Shock Horror: Folklore of Disaster 3

SHOCK HORROR: The Folklore of Disaster


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© Warren Fahey

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Military folklore is a relevant comparative study as it inevitably involves the tragic loss of lives. Much of the folklore associated with war is aimed at unconsciously reinforcing morale and without it many would simply have given up the fight. Humour played a role in bolstering the concept of mateship and one could speculate on the myth of the Australian ‘Digger’ and how we used our traditional sense of humour in such adverse conditions. The idea of laughing in the face of death allowed our soldiers to witness the death of their mates, sometimes their best mate, and then push on with their expected soldiering. They were not laughing at the idea of their mates being blown to Kingdom Come, far from it, they were laughing at the concept of death and in doing so they gained the morale where-with-all to continue their work in the name of their fallen mates.  They were ‘laughing in the face of death’.

As a folklorist I was ready to track and document recent disaster jokes. I had already observed earlier international and domestic events that created disaster folklore and used these as my tracking system. The explosion of the NASA Challenger space shuttle over Florida on January 28, 1986 and the mysterious death of Azaria Chamberlain in 1980 had both produced a significant flow of jokes, parodies and photocopy folklore. None of the jokes coming out of these tragedies could be described as hilarious and they seemed to be a new type of humour made in despair. It is possible that they might be unconsciously playing the same role that songs and ballads played in the 19th and early 20th century where story songs and ballads were composed, often anonymously, about disasters to record the folk histories. These songs and ballads were then held in the community’s tradition for decades and often longer. In Australia, for example, they told of a coal mine collapse in Bulli, New South Wales, a tragic railway disaster at Sunshine station in Victoria and even the accidental death of a jockey at the Caulfield Cup in 1895. One could also put the case that many of the classic Australian bushranger ballads played a similar community role in reinforcing the ‘folk’ version of the outlaw tales.

In looking for the humour in disaster jokes one needs to look at how we use humour in our everyday lives. Essentially it is how we make light of situations, react to particular situations we observe as peculiar and is an intrinsic element in much of our entertainment. We ‘laugh ourselves sick’, ‘laugh until it hurts’, ‘laugh so hard we think we will pee in our pants’ and say ‘I could have died laughing’. We talk of humour that is sick, cruel, biting and black: disaster humour tends to embrace all three of these elements.

Ted Cohen in his ‘Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters’ (University of Chicago Press, 1999) commented “It is a well known fact, and for many people a problematic and disturbing fact, that these public topics for joking often and inevitably include misfortunes, sometimes horrible ones. There have been groups of jokes concerning earthquakes, hurricanes, plane crashes, space shuttle disasters, and, above and below all, death. These topics are as suitable as any others for use as public matters about which joke-tellers may assume a common awareness, and thus as occasions for cultivating the intimacy that goes with successful joking; but they have a special urgency all their own. They are topics that are hard to confront, difficult to accept, and yet relentless in their insistence upon our attention. Humour in general and jokes in particular are among the most typical and reliable resources we have for meeting these devastating and incomprehensible matters. No one understands death, no one can comprehend it and size it up without remainder, and no one can ignore it.”

In some ways humour allows us to participate in a shared grief. We might not understand the reasoning behind the disaster but the opportunity to make light of a very difficult situation enables us to partially close the door and resume our lives. Distress affects people in different ways and some individuals take so much on board that they invite nervous breakdowns and psychological depression. The attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon was an attack on all that America stands for and this in itself is taken personally by many members of the community. Government officials appeared on television asking “how anyone could do this to the USA. What has America ever done to them?”

Patriotism played a leading roll in the creation of much of the PhotoShop folklore. A large proportion of the images circulated reinforced America as ‘God’s own country’ complete with stars, stripes and even eagles sharpening their talons with a file. On the other hand, there were also contributions that openly criticised the American Government and the Presidency including a series of photographs depicting George W Bush holding a text-book labeled ‘Presidency for Dummies’ and another ‘Terrorism for Dummies’.

One of the obvious signs of a democracy is its ability to tolerate criticism, however radical. It also upholds free speech so it was not surprising to see several photoshop jokes along the lines of ‘what if the Taliban won…’

I would suggest that disaster humour, as expressed in the past 30 years, is a direct response to our distrust and dislike of the way mass media delivers such news coverage to us. We are confronted by television’s dogmatic and intrusive coverage in an ambiguous and distant way that is neither convincing nor satisfying. Humour is a more natural way of resolving and closing disastrous episodes as it emerges dramatically, circulates actively for a while then fades away when no longer necessary.

Urban myths, another expression of folklore, also thrive in times of disaster. Two of the most widely circulated examples came from the collapse of the World Trade Centre Towers. Apparently one of the workers was blind and his seeing-eye dog, Daisy, was responsible for saving the lives of some 300 people. She became quite distressed and kept returning to the building to lead peoplel through the smoke filled haze until eventually, totally exhausted by the heat and panic, she had to be carried back to the street by the firefighters. Another relates how one man ‘rode’ the debris from the 70th floor to the ground and lived. This tale, and yes, like the dog story it is a fabrication, has the man ‘surfing’ pieces of the building as he fell to the ground level while another has him curling himself into a ball as he fell to safety. A variant of the same survival story details a man riding the fall by standing in a door frame as he hurtled to the ground where he walked to safety. These urban myths celebrate the miraculous survival of an otherwise doomed man and by implication one is given hope that others may have found a way to survive. The anthrax scare has also prompted a flood of urban myths including a belief that by ironing your incoming mail you will neutralise the anthrax! Another suggested hefty doses of garlic and oregano oil would negate the poison.

The urban myths sit alongside the oral history interviews being recorded as part of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress collection program. The Center has encouraged oral historians and folklorists to record such accounts for a national archive of stories of heroism, survival, final telephone calls made by building tenants and airline passengers. These memories will likely prove to be a far more effective form of stress sharing than the flippant nature of humour.