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(This Monty Python sketch got me thinking)

Could a joke be funny enough to actually kill a person? By "joke", I'm referring to the written/typed and narrated types of "jokes" (videos, pictures, comedic actions don't count).

Conditions:

  1. Joke should be more or less equally lethal if either read silently or narrated.

  2. Joke shouldn't take more than 5 minutes to mentally read/say out completely.

  3. Death = (Brain death) + (Heart or multiple organ failure)

  4. Creator of the joke must be able to record/write/type down the joke (albeit, while laughing throughout the process) before he dies. (Just Assume he's able to cook up the joke in under a minute)


Possible reasons why such a joke may not exist:

(Victim hears/reads the joke.) I suppose there exists the possibility of the victim passing out due to exhaustion (since he was laughing so hard)...which would prevent him from laughing to death. So any answer that's going to be accepted must factor this into account.

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    $\begingroup$ Are visual "jokes" allowed? edition.cnn.com/2017/03/17/us/… $\endgroup$ – Cyrus May 30 '17 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ Everyone who is experiential-ly qualified to answer this question, is unfortunately dead. Which makes this an opinion-based question and therefore not suitable for... -- just kidding. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor May 30 '17 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ sidenote: This is the premise of the most excellent Infinte Jest which has a killer movie as the plot's (warning: tvtropes.org) MacGuffin. Copies of the movie are mailed to assassination targets. $\endgroup$ – Segfault May 30 '17 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ This question is the topic of a Worldbuilding Meta question: How was the question on a lethal joke off-topic when most [weapons] are on-topic? $\endgroup$ – a CVn May 31 '17 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ Asimov already realized, that jokes are extraterestrial (or do you know someone who created his own joke and it was really funny?). So I guess you need an alien intervention, to create that joke. Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jokester $\endgroup$ – Lot Jun 2 '17 at 10:46

18 Answers 18

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Can people die from laughter? Yes. There is a wikipedia page about this. However, such incidents are far and few between - I found three in the past century, and one of them was exacerbated by a heart condition.

Are some of those cases from a joke? Only one incident I found confirmed the cause of death to be a joke as defined in the question (Wesley Parsons)

So, given the case of Mr. Parsons, yes people have died from laughing at jokes.

Could there be a universal killing joke? Absolutely not. People have different senses of humor, and so will laugh different amounts at a given joke. Therefore, it won't work on everyone. In addition, there is very little research into how exactly people die from laughing, so a given person could be immune to death by laughter.

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    $\begingroup$ Good examples, but what if it wasn't laughter which served as the lethal effect? What if none of the characteristics of the joke as such were the fatal instrument? It could be that its lethality and its being a joke are related merely by co-incidence — one may serve as transport for the other. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food May 31 '17 at 6:47
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    $\begingroup$ I once laughed so much, another friend laughed then vomited. $\endgroup$ – Nick T May 31 '17 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ @can-ned_food Godelian Shock Humour? The ultimate non-sequitur? $\endgroup$ – Carcer Jun 1 '17 at 22:32
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    $\begingroup$ @can-ned_food: So a brown-note phrase that happens to be hiliarous? That's just as plausible as a regular BNP. Actually, more likely, as humor is commonly accepted to be a brain's error state. Though I personally don't think universal memetic weapons are actually possible. $\endgroup$ – ltmauve Jun 2 '17 at 4:10
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    $\begingroup$ True, every person is different. Is should be a joke based on a very early stage of mind development, maybe a very basic one that doesn't change too much when children grow. Or maybe a computer virus can make a customized joke for everyone... analyzing its facebook profile. There could also be a minimal set of killing jokes.. maybe 64 .. or 666. :-) $\endgroup$ – yucer Jun 4 '17 at 12:09
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There are some issues with this, but let's handwave the deadliness part for now (we'll get there). The first issues you need to deal with is spread:

If knowledge of the joke can only be gained by reading or hearing it, then everyone who hears or reads it will die from the lethal joke. In theory, it cannot be written down in the first place, because the writer would need full knowledge of the joke, and thus die before finishing writing the joke. This, naturally, assumes everyone is equally vulnerable to the joke.

