Laughing to the Grave: Using Humour to Cope

My wife left a note on the fridge that said, “This isn’t working.”

I’m not sure what she’s talking about. I opened the fridge door and it’s working fine!

A man walks into a magic forest and tries to cut down a talking tree. 

“You can’t cut me down,” the tree complains. “I’m a talking tree!” 

The man responds, “You may be a talking tree, but you will dialogue.”

Tell me, how did these jokes make you feel? Did you let out a slight chuckle? Or did you just roll your eyes? Of course, everyone has their own unique sense of humour and what they consider can or cannot be joked about, especially regarding more sensitive topics. Nonetheless, if you did give out a chuckle, you may possess a darker sense of humour. 

So, What Even Is Dark Humour?

Dark humour/black humour refers to any type of humour that involves and treats morbid and “taboo” subjects such as death, disease, and deformity with bitter amusement, presenting it in a humorous light. 

Recent studies have suggested that an appreciation for dark humour may be an indicator of intelligence; the enjoyment of black humour tends to be linked with higher levels of verbal and nonverbal intelligence. 

But, have you ever wondered why people can laugh at serious topics such as death or illnesses? What may be even more shocking is that it is often the victims who make jokes about their own predicament! 

Founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, first postulated the theory of humour in 1905; he argued that humour has a cathartic effect on people by providing them an avenue to safely disperse their repressed emotions through witty remarks. Essentially, one could think of humour as a form of coping against the stress and anxiety of reality.

However, it is important to note that while coping and defence mechanisms are commonly used interchangeably, they are actually separate things.

Coping vs Defence Mechanisms

Traditionally, it has been suggested that defence mechanisms relate to unconscious responses involving internal and external factors such as feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. It may also change an individual’s internal psychological state, such as denial. In contrast, coping mechanisms are conscious strategies adopted by individuals to help manage difficult emotions caused by external situations. 

Although both act to help individuals manage their stress and anxiety, the distinction lies in the level of consciousness underlying each action; coping mechanisms are conscious efforts, whereas defence mechanisms are usually unconscious psychological strategies that may involve distorting reality to protect one’s state of mind. 

Humour is an adaptive coping mechanism and is generally considered a healthy and effective stress management strategy. Although some people may scoff at the idea, dark humour has long been recognised for its therapeutic capability in helping people cope with traumatic experiences in their life. In addition, people whose professions involve darker topics such as crime, illness, or death- for example morticians or police officers- may employ dark humour as a valid means of coping. 

When experiencing a deluge of negative emotions like grief or anxiety,  dark humour can be a means of welcoming other more positive emotions such as amusement into our bodies. Laughing also allows people to feel a semblance of control over their (hopeless) situation; they can at least choose how they respond to it and not be “defeated” by despair.

Tracing The Roots Of Dark Humour

Dark humour is often believed to be a relatively new phenomenon, with its origins taking roots at the start of the postmodernism movement in the 20th Century. Indeed, the French had coined the term “Humor Noir” back in the 1930s- however, researchers such as Stevanovic have since come out to argue that its roots may go deeper than we initially thought, specifically into the times of Greek antiquity. He argues that the concepts of death and humour were closely interlinked and were often depicted in the various epitaphs (funeral monuments) and epigrams from that era. 

Olga Freidenberg believes that the ancient Greeks upheld a twofold worldview, far different from the modern perspective. The ancient Greeks believed that the universe was composed of two “equal” principles – one being reality and the other being hubristic or parodic; this is loosely similar to the concept of yin and yang in Taoism. Together, they embody a complete picture of nature; the melding of the pure and impure in life. 

The term “hubristic” refers to antique parody in which the comedic aspects of a particularly serious issue are greatly exaggerated, dispelling any sort of seriousness attached to it. It is at the moment in which the parodic side is separated from reality that  life and death truly become discernible. It provides a transient escape from all notions of death that taint reality; the act of laughing at the funeral itself represents the first stage of coming back to reality and embracing acceptance of death.

These epitaphs are commonly worded in a sarcastic, ironic, or grotesque manner. For example, the epitaph on Timocreon, a renowned poet in 480 BC, reads, “Having drunk many things and eaten many things and spoken many slander about people, I lie here, Timocreon of Rhodes.

Modern Day Dark Humour

The usage of dark humour as a coping mechanism for difficult situations has inevitably trickled down through passages of time and is still apparent in today’s everyday comedy. Particularly in times ravaged with terrifying phenomena like natural disasters, death, war, and other unimaginable circumstances. We might question what exactly is this allure for dark comedy, and why are we increasingly drawn to it as a means of dealing with difficult circumstances?

