Shock Horror: Folklore of Disaster 5

SHOCK HORROR: The Folklore of Disaster


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© Warren Fahey

[page 5]

To gain perspective on recent disasters it is useful to look at some of the jokes associated with earlier disasters. The 1986 explosion of the ‘Challenger’ NASA space shuttle makes for an interesting study.  These jokes appeared within a week of the accident and were soon transmitted across the world. Considering email was not as widespread one assumes that these jokes were circulated internationally by telephone, facsimile and by tourists. Interestingly television, especially late night cable, plays a role in distributing new jokes however disaster jokes tend to be a taboo for obvious reasons.

Disaster jokes, by their association with recent death, are generally told as news. “Did you hear” being a common opening:

Q: Did you hear they found a penis on the beach at Miami?
A: It was a shuttle cock. 

Joke tellers also attempt to disassociate themselves from the horror by disguising the joke as a disassociated question:

Q: Where do astronauts go on their holidays?
A: All over Florida.

Q: Have you heard of the new cocktail?
A: Seven-Up and a splash of Teachers.

Crista McCauliffe, a teacher representing ‘average Americans’ on the exploratory flight, became a continuing thread in many of the NASA jokes: 

Q: What were Christa McCauliffe’s last words?
A: And what is this little button for?

One Crista McCauliffe joke posed as a job advertisement:

Go up as a school teacher.
Come back as a marine biologist.

Sometimes the joke situation is clearly ridiculous (yet still horrific) as the teller poses the question ready to spring the answer in order to solicit a shock response:

Q: What was the last thing to go through Christa McCauliffe’s mind?
A: Her feet!

The following extract, taken from an Internet chat-room conversation, makes for insightful reading linking the NASA explosion with the World Trade Centre attack:

  “I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the Challenger
disaster. It was 1986, I was 28 years old, I was driving on the freeway
on my way to work, and I heard the news over the radio. When I arrived
at work, I was weeping. Two hours later, I heard the first Challenger
joke. Even before the Internet, these things traveled faster than light.
I probably didn’t laugh at the first joke, but by the next day I was
telling Challenger jokes to anyone who would listen. (What does NASA
stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts.)

The WTC atrocity is different from the Challenger disaster: the former
was a vicious attack and an act of mass-murder, the latter was an
accident. Also, the number of victims of the WTC attack is overwhelming
— an immense wave of human anguish has washed over us. Nonetheless, I
was waiting for the jokes. Soon, I was CRAVING a good joke.

I don’t mean the predictable kinds of jokes that dehumanize the
perceived enemy. I mean the simple black, or gallows humor that
naturally follows any misfortune.

Well, I’m doing my best. I’ve made scores of box-cutter jokes. They
weren’t very funny, but at least I tried. The day after the attack, I
remarked to someone who was annoyed at me, “Well, geez, it’s not like I
flew a plane into your house.” No one laughed, and someone threw a brick
at me.

Today, a friend emailed me a couple of pictures. One is a proposal for
the new twin towers for the rebuilt WTC: they look like the old towers,
but with huge holes through the middle to allow planes to fly through.
The second picture is an animated graphic of the WTC towers nimbly
dodging out of the path of airplanes, and is titled “In a perfect
OK, now that’s more like it. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but definitely on
the right track.”


To fully understand the role of jokes in folklore we also need to understand the psychological status of the joke teller and receiver. We also need to factor in the reality that what was true of orally distributed jokes is not necessarily the same for technologically distributed jokes. As with all joke exchanges, the teller reveals him or herself in the choice of subject and in the handling of them, though it is not always possible to put an exact psychological nametag to what one hears. In the NASA astronaut series the teller often attempts to remain masked behind some frantic pretense that he is passing on a true anecdote that undoubtedly came from a ‘good friend’.

If one was to select an obvious local study topic invariably it would be the folklore associated with the death of Azaria Chamberlain, the infant daughter of a Seventh Day Adventist pastor and his wife Linda Chamberlain. This event was surrounded in superstition, rumour and disbelief. The idea of a wild dingo native dog stealing and consuming the baby made for a horrible and somewhat improbable story and the folklore machine went into overdrive. The Chamberlains were brought before the courts, Lindy was unsympathetically placed in jail and the question of ‘did she or didn’t she?’ nagged at the national conscience. Even after her acquittal the family was surrounded by doubt. Jokes about the incident came fast and furious to taunt the Chamberlains and to sway public opinion. They were unkind and downright cruel but they would not desist as the community came to terms with the horror of the baby’s death.

Q: How do you bring up a baby in the outback?
A: Burp a dingo.

Q: What does a dingo call a baby in a pram?
A: Meals on wheels.

Q: What do vegetarian dingos eat?
A: Cabbage patch kids.

Q: What is the definition of revenge?
A: A baby with a dingo in its mouth.

Q: Why do dingoes like tents?
A: Because they like window shopping.

Q: What noise does the Chamberlain’s doorbell make?
A: Ding-go.

Q. What did every pregnant woman in Australia fear at one time ?
A. A dingo with a yabby pump.

Q. If the baby had turned out to be male & black, what was Lindy going to call it ?
A. Man-dingo.

It is interesting to see how joke subjects remain in our collective minds. A good example of this is evident in the meeting of Azaria Chamberlain/Dingo and the Ansett collapse. One would imagine the two subjects to be miles apart however, on the front page of New Zealand’s The Press magazine of October 6, 2001, screamed the headline ‘The Dingo Stole My Airline’. The story continued to recount investor Gordon McAdam’s tale of woe: “Those Aussies keep underarm bowling us, and we just keep on taking it. Why isn’t Ansett back up flying again? Because it’s a dog and dogs don’t fly.”

Another example of jokes crossing timeframes brings together the dingo and the disappearance of one of Australia’s Prime Ministers in a swimming accident off Cheviot Beach, Victoria.

Q: Who was responsible for the disappearance of Harold Holt.
A:  A dingo with a snorkel.