Gallows Humor

“Palmer was hanged outside Stafford Prison on 14th June 1856, watched by an enormous crowd of some 30,000 people. As he stepped onto the rather rickety gallows he turned to his gaoler and said “Are you sure it’s safe?” — via

Manhattan, a place I’ve always considered a spiritual home and sometimes an actual one, actually turned into a real-life version of all those post-apocalyptic movies about Manhattan on Monday evening as Superstorm Sandy hit landfall. We all learned that what the disaster movies miss in their bathos is something elemental to human behavior in these sorts of situations: Gallows humor.

Those of us with access to the Internet watched enthralled as the center of world commerce, New York City, was swallowed by flooding that eventually left 43 people dead and millions of dollars of property damaged. Because of all of the aforementioned disaster movies, the scenes broadcast were eerily familiar. Fake photos of the carnage abounded, trumped only by the more horrific, and real photos of the carnage. And jokes, lots of jokes.

The evolution of the Instagram feed for #Sandy over the past couple of days has been fascinating: What started out on Sunday night as a steady stream of 10 jokey images per second referencing Spongebob Squarepants or “Ice Age” or “Grease” or people otherwise laughing in the face of the storm’s imminent danger, slowly turned into a steady stream of 10 images per second referencing real survival strategies (stockpiles of non-perishables and water) as the storm approached.

By the time Sandy hit Manhattan, the feed was 10 images per second, late last night. Images of insane flooding and the facades falling of buildings and cars floating by in the water. Interspersed with jokes.

And the same on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr: The @ElBloombito Twitter account was on a roll this a.m., as the real El Bloombito gave parts of his recovery speech in Spanish. His sign language translator Lydia Callis became Internet famous, with people building numerous Tumblrs and fan pages in her honor.

Nowhere in “28 Days Later” do you see people Gangnam-styling in the background of news reports of oncoming floods, or a guy running around in a horse head mask defying Mother Nature, Instagramming his costume and alerting the Internet about his plan beforehand. (Horse Head Guy will you marry me?) But that’s what happened in the social media storm and resulting Internet campfire that surrounded Hurricane Sandy: Countless quips about Sandy-themed Halloween costumes and the #Frankenstorm interspersed with sincere entreaties to “Stay safe” or “disaster updates” from friends.

Sure gallows humor is nothing new: People have always made jokes like this when faced with their own mortality, from murderer William Palmer above to the literary playwright Oscar Wilde remarking “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do” on his deathbed. Humans like to feel in control of their fate, even in cases where they are not so at all, and making light of a bad situation or threat at least conceptually takes away some of its power.

Up until now, though, offline media has had a hard time spotlighting this behavior, because it’s not cheery and mainstream and not easily advertised against. On the Internet, which revels in niches, gallows humor can take center stage. The Internet amplifies these jokes to the point where people, like this prankster college student or Horse Head Guy, actually try to aim for meme status.

This morning, we woke up and the first thing many of us did was think “Is New York going to be okay?” And as we turned to Instagram (and Twitter and Facebook) to find out, the apocalyptic pics of last night turned into pics of rainbows over Redpoint, Brooklyn. Or Governor Christie joking about rescheduling Halloween. And we then knew it was over, at least the worst part.

Image vtjkru