Let's assume now that some percentage of the population is immune to the joke. Perhaps they don't have some underlying condition, or they just don't have a sense of humor. Now, we do have a mechanism for which the joke could be distributed throughout the world. By these people intentionally telling the joke (there's some issues here in that if the person did not find the joke funny, or realized it would kill people, they would not necessarily spread the joke).

Your joke is basically a virulent disease. If it is too virulent, then people will die before spreading it, but if it isn't virulent enough, you don't get your desired effect (a deadly joke). It's possible the joke is a "thinker" and takes some time to be funny enough to be deadly. Perhaps enough that you will, after being "infected," tell it to others, before it kills you. It is also possible to have people "immune" to the joke, who will never get it, but may continue to spread it throughout the world.

In terms of plausibility, I'm going to go with no, for many reasons. First, it takes some severe underlying conditions to die from laughter. It's possible something in the joke is so obsessing you forget to eat or drink, but the body really tries hard to live, and overriding these urges takes a lot. The most promising route (and easiest to hand-wave) is that the joke sets up some kind of dissonance in the subconscious, and when the person sleeps, they literally scare themselves to death by some nightmare. You could, in theory, also have a logic trap that locks up the brain, but you'd have to get beyond the brain's natural Paradox Absorbing Crumple Zones.

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    $\begingroup$ I hadn't considered the possibility of the joke being "a thinker" good point. $\endgroup$ – apaul May 30 '17 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ I thought humor was "the brain's natural Paradox Absorbing Crumple Zones" and just like airbags misuse can lead to injury or death. $\endgroup$ – user25818 May 30 '17 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ Let's say the joke creator had a program that would output random words in a "joke" and by astronomical chance happened upon this deadly joke. Since the joke was kept open for more than X time, it was sent off in a spam email that can auto-forward through all the emails in a user's contact list. $\endgroup$ – David Starkey May 30 '17 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidStarkey That could work, but seems ridiculous. $\endgroup$ – Marshall Tigerus May 30 '17 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ everyone who hears or reads it will die - Universal Comphrension is assumed here. If the joke is in English and I don't know English, I will simply treat it as a set of symbols ( powerful runes) and keep transcribing it, killing English population on whim. $\endgroup$ – Swayam Siddha May 31 '17 at 6:32
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As a comedian, I write jokes. Some always make people laugh, but will never make me laugh, since I created it. I saw how the sausage is made. I know the misdirection, and then punchline is coming. I believe the joke writer would be immune to the humor and its consequences. Nobody likes a comedian to laugh at their own joke.

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    $\begingroup$ "breaking" is a cheap, but time honored tradition in comedy. From Redd Foxx, to SNL, to 30 Rock. People laugh at their own jokes to great effect. It's a cheap gag, but people still do it. $\endgroup$ – apaul Jun 1 '17 at 7:09
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    $\begingroup$ I end up doing it sometimes, when I know the audience is along for the ride, and the punchline is very misdirected. I think it's alright to let out a chuckle during a laugh break, too, to release tension. But a comic typically doesn't laugh at their joke as hard as an audience does. $\endgroup$ – wizardzz Jun 1 '17 at 16:38
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It would work if the joke's creator wasn't human. This is exactly the sort of malarkey you might expect from an Elder God like Cthulhu, or an alien scientist wanting to test the frailty of Man, or a space-clown who enjoys ironic carnage.

It is probable that such a joke would not kill straight away but initiate a decent into madness followed by stroke, heart-attack, grisly suicide or being killed by security forces in mid-rampage (all while screaming the joke and laughing maniacally).

