'My Favorite Murder' and the Mystery of Why We Laugh at Scary Things

By C.W.S.

Podcasts like My Favorite Murder and Last Podcast on the Left explore some of the scariest possible content: serial killers, mass murder, and sexual violence, all through a lens of comedy—and people love it. At this point, the fandom of My Favorite Murder has grown at such a rate as to appear like a cultural movement. However, despite its counter-culture popularity, just the concept of laughing about stories of true crime might seem insensitive. The truth is, though, that this laughter is not an indication of anything unnatural, in fact, it may actually be one of the healthier ways we deal with fear.

I love horror movies because they often make me laugh while at the same time making me feel afraid. The same goes for those elaborate haunted houses that pop up during Halloween; I grin the whole time I'm walking through the darkness, waiting for the next jump-scare. It seems like a safe way to explore fear, and maybe that explains why My Favorite Murder has become such an enormous, unprecedented success. Murder and crime are themes that so many of us do have an honest interest in looking at (for reasons that we will have to dive into another time), and it seems that hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark accidentally struck a kind of psychological gold by combining fear with laughter.

Despite philosophizing about why we sometimes laugh at scary things, researchers don’t really know the answer. But let’s explore some of the theories they do have.

Because we are social animals

Of course, it is difficult to think of modern humans as still possessing primal, animalistic traits, but no matter how much we advance as a species, those underlying behaviors still shine through. Some scientists believe that laughter, in general, is used as an expression to tell other humans a message. In the context of a movie theater where a group of unfamiliar humans are watching a scary movie together, the nervous laughter may be a communication that things are actually okay.

“We're signaling ourselves that whatever horrible thing we've just encountered isn't really as horrible as it appears,” Dr. Alex Lickerman wrote for Psychology Today.

People laughing during a horror movie

People laughing during a horror movie

Interestingly, this type of nervous laughter—often seen as inappropriate—sometimes occurs when we become aware of the pain of others. Who hasn’t laughed at a friend falling down or a video of someone getting hurt, smiled at a funeral, or snickered at the girl in the horror movie tripping as the killer gains on her. It can be surprising and mortifying, making you feel as if you do not have empathy, but this is certainly not the case. This kind of laughter seems to occur when humans find themselves under intense stress, specifically if another person is being harmed or could potentially be harmed.

An interesting experiment came from a man named Stanley Milgram, who sought to explain why soldiers of Nazi Germany were so willing to follow horrific orders. The experiment involved subjects being asked by an authority figure to administer electric shocks to an unseen person, shocks that grew in voltage as the test went on. He wanted to see how far subjects would go before refusing to harm the unseen person (65% were willing to deliver a lethal shock, but that’s a can of worms we’ll have to open another day). Of course, the electric shock machine was not actually hooked up to a person, but the subjects did not know this. Most continued to unceasingly deliver the shocks as they were instructed, even as (fake) screams were heard in the other room. Though the experiment did not set out to look at unexplained laughter, something interesting happened. As the screams were heard in the other room, many of those who were delivering the shocks began to laugh nervously. Although they continued to follow brutal orders, the laughter appeared as a way to signal their distress at the pain of another, or as a balm to make themselves feel temporarily better as they continued to follow brutal orders. It may also have been a mild protest, a hope to express their fear at the pain of others.

When we listen to My Favorite Murder, we are hearing about horrible, unthinkable violence done to others, but our laughter is not unempathetic. It may be a natural way of signaling our distress at the pain of our fellow humans while also reassuring one another that we are okay, at least right now.

There is also a deep kinship in laughing together. Neuroscientist Sophie Scott told David Robson of the BBC: “When you laugh with people, you show them that you like them, you agree with them, or that you are in same group as them. Laughter is an index of the strength of a relationship.” And if the community around My Favorite Murder is any kind of example, well, I think it proves that laughter can bring us together in a ride-or-die kind of way. ‘Murderinos’ as their fans are known, come up to me on the street when I wear my My Favorite Murder shirt, and often we share a moment of smiles and laughter, feel an immediate bond, feel like we are part of a team, and definitely feel that we are facing the general threat of being alive in a scary world together.

