A few days ago, I had the opportunity to watch the film Four Lions at the cinema. It is a British film about a small group of Muslims who decide to become suicide bombers. Watching the film, I could not stop laughing at the outrageously hilarious scenes, albeit with the nagging feeling that I should not do so: the story is one of tragedy.
Epicaricacy (also “epicharikaky”) is a little-used word, often replaced with the German “Schadenfreude”, that describes the pleasure one feels at the misfortune of others, and the term perfectly encompasses what was going through my mind as I saw the film. As I watched a scene where one of the main characters accidentally blows up both himself and a sheep, I could not help but think of the many times where I laughed at other people suffering/dying (such as the many deaths of Kenny in South Park, or the famous accident scene in Meet Joe Black). There seem to be many, many instances in which the gravest misfortune befalls a character in a story with comic effect. Yet why does this make us laugh?
While I understand the link between epicaricacy and envy or resentment when faced with an opponent (see e.g. Smith, Powell, Combs & Schurtz, Exploring the When and Why of Schadenfreude ; Takahashi, Kato, Matsuura, Mobbs, Suhara & Okubo, When Your Gain Is My Pain and Your Pain Is My Gain: Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude ), I have some trouble understanding why one feels pleasure at the misfortune of someone else, who is not a competitor but someone with whom we sympathise.
What theories might one suggest?
One could imagine that comedy is achieved because the viewer does not wish the same thing to happen to him/her.
While this may be true in part, I realise that it is often a dose of absurdity and unexpectedness that makes the difference between a tragic and a comic accident.
Are absurdity and abruptness therefore the cause of the comic effect?
I’m not entirely satisfied with that, either, because I’m sure that there are instances in which the comic effect only appears later – I have often realised that something was both absurd and funny only after the moment had passed. Furthermore, there is not necessarily a direct causal effect: I can imagine that should a UFO crash in front of me, flattening a few pedestrians, I would find it absurd but not amusing (whereas Kenny dies in such a manner in one South Park episode, with great comic effect).
Does our involvement in the situation play a role?
Being able to distance oneself from the situation allows one to look at the situation from a wholly different angle. I’m sure it helps, but that doesn’t remove the amusing character of a situation in which one is involved. To illustrate, a few weeks back, a friend stumbled in front of me in a most acrobatic manner. It was sudden and absurd, and it was hilarious, despite the fact that we were worried about him (he was perfectly all right).
There seem to be many factors, but none of them seems to have a sure role. As I’m running out of ideas for theories, and as I’m in the middle of exams, which has impaired my ability to think of non-legal stuff, I must temporarily surrender to the absence of definite knowledge.
May I ask for your thoughts on the matter?