Knock-knock.
Who's there?
Cthulhu.
Cthu-who?... Wait... What?! Ahhh MY BRAIN!!!
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    $\begingroup$ Or, it could be accidental. Maybe the propagator doesn't know they are murdering their recipients, or doesn't even recognize the observable condition as the faux pas that it is. Nobody seems to respond favorably to the joke, and so they go on looking for someone else who does. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food May 31 '17 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ @can-ned_food doomed to wonder the Cosmos for all eternity, determined to get a laugh because it's a really good joke, I swear! Sounds like something the crew of the Enterprise might run into. $\endgroup$ – ktyldev May 31 '17 at 16:48
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    $\begingroup$ If you are familiar with the Elder Scrolls game series, this seems like the type of thing Sheogorath would do. $\endgroup$ – user2259716 Jun 1 '17 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ Shouldn't it go something like this? -"Knock, knock" -"Who's there?" -"Cthul" -"Cthul who?" -"Indeed" $\endgroup$ – CompuChip Jun 4 '17 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ K̶̲̬̰̀͜ͅn̴͉͆̈́́̑͝o̶̡̳̗̠̤̽c̸̪͌̆̒̏͘k̶̤͉͍̼̉̐́̉͜,̸̡̡̺̭̣͑́͗ ̸̱̰̖̃̆̍͆K̶̝̞̬̝͔̎͗͛n̵̼̩͔̲̈́͑̽̽o̵͔̺̟̒̄̃̄c̸̱͐̓̃̚k̴̳̼̣͍̀̊̆͝ͅ!̷̱̪̰̜̞̈́̂͆̕ ̷̰̀͑H̵͇̦̹̜̋̚á̴̡̩̦͎̘ ̸̬̓́h̸͍̱̝̪̭́̈́̌̑å̴̻̼̭͈̒͝ ̵̨̹́̅̀̽h̷̤͂͋̍a̷̠̲͎͘ ̶̜̹́͆͌̕h̷̙̦̔̒a̷̲̒́̈́̀̎ ̴̛͚͔̭̂͐h̴̯͙̱̟̱̉͘a̶͔͛!̸̛͕͈͔͊!̷̩̪̼̬̈!̸̱̺̤̪̹̉̈́͛̾̍ ̶̖͇̆̈́̅͂Ĭ̸̘͉̖̦̻̂̀ţ̶̟̳̽͂͝͝ͅ ̵̠̯͉̖̇̽̿͌ç̶̟̿͘ö̵̧̦͈̖m̸̨͍̂̇e̶̫̜̖͒̔͗͠ś̸̛̲̪̪͎̤!̵͚́̒͐!̸̟̯͓̒̀!̷̡͎͖̈́̇͝!̷̝͎̼̺̿͗͠ ̶͖͗̃̽͋͘ͅ.̵̠̜̬̈́́͘ ̵̨͖̞̻̑̅͑.̵̨̭͖̙̾͝ ̵̺̈́͒́.̴͙͠͝ ̸͓͔͇̆͊͗.̶̻̳̹͎̍͝͝ ̶̧͉̗͍̗͂̔͛̃̀I̷̼̎͋T̷͉̪̭̣͕͐̿̔͐͐ ̸̼͖͖̆̃̀̅C̸͎̮͊Ò̶̖̳̻̬͂̚̕͠Ṁ̸̧͕͐̈́Ȇ̸̳͙͍̀̈́Ś̶̠̮̆̓̏!̵̣̾̑̇̽!̸̝̣̮͋!̴̺͆͑̕!̵̡͍͈͕̿̇̾́ $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jun 10 '18 at 21:35
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In order for the joke to be created in the first place, the creator would have to not "get it", or he would be the first and only victim before he could relate it either verbally, or in writing.

So, your creator should either create it by accident, if of low intelligence, or autistic or have some other basic lack of sense of humor.

Then, the spread of said killing joke would have to be through a stealth-vector. The best kind would be one that would take time to "sink in", the equivalent of a gestation period of a virus so that a person could pass it on before they "got it". Upon getting the joke a person would laugh so hard and long as to cause either cardiac arrest or asphyxiation. Both causes of death are known to be the results of too much laughter.