Because we are avoiding a threat  

A smiling macaque

A smiling macaque

For a time, it was believed that human-like animals, when baring their teeth, were showing aggression, essentially showing off their weapons the way dogs do. Primatologist Signe Preuschoft observed the social interactions of macaques and saw quite a bit of this behavior, which resembled human smiling. They smiled during everyday activities, but they also smiled in times of confrontation. The macaques weren’t smiling to show that they were ready for a fight—they were actually doing the opposite. It was a submissive move; the smile let the dominant macaque know that a fight was not desired or needed. The smile existed as a way to alleviate attack, or at least lessen the severity of it. It is known to primatologists as “fear grinning,” and it works for the macaques, often causing the aggressor to take a less aggressive stance.

Something else that has long confused scientists is why humans laugh when we are tickled. As most of us know, we are usually not laughing out of joy, but as some kind of involuntary reaction. The word for the type of tickling we are talking about is Gargalesis, and some people begin laughing even at the threat of the possibility that someone might start tickling them.

Experiments have shown that when an individual is tickled, a part of their brain lights up that is related to fight or flight, and the laughter may, like previously mentioned, demonstrate a submission to the tickler, or the “attacker,” that would hopefully work to lessen the length of the “attack.” One is basically saying to the tickler, You win. Fight or flight was activated even as a person became apprehensive that the tickler was coming at them, as their brain began to perceive an imminent danger.

Because we are balancing our emotions

Then there are psychologists that believe that fearful laughing is like other seemingly opposite emotional reactions that can appear together, like crying when we are happy. They theorize that the mind and body sometimes balance out extreme emotions with their opposite, which would explain why we unconsciously laugh when afraid. “When we are at risk of being overwhelmed by our emotions—either positive or negative—expressing the opposite emotion can have a dampening effect and restore emotional balance,” noted science reporter Wray Herbert. Dark humor might be just that, the balancing of the fear of darkness with some kind of joy, a way to psychologically deal with the worst parts of our world.

Still, others feel that laughter is an actual denial of danger. To finish Dr. Alex Lickerman’s quote from earlier: “We're signaling ourselves that whatever horrible thing we've just encountered isn't really as horrible as it appears,” he continues, “Something we often desperately want to believe.” We are essentially denying that we are afraid, the opposite of the idea that we use laughter as a tool of submission, or acceptance and de-escalation of a threat. The laughter is then not an announcement to others that things, though appearing scary, are actually okay. Instead, it is an announcement that there is no threat at all. Lickerman believes though, that this denial is not the unhealthy kind, but actually a mature type of defense mechanism against pain and fear: “Being able to laugh at a trauma at the moment it occurs, or soon after, signals both to ourselves and others that we believe in our ability to endure it.” It is a laugh of the total blind confidence we have in ourselves to survive a threat, perhaps a very necessary delusion.

Muderino meet-up in LA

Muderino meet-up in LA

It may be that one of these theories is correct or that a combination of these theories explain this phenomenon. Whatever the cause, fear-grinning and fear-laughter are not uniquely human traits, nor are they considered unhealthy by psychologists. In fact, humor is considered a healthier response than anxiety and neurosis to fear, and appears to also promote intimacy between people. Recent studies have shown links between laughing at funny videos together and a willingness to then open up about personal matters, in turn leading to stronger human bonds. This is evident in the more intimate content of My Favorite Murder, as Karen and Georgia share honestly their personal histories, progress in therapy, and struggles with anxiety. This has helped to create an online community that cares deeply about one another, and this trust has led to a surprising willingness on the part of Murderinos to open up about their own struggles. It's a beautiful thing to see.

So, in a greater philosophical context, perhaps us Muderinos are fear-laughing to show that we are at the mercy of a scary world, a world that often seems full of profound danger and evil. Perhaps we want to submit to the general idea of a threat, in order to lessen its effect on us; maybe something deep down in us thinks that if we laugh, the scary things will not hurt us, or they will not hurt us quite so bad. Or maybe we are laughing a confident and collective NO! at the things we fear. More over, perhaps if we laugh together, if we bond with our laughter, the bonds we create can help beat the great evil that appears to exist out there. Whatever the reason, I’m happy just to laugh with other Murderinos, to feel that community, and to feel safe to explore the terror, while finding a balance that will keep us caring for each other always.