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LUNA post: Pranks, pig guts and pain – why are we enthralled by others misfortune?

We all laughed along with Homer at ‘Man Getting Hit By Football’ (even if no one else in Springfield did).

Admit it – you just giggled, again. But there’s a big difference between poor Hans Moleman and it happening to real people, right? Yet we continue to tune in to television programs or radio shows to witness the misfortune of others.

This discussion has re-emerged off the back of a stunt that news.com.au have hailed as “one of the funniest pranks we’ve seen in a long time”. So is it funny or downright cruel?

The video, created for Brazilian talk show Progama Silvio Santos, shows patrons in various stages of fright when confronted by a doll-clutching ‘ghost girl’ who appears in their elevator after a blackout, sporadically screaming in their faces. The unwitting participants all experience understandable reactions, from shitting-my-pants to if-I-don’t-look-at-it’s-not-there, but is their legitimate fright a laughing matter?

Commenters posting in response to the Ninemsn story saw both the funny and serious sides, and while many thought it was “hilarious” or were “in tears from laughing”, others worried if any of the spooked travellers had  health issues, or worried for the safety of the child actress, lest the pranked react badly.

The stunt has also divided Twitter users, with many even commenting they would take legal action if someone tried to pull this on them:

Okay, there are pranks and then there is psychological terror. I would have sued! (Brazilian prank show)

— crabstickz (@Chris_Kendall_) November 27, 2012

So why do viewers continue to be amused, or at least entranced, by the pain, discomfort or humiliation of others?

It’s nothing new – hidden camera shows have been capturing people’s screams since the 40s, slapstick humour a la The Three Stooges still gets laughs, and professional pranking gained popularity early this millenium with Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d series (why is it funnier happening to celebrities?). Reality TV like Wipeout, or the  Japanese reality shows that sparked the Western adaptations, continue to draw audiences, with more and more tuning in to see just how the contestants fail. In these cases, are we envious of their bravado, or quite simply interested to see what spectacular way they’ll disqualify themselves? Maybe it’s because we know that most often they got themselves into it – and with shows like Fear Factor, there is most likely a giant novelty cheque waiting for them if they can muster the balls to get through it all.

On a less extreme scale, we laugh at household injuries on the hour-long montage of pain (both physical and to our intelligence) that is Australia’s Funniest Home Videos. It seems we have not outgrown Hans Moleman, as we belly laugh when daddy gets hit with a cricket bat, or mum gets bowled over by the Hills Hoist. Even infant injury seem to tickle our collective funny bone: somehow kids falling off swings or getting stuck in various pieces of furniture just makes us giggle.

Granted, these are generally innocent and saturated with the under-5 factor for cuteness, but our oft unavoidable reaction seems true for real life experiences, too: unless someone succumbs to an actual serious injury, our first instinct seems to be to laugh, rather than help.

According to ABC News Medical Reporter Joseph Brownstein, it’s simple. He saysPain makes us laugh.”

So is this just a global case of schadenfreude – pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune (Oxford University Press)?

Some have pointed to the now-tired argument that exposure to ‘violent’ cartoons during childhood has desensitised us to the suffering of others, or that it is a complex defence mechanism; butaccording to psychologists at the University of Kentucky, it’s a natural, human reaction – the Germans even regard schadenfreude as a legitimate emotion.

But regardless of our personal history, if someone has put themselves in this situation, it is more acceptable to have a laugh at their expense.

UCLA psychiatrist Dr Emanuel Maidenberg says it also depends on context, as many of these shows are clearly intended to be humourous:

Whatever pain we see is just one component of what is otherwise a funny circumstance.

It might be discomforting to think we’re all sadists at heart, but fortunately science (aka psychologist and humour research Diana Mahony) says that by laughing, we might just be letting our pent-up emotions loose – it’s not always glee that we’re deriving from these programs.

In the same way we itch if someone mentions lice, we cringe along with those Fear Factor contestants who are covered in tarantulas, feeling their legs crawling all over our own skin, and are similarly repulsed when they are forced to drink liquefied pig intestines, or bathe in a vat of cow blood (warning: video will very likely put you off dinner), but thankfully psychologists have said it is most likely because we actually feel sympathy for these people – even if we don’t exactly want to switch places.

Obviously not all pranks are taken to the extent of the Brazilian’s haunted elevator, and injury is not always the outcome or intention – sometimes seeing someone go all bug-eyed or get hit with a big foam with fright is legitimately funny. Maybe it’s time to just run with it: to stop over-analysing both these shows and our reactions (and maybe just avoid elevators for a little while…).

Oh, and watch this again:

Published at LUNA Digital.

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