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    $\begingroup$ Why would being autistic have anything to do with it? $\endgroup$ – apaul May 30 '17 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ My bad... Ya... Obvious blind spot... "I'm autistic and I get jokes" does not equal "all autistic people get jokes" $\endgroup$ – apaul May 30 '17 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ @apaul34208 Many of us don't, especially those of us who suffer from extreme literalism. $\endgroup$ – Richard U May 30 '17 at 23:40
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    $\begingroup$ If it's a weaponized joke of mass murder, none of the above is a problem. It could be invented semi-accidentally by a propaganda officer, who speaks enough enemy language to tell jokes, but still lacks some cultural background to fully understand all of them. Then we spread it, their cowardly savages all die, our valiant freedom fighters are completely immune. $\endgroup$ – Headcrab May 31 '17 at 0:49
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    $\begingroup$ The lethqlity of the joke could be culturally specific. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 31 '17 at 5:20
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Umm... The obvious problem would be the death of the joke creator (as depicted in the Monty Python sketch) If such a thing were possible, how does the creator protect themselves from their own creation? How would they know that they had created a lethal joke? How could they share their creation?

Luckily no such thing is possible without other significant factors, such as the victim having a pre-existing heart condition or breathing problems... This is stretching things pretty far though. A victim so predisposed to death will die under any significant strain, even a mildly entertaining joke may put them at risk.

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A lot of responses on here seem to be unable to get past the obstacle of the joke creator dying from thinking of the joke. That isn't a real obstacle, since, in theory, the joke could be devised by an AI program.

Also, a lot of responses seem to be unable to get past the obstacle of how a messenger could relay the joke without dying. That also isn't a real obstacle, since the joke could be delivered via an internet message, telegram, video, etc. without human intervention. It's not unreasonable that after AI generates the joke, it could, in an automated fashion, use a bot account to send a private message to the victim via social media, or create a video and post it on youtube, or something of that nature. It is definitely within a computer program's ability to automatically generate videos, and you have probably seen some on youtube without knowing it.

Can a person die from laughing at a joke? Yes. For the most part, this has a lot more to do with the person's overall health and psyche than the contents of the joke itself. But if a joke were gargantuanly hilarious, it might be able to kill many healthy people. It would just have to be a multiple of as funny as a joke that could kill an unhealthy person.

Is a person and/or AI clever enough to construct a joke that is that funny? All I can say to speak to that is that there are already automated systems that make psychological profiles of everybody in America, use AI to formulate memes / rhetoric that would be most persuasive to influencing their opinion, and distribute it through social media using bots. So the same approach would definitely be usable to make automated systems that can make a deep psychological profile on a specific assassination target and formulate jokes that would be highly funny for that person. Even moreso, since said jokes are targetted for that person's unique psychological make-up, it might be lethal only to the target and some other similar people, and therefore might be sub-lethal for most other human messengers that are telling the joke. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage

Also, circle back to the theory that a lethal joke would kill the writer of the joke itself... if it is such a struggle to construct a joke that is lethal, and if your very best effort is barely sufficient to do the job, then this joke wouldn't be lethal to anyone that is marginally less vulnerable. So, for example, if a human architect of the joke found the joke 20% less funny, then it wouldn't kill them (this is a stretch, since people often find their own jokes funny). But messengers on the other hand... it's very plausible to teach the joke to a messenger in a way that is very unfunny, for example, by repeating the setup hundreds of times before they ever hear the punchline, or by teaching them the joke while under chemical sedation so that their heart rate never gets too high. By the time they're reciting the joke in a live setting, they've already heard the joke under sedation many times, they've rehearsed it in rote fashion, and the joke has gotten boring and routine.

