Thoughts on epicaricacy

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 [2009]; Takahashi, Kato, Matsuura, Mobbs, Suhara & Okubo, When Your Gain Is My Pain and Your Pain Is My Gain: Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude [2009]), 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?

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on epicaricacy”

  1. i think it’s a mixture of factors. as human we have instinctive defense mechanisms to danger as in fear and it’s variants that inevitably arise at least to touch the surface of our subconsciousness when something painful happens to us. so when it turns out we are alright (which we knew we were all long but still you can’t be certain a baseball to the head won’t take it off the neck) we laugh at the irony of those unnecessary background feelings and laugh in relief that things are better than they could be. when my friend got hit by a car right behind me and i watched him fly through the air, those feelings of fear shock etc. came up but were valid and thus i didn’t laugh and tried to stop his head from bleeding. But in a prank or show or anything safe those background feelings come up to meet detachment from the situation and we experience relief knowing it’s all okay and we are certainly okay ourselves, and with that same detachment we are free to laugh at the irony/ridiculousness/stupidity/etc. that is almost certainly present in the situation.

    but to really answer the question one must ponder deeply what laughter signifies in the first place. it can cover up feelings we don’t want to deal with or admit to. it can be mindlessly blissfully joyful. it can come through understanding a situation in a more comprehensive way that takes into account more angles than previous conceptions would allow and we laugh realising we were wrong, or ironies in what is right.
    some may not laugh at the pain of others
    and then you can bring religion into the discussion and really it is each to thier own and the true motivating factors are unique to each person, despite the commonalities. if you want to know why you laugh at Kenny dieing you’ll have to ask yourself to get the real answer. but a suicide bomber going out and popping a sheep is definitely ironic on different levels, and you know he certainly wasn’t aiming for the grandure of being a sheep killer.

  2. You got to do something, laughing is the only option in most cases. Like when I got hit in the head with a baseball. Which I was trying to catch. It wasn’t funny right then, my friends were worried about me, but it was funny afterwards because I got hit hard enough to see stars and it didn’t leave a mark. And I was trying to catch it. Yeah…

  3. I think this amusement isn’t particularly linked to another getting hurt. It’s all about the abrupt change of emotions. To take a basic example, it can make you laugh to scare someone by shouting “Boo!” when they don’t expect it. This creates excitement [adrenalin rushes more or less], which satisfies our body in such a way to make us laugh.
    Now I don’t know wether or not what I’ve written above is worth reading, but I’m glad you made it here.

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