Boom Fall Down
Dark Humor as Stress Relief
By Tom McMurtry, DAIS, Police Officer (RET)
CPT, U.S. Army, Special Forces (RET)
*This is an article from the Fall 2023 issue of Combat Stress
My wife and I recently had the opportunity to babysit for two of our grandchildren, a boy aged 8 and a girl aged 3, while their parents were gone for a long weekend. It was a wonderful time for the generations to reconnect. As I watched my vivacious and energetic granddaughter fill the family room with dancing and laughter, I was reminded that my maternal grandmother’s earliest childhood memory was when she was about the same age.
The Parlor Trick
To understand the story of this memory, I need to provide some background and describe the setting. Henrietta Wahlenmaier was the daughter of a successful businessman in Columbus, Ohio. At the time, there was no radio, no television, and no internet. News came from newspapers or messages that arrived at the door by telegram. Business and social connections were established and maintained through face-to-face contacts and physical gatherings. Many of these social gatherings happened in people’s homes. Many homes of that era had a front room designed for this called the parlor. On the appointed day and time, those arriving would be greeted by the hosts and once everyone was there, the hosts would often offer a small entertainment to their guests to break the ice and set the mood for the evening. These were known as parlor tricks and in a way, still survive today in a form of entertainment known as close magic. My grandmother’s memory was of her being the focus of such a small public entertainment, which her father called ‘boom fall down.’
Henrietta would be allowed to stay up late, wear a party dress, and have her hair done. At the appointed time, her father would ask for everyone’s attention and call for his daughter to come and stand in the middle of the parlor rug. He would then ask, “Henrietta, what happened to President McKinley?” My grandmother would make a face, hit herself in the chest, say “BOOM,” fall on her back and play dead, while the adults exploded with laughter. Three-year-old Henrietta was called upon to do this several times until the tragic event of September 6, 1901, when President McKinley was assassinated.
I have wondered why what my grandmother did was so funny to the adults. I thought it might have been the juxtaposition of a young girl pretending to be an old man. Or was it the surprise and shock at her words and actions? Now I believe it was humor as a release from the collective social stress of the murder of a fellow Ohioan and the third American President to be assassinated in thirty-six years.
Dark or gallows humor has probably always been around in some form or another. I have heard a lot of it over my years as a combat Veteran and police officer. In these professions, there were times when my companions and I would be tired, frustrated, angry, or bored, while also often being in varying levels of physical danger and having little or no ability to improve the situation in which we found ourselves. If these ‘funny’ jokes and stories were told under different circumstances or to people unaffected by the current conditions, they could almost certainly be seen as morbid, inappropriate, or just not funny.
What must they think of us?
While serving as a fulltime police officer, I volunteered to receive additional training as an evidence technician. On one occasion, I was called to the scene of a double homicide to try to identify the bodies of two teenage boys. I used a mobile fingerprint scanner and was able to identify the first victim, who was lying on the ground. The body of the second was wedged between the front of a car and a wall, so I would have had to move the body to gain access to his hands. Someone from the Coroner’s Office needed to arrive before the body could be repositioned. So, I was part of a small group of law enforcement officials including homicide detectives and patrol officers just standing around. As time passed, we fell into conversation, which drifted from the case we were working on to more casual topics. The senior detective started telling stories of past cases, including some amusing anecdotes. After one that got everyone laughing, I looked around and saw a group of grim-faced people standing on the far side of the yellow crime scene tape watching us. I felt sure some were family members of the two young men who had died less than an hour ago. I suddenly felt terrible laughing. What must they be thinking of us?
Proceed with Caution
Studies have shown that laughing has many other measurable health benefits, beyond being a great stress reliever.1 I have seen dark humor used to great effect in lifting the mood of men whose spirits were sagging. If any of my brothers or sisters in the military or law enforcement communities use or might consider using it to achieve the intended positive effects, two factors should be kept in mind. First, the point of humor, the butt of the joke, should be carefully chosen and not directed at other members of the group. The jokes and stories told at such times can be sarcastic, ironic, or even grim, but should not be personal, bitter, or mean. Secondly, be careful of the target audience. If a joke is told to a group of people within an organization and half of the people laugh and half don’t know what was so funny, then it is an inside joke, and half the people may feel like outsiders. Even if the group is in the same rough spot as the one telling the joke, be careful that the dark humor is specific to the group and the situation. Jokes about 9/11 or the holocaust may not be funny to people stuck in an airport overnight. Dark humor should not hurt people who are already hurting.
As a young man, I remember late night comedian Johnny Carson making a joke about the death of Abraham Lincoln on Lincoln’s birthday. I have forgotten the specific joke, but it was something like “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” The joke fell flat and drew “ooohs” from the live audience. Johnny then made a comment to his sidekick, Ed McMahan, about the fact that after more than a hundred years, it was still “too soon” to tell that joke. That comment then got a big laugh. I found out later that this was a years’ long running gag. Carson, who was a student of comedy and a master at his craft, used the joke to set up the quip. The fact that the dark humor wasn’t funny, was funny.
For people under stress, I believe that almost any laugh is a good laugh. The comic Jeff Foxworth became famous by giving examples of “You might be a red neck if ….” Staying with that theme, if you laugh at any of the following examples of dark humor from the internet, you might be an Iraq Veteran.
Reporter: How can you tell the difference between a terrorist vehicle and a school bus?
Service Member: How the hell should I know I’m a drone pilot.
Why aren’t there any Walmarts in Iraq?
Because there’s a target on every corner.
A man calls the mental health hotline in Iraq.
Man: I’ve been having suicidal thoughts.
Operator: Great! Can you drive a truck?
Son in Iraq to father in the US:
Son: Dad, I’ve killed five people over here.
Dad: I killed a lot more than that in the first Gulf War.
Son: I thought you were a helicopter mechanic.
Dad: I never said I was a good one.
Be well, my brothers and sisters. Help each other and try to laugh every day.