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    $\begingroup$ Related, AI and jokes: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jokester $\endgroup$ – CDspace May 31 '17 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for writing this answer so I don't have to. The obvious answer is machine learning; in the next few hundred years or so, an ML algorithm trained to detect, measure and generate humor could potentially write jokes orders of magnitude funnier than anything we have today. (I say this with a touch of irony, I guess. Humor seems to be getting more opaque and less rules-based all the time.) $\endgroup$ – Isaac Lyman May 31 '17 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ Or as @Andrey suggested, tell messengers the punchline first so they will be immune to the joke as a whole. (This may not work for some jokes). But anyway, thank you writing an answer that doesn't assume the joke has to have 100% lethality for everyone who "gets" it. The question ask for that, but most other answers seem to be assuming it. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Jun 1 '17 at 12:37
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I can remember at least two stories using somewhat similar ideas.

One was Henry Kuttner's "Nothing but Gingerbread Left", where they write a song in German that doesn't kill, but is "going around a guy's skull, and he'll find it difficult to concentrate", and it only works on Germans (it's a short story about the World War II time).

The other one is of a Russian author, I don't think it ever got translated to any other language. It is about a KGB scientist who invents a phrase that kills you if you are an "average" native speaker of Russian language and if you read the phrase from a piece of paper with your eyes. The author takes a serious and scientific-esque approach to the story, according to which the phrase is composed in such a way that it activates specific areas of the brain so that their electric activity resonates through some deeper structures of the brain (controlling the heart, lungs etc.), putting them into disarray.

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  • $\begingroup$ I guess you mean Spell of Body Spirits by Leonid Kaganov. There is a translation. $\endgroup$ – svavil May 31 '17 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ There's another similar, but I can't remember author/title. What I do remember, is that it's about a problem which causes a human brain to enter an unbreakable loop once it's comprehended. A professor of Computer Science spontaneously stumbles on it during a lecture, first he goes catatonic, then most of the rest of the class follow. While the class dimwit is being interrogated, about what happened, he says "Oh, I see..." and follows his classmates into catatonia. It's spreading. Anybody who devotes any thought to the victims, is in great danger of becoming one ... $\endgroup$ – nigel222 May 31 '17 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ @svavil Yes, that one. $\endgroup$ – Headcrab Jun 1 '17 at 1:49
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It might stretch the definition of a joke, but it is plausible that a person could be hypnotised in 5 minutes and then persuaded to laugh uncontrollably which may lead to the person sustaining a fatal injury (e.g. falling and hitting their head).

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  • $\begingroup$ is this autohypnotism, or does it require someone else there coaching them into the hypnotic state? $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food May 31 '17 at 7:25
  • $\begingroup$ @can-ned_food I had in mind regular hypnosis rather than autohypnosis. Admittedly this doesn't meet the requirement that it is equally effective whether in text or audible form. $\endgroup$ – user52673 May 31 '17 at 7:33
  • $\begingroup$ So long as it isn't an intrinsically bad answer, or completely inapplicable to the question, suggesting variant ways to contrive a solution to the premise is usually permitted here in Worldbuilding. Usually, if your solution fails to meet a criterion or two, I've seen other answers propose ways to bridge the gap. The level of elaboration is entirely your decision. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food May 31 '17 at 7:42
  • $\begingroup$ Or being hypnotized earlier and them behave differently when hearing (in the mind) the trigger phrase in the joke. $\endgroup$ – the_lotus May 31 '17 at 16:18
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Consider the following circumstance:

One reads/hears a very funny joke while eating. The person accidentally inhales while breathing/laughing, chokes and dies.

I've both choked while laughing, and saved a friend with the Heimlich maneuver in this situation.

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I'm going to say Yes.

The joke will be deadly to anybody who reads it, whether silently or aloud. It will even work whether or not they understand the langauge it is written in. They will find the joke hilariously funny no matter their sense of humor, and they will laugh themselves to death.

How?