Diving into widespread humour that is readily available on the internet, dark comedy is no challenge to find thanks to its mass sharing among young netizens. Dark humour is becoming perhaps a defining trait of generation Z in the form of deprecating jokes and multi-layered morbid memes, in what is labelled as “meme culture”. The Coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on this humour and the Internet has only amplified its influence, with many Generation Z students propagating memes and jokes that can seem disturbing as a means of coping with the uncertainties that the pandemic has brought about; namely social disconnect, mortality, and economic disparities. However, the pandemic is not the only source material for dark jokes, with subjects like World War 3, environmental disasters and even school shootings far from being too out of reach to joke about.

Nevertheless, behind these guises of laughter may lie a more disconcerting reality. Generation Z’s guiding philosophy can be described as absurdist in nature—the perspective that despite humanity’s efforts at seeking out inherent meaning, one will only fail to discover a rationale in the universe or life because there is ultimately none. Generation Z’s existence is intricately linked with digitalisation, making the Internet a focal point of their lives, which can only mean a bombardment of information regarding bleak realities. This constant connectivity means that Gen Z are hyper-aware of social issues from a young age, and due to their youth, are blatantly conscious of how little they may be able to contribute to resolving them. The existential dread that many Gen Z individuals experience can only be a precursor to the absurdist manner in which they deal with these situations.

Jokes about imminent death and enlisting in the military for the next world war may appear apathetic but in truth, does not express Gen Z’s lack of care for these adversities. In reality, their dark humour is only a way of being able to continue on in a world full of uncertainties, even if they care a great deal about solving its inherited crises. On the contrary, Gen Z has a greater likelihood of being stressed regarding social issues compared to any other generations. Looking at the world through a pessimistic lens is arguably inevitable for Gen Z as they have grown up with talks about the world’s issues and how they must play a part in restructuring and reforming social, political, and economic systems to ensure its continuity. This is without a doubt a lot of pressure to put on young people. Although centred around real and serious issues, Gen Z’s extreme connectivity has allowed them to utilise jokes over collective stressors and use humour as an escapism from their gloomy perspective of the future.

Going Through the Spectrum: Is Using Humour to Cope Good or Bad?

The grand debate about humour as a coping mechanism persists and the big question remains: is using humour as a tool of coping through situations a healthy method?

The verdict? The opinions are split. For the most part, using humour as a coping mechanism is viewed as a positive and rather robust tool against trying situations, and is embedded in the notions of positive psychology. Humour has been found to significantly reduce feelings of stress during challenging times and is a tool for anxiety reduction when one feels that a situation is beyond their control or there is absolutely no hope. However, humour does not only provide some psychological relief to the humourist themself, but also to the people around them who are experiencing a similar adversity, igniting a social bond that enables people to feel connected. 

When the world seems too dark to go on, it is especially comforting to know that there are others who are experiencing the same things you are and that they understand your need to cope with it in a more escapist method. Using humour can also shift one’s perspective on the hardship that they are dealing with so that they see the situation in a more positive light, which ultimately transforms a person’s interpretation of the threat level of the experience. This enables one to adjust their frame of mind into a more positive and hopeful one by reappraising the situation as a challenge instead of a threat. Moreover, humour can be used as a distraction from stressful contexts reducing one’s attention from focusing on the pain and potential risks. 

Nevertheless, using humour, particularly dark humour, to persevere through adversities has its downsides. Often, when one engages in dark humour, it derives from a feeling of isolation due to the hardships that they are experiencing and serve as an attempt to reconnect with others, even if it is simply on a superficial level. Although dark humour can be an attempt to gain emotional support, it can essentially drive the people that we are seeking that support from away because of their discomfort, which may bring additional emotional distress. Using dark humour is to its core a way of minimising difficult situations, but some may become attached to it and suppress their actual emotions to use humour as a façade of successful coping. Doing so can only hinder the actual healing process as the person does not actually address the emotions that they are experiencing, which may manifest in aggressive tendencies when they no longer have dark humour to hide behind.

All in all, using humour as a coping mechanism may seem like a ghastly juxtaposition for many as it seems to spur laughter at the expense of another’s suffering, but on the other hand, transforming your shared suffering from a fuel of grief to one of laughter can be liberating. It can show us that perhaps in all that is dark, there is a moment of laughter to be found after all and maybe, just maybe, when someone makes a joke during uncomfortable contexts, or giggles at a morbid subject, we might be a bit more forgiving knowing that that laughter is multifaceted and holds deeper meaning than what it seems.

By: Julia Rosalyn and Yun Jing

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