‘Diggers’ Songs’ (AMHP 1998) I tried to show how Australians had reacted to involvement in the eleven wars we had fought in since our first contingent travelled to the Maori Wars in 1863 (the Timor War was the twelfth and the War on Terrorism, the thirteenth). All these wars required a villain be it Kaiser Bill, Adolf Hitler, Ho Chi Min, Saddam Hussein or, in our most recent case, Osama bin Laden. I went on to explain it is easier for a soldier to kill if that target is seen as the enemy monster rather than just another soldier. Ridicule has always been an important part of the war machine. Parodies like ‘Hitler Has Only One Ball’ or even the WW2 nightly broadcasts by Tokyo Rose, as she chastised our boys on the Pacific frontline, “for leaving their womenfolk at home in Australia for the visiting American soldiers to play with” being a good example.  Ridicule, by nature, allows us to strip an individual of any shield and make fun of them as a means of destroying their reputation. It can be an extremely powerful weapon in itself and laughing at a ‘target’ can be the very bullet that brings such a person to their knees.