A couple of closely related possibilities. One is that the joke is written in a primitive language intuitively understood by all humans. Like the virus in Snow Crash it will infect any mind that is exposed to it with a powerful neural meme which will trigger a reaction in the brain to try to rid itself of it, with the side effect being a powerful giddy sensation, feelings of mirth, and uncontrolable laughter. Once infected, the person will perish in short order as the virus takes over the mind, driving the person insane with laughter until they die from asphyxiation or apparent suicidal behavior.

A similar possibility is that the words themselves are a kind of back door in the universe, a kind of hack which triggers a garbage collection algorithm on the reader's brain, causing the person to die in a fit of laughter. Whether this hack is due to reality being a simulation like the Matrix ("sudo gc self") or because of the existence of magic where spoken words invoke power (making this joke basically a spell that the reader unwittingly casts upon themselves) is up to you.

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I'm not sure why so many of these answers are getting hung up on things like killing the creator. If you compare your hypothetical deadly joke to other instruments of death, other types of killers generally do not have the same flaws... so why does this one need these flaws?

  1. Not all humor affects everyone in the same way. Somebody guffaw for days at a joke, while others don't even chuckle at the same. A joke that is deadly could simply not be equally funny to everyone, and therefore not equally deadly to everyone.

  2. Not all deadly situations kill reliably. Getting shot in the head can often be lethal, but people like Gabby Giffords have survived being shot in the head. Sometimes poison kills with small amounts and quickly. Other times it takes a much larger amount of the same poison. People have survived falling from great heights, yet most falling people die. Your deadly joke could simply be unreliable.

  3. Not all deadly instruments are unidirectional. If a gun was as dangerous to the person shooting, not to mention the builders, as it was to the person being shot, then that would be a pretty poor gun. A deadly joke could equally have some type targeting mechanism. What else is a joke than some communication? Have you ever polled a group of people, all who listened to the same speech? It's not uncommon for every one of them to have wildly different interpretations of the speech. The same could be true for your joke.

  4. Not all deadly things are immediately deadly. A virus or bacteria may not kill the host for awhile, all while spreading it around. If the host immediately died, then the virus/bacteria would have no host to survive in. Your joke could be told to people, stay latent inside of them, and then weeks later while they're thinking about it could consume them with uncontrollable laughter leading to their demise.

You could make your deadly joke as broad and indiscriminate or as specific and targeted as you like.

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A joke for humans is very similar to a virus for computers: it's a piece of information that compels the receiver into taking some action and spreading it further. We, humans, usually find laughter a pleasant experience, and that's the joke's primary method of spreading. One can say that sense of humor is a flaw in human brain not unlike as security vulnerabilities are flaws in software design, that the joke exploits. A joke is a kind of meme.

We already have some memes that are indirectly deadly either to the people receiving them (eg. suicide cults) or to other people (eg. "we must kill others"). But they're neither involuntary body responses nor motivate spreading with humor.

I think that you'd need to do what malware authors do: they find a vulnerability and exploit it (infection) in order to deliver the payload and run it on a victim. Those 2 are often separate pieces of code, not dependent on each other. So, now that you have human vulnerability that allows spreading, you need another vulnerability that allows killing the host with information. That's exactly what a funny clip with epilepsy-triggering strobe is: the humor compels spreading and absorbing the payload which then attempts to damage the viewer.

Bottom line: for the killer joke to work, you'd need to create another vulnerability in humans of your world that would allow the joke to kill. Or increase severity of side effects from laughter.

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The responses regarding lethality are interesting. I suspect that the body / mind has decent defensive mechanisms here, and that you would need to combine the laughter with other conditions.

  • a weakened heart
  • high blood pressure
  • or environmental factors such as a toxic gas or underwater environment. Laughter would make it very difficult to hold your breath.

Some responses commented on the contagiousness of laughter which is something I've always been fascinated with, for similar story-writing reasons. The phenomenon is known as emotional contagion.

