It's Halloween 2014 and about nine months into the worst Ebola outbreak in history. The World Health Organization has estimated that well over 10,000 cases have been found, resulting in about 5,000 deaths from the dreaded virus so far. Concern over Ebola has led to quarantines, airport health measures and even healthy children who have not been to Ebola areas being kept out of school.
The invisibility of the Ebola threat is psychologically frightening. The virus can't be seen, smelled, tasted, heard or detected by the average person. We don't know who might have it, or even if we have it - since the initial symptoms mimic the flu - unless confirmed by a doctor. It's an invisible, silent killer, and the threat could come from anywhere.
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While fear has gripped many people across the country, others have taken solace in gallows humor about the disease. Over the past month Ebola jokes have circulated on social media, and many people are even wearing Ebola-themed Halloween costumes. Even The New Yorker ran a short satirical piece about Ebola fears recently.
Horror Humor For folklorists, humor is closely related to rumor and urban legends, which also circulate widely following tragedy. For example recently a social media message claiming that salt water can cure or prevent Ebola went viral and caused illness and deaths in West Africa. The original message, said to have begun as a text message sent by a female student in Nigeria, was apparently intended as a joke. However it was only one of many bogus Ebola "cures" or preventatives circulating in rumors and online.
Why would someone - and especially a West African - joke about Ebola? What's the role of humor in helping people cope? Jokes and humor soon emerge after every tragedy: From the deaths of Princess Diana and Michael Jackson to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and even the famines in Ethiopia, there is no event too horrible to joke about.
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In a chapter titled "Challenger Shuttle Jokes" in volume 10 of "Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression," editor and folklorist Reinhold Aman discussed the roots of gallows humor:
"Americans can joke about such tragedies as the Ethiopian famine and the shuttle explosion (because) we are saturation-bombed by media coverage, especially television showing us again and again the dying, fly-covered babies and old ones. For months and months we see - and can't escape from - the same story about dying babies presented by network anchors... This over-exposure was one reason why Ethiopian jokes became popular. Telling such ‘jokes' (also) functions as a coping mechanism to drain off our anxieties concerning our own mortality."
Aman also noted that he received his first joke about the Challenger shuttle disaster - tasteless humor about what the acronym NASA stands for - two days after the accident. Jokes about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks also began a few days after the event, and within two weeks a faked photo of a tourist atop the World Trade Center showing a hijacked plane in the background about to hit the building widely circulated. The satirical newspaper The Onion famously published two weeks after 9/11 and brought humor to the situation.
Yet finding humor in tragedy can be a very difficult task and sometimes the humor goes too far. For example actor Gilbert Gottfried lost his voice-over job as the AFLAC insurance duck after tweeting jokes about the 2011 Japanese tsunami. What seems funny to one person may be crass and ugly to another.
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Mike Celestino, writer and director of the documentary film about edgy comedy "That's Not Funny," told Discovery News, "I think humor, for some people at least, is the first line of defense when confronted with tragedy they wouldn't otherwise people able to process. Gilbert Gottfried's tsunami jokes were shocking to people who didn't get that the joke was that they were shocking.
"Ebola jokes are something of a different animal, because most people haven't seen direct evidence of the thousands who have died in the way that we were able to see video of the tsunami devastation almost immediately. There's something visceral about seeing a densely-populated city submerged in a flash flood that I could see turning people off to jokes about it. I think Ebola jokes only became ‘acceptable' to us once Ebola was perceived as a threat to America. I don't recall hearing many Ebola jokes while the outbreak of the disease was limited to West Africa, but as soon as it hit the United States, the jokes were de rigueur for Twitter humorists and late-night talk show hosts alike."
In fact much of the gallows humor about Ebola and other disasters is not directed at the victims themselves but instead at those who react - and overreact - to the situation or may be faulted for creating it. Whether you enjoy dark humor or find it offensive and tasteless, people will always find humor in tragedy.