If you could find a way to super-sensitize the amygdala, you could possibly heighten the effect of the emotional contagion.

Unfortunately I can't locate the original article that introduced me to this topic - 3 girls in Australia who couldn't stop laughing for more than a year. It started with a joke. Fortunately for me, the joke was not part of the article.

In Africa there was a similar experience affecting an entire village for 3 years, known as the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962.

strong emotions synchronize the brain activity of different individuals

Here is a good example of the contagious effect. Japanese comedy likes to exploit this as well.

This would explain mob behavior as well, and is likely the foundation of most forms of mass hysteria. As a weapon of war, where you want to incapacitate a population, emotional attack could be quite effective.

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Write a really good joke inside the plate as the joke creator will be serving the food. Any person who reads the joke while eating will be dead chocking on the food.

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Your rules don't specifically say that the person reading or hearing the joke has to be the one that dies.

What about a joke that is only funny in the setting of an operating room. And when told while a doctor does an open heart surgery, it makes the doctor laugh so much that he can't keep his hands steady and the patient dies.

That would be a pretty morbid "deadly" joke.

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  • $\begingroup$ That would have to involve a pretty seriously incompetent surgeon for (a) allowing the joke to be told in the first place in such an environment and at such a time, and (b) not realizing their predicament once the situation has developed. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jun 1 '17 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling That's why it's called "The Forbidden Joke". $\endgroup$ – Pieter B Jun 2 '17 at 9:41
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The human brain is a weird thing, and not very well understood. It can take specific stimuli, and respond to them in a way that is very counter-intuitive and unexpected, and does not have to have any obvious evolutionary reason.

I am thinking specifically of the real-world McCollough effect - after you look at a specific image for a 15 minutes, some other visual scenes will have a colour effect for up to 3.5 months https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCollough_effect

Making this "killing joke" similar to this would have distinct benefits - since it is visual, the person finding it may do so randomly, e.g. on a photo, if the photo was taken by accident - by the time the image is seen, it has already been recorded. It is independent of language. Nobody knows why or how this effect works.

Neural networks (like human brains and AI) are naturally prone to this sort of weirdness - any "visual" neural network that has no state can be probed to find weaknesses, especially if internal state can be examined - as in https://www.theverge.com/2017/4/4/15177512/google-youtube-content-ai-fooled-tricked and http://www.evolvingai.org/fooling ), and neural networks with persistent state can be fooled in the same way (though figuring out a way to do so is more difficult).

An example of this is tickling. Tickling is not really in any way humorous, yet we still laugh. Tickling has no obvious connection to breathing, or humor. We take it for granted that this happens, but it is actually really weird. When tickled, we laugh even if we are unhappy or angry about being tickled.

Neural networks work by neurons (or digital simulations thereof), when they trigger ("fire"), will send signals to specific other neurons through connections; if those other neurons get enough of the signals, they will fire in turn. It is entirely plausible that the right state could be partially, or wholly, self sustaining.

I think it is entirely plausible that a specific stimuli could cause laughter, similar to being tickled, but in this sort of neural loop. if this lasted long enough, the person could choke or suffocate.

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What if a language had been specifically designed to kill? Or broadly manipulate the user into actions? E.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babel-17

Of course, language (and way of thinking) are social constructs and take years for children to become adept in the multiple ways of using them. Jokes and humour are some of the earliest uses of social interaction, I know my 4yo daughter is coming to tell me her 'jokes'. Some claimed that laughing is insticitve but we learn to cry (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1328640/Why-laughing-instinctive-learn-cry.html).
But what if the language and the education system were actually, year after year, preparing the correct (susceptible) frame of mind for the joke to operate? Like a 'termination' command! The recipient would never know it, they would even repeat the joke were they asked - were they not so very depressed in the time afterwards. This depression would go into an self-feeding loop (the joke's on me) and after some time it would be too much for the person to handle. They would commit suicide.

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protected by HDE 226868 Jun 1 '17 at 15:46

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