A Note on Uncomfortable Laughter @ Caveat

"Not even a joke we came up with, it just is."

Death Becomes Her

21 A Clinton St
New York, NY 10002

April 9, 2018

If you think you're any kind of nerd and haven't been to Caveat yet, I'm not sure you deserve the title.

Caveat is the kind of place you go with friends who really know you.

Caveat is where you have conversations.

Caveat is where you get smarter (and were you drink to get dumber).

Caveat is where you go spontaneously on a Monday to hear somewhat terrifying and mostly fascinating stories from Madame Morbid about Evelyn Dick, Phoolan Devi, and other Femme Fatales.

Last night's stories ranged in quality, with Tija Mittal's glowing and vibrant recounting of Phoolan Devi, the "Bandit Queen" blowing everyone out of the water. A great storyteller meets a great subject - magic happens.

Phoolan's story will stick with me for the best reasons - it's inspiring, heartwrenching, and truly larger than life - but I fell into contemplation during the others. Circling around the open theme of "Femme Fatale," two storytellers chose to recount gruesome and painful accounts of murderers Katherine Knight and Evelyn Dick. Both, it appears, came from broken homes, strained childhoods, and painful experiences few of us can imagine. We started off feeling sorry for them.

But soon the stories shifted to accounts of terrifying murders: Knight skinned and decapitated her husband before cooking his head with vegetables, and Dick supposedly riddled her husband with bullet holes before removing his head and limbs, body to be found by children hiking in the forest. The storytellers approached these accounts with humor, attempting levity in scenarios that could not be more horrifying.

I wondered why we laugh at psychopaths, and felt uncomfortable doing so. Studies have shown that "laughter, through an endorphin-mediated opiate effect, may play a crucial role in social bonding." Sure, some in the room may have been bonding, but over mutual disgust of a woman cooking her husband? No. While everyone laughed I felt saddened, and had to think something else was at play.

Another possible explanation is that "laughter, and not simply distraction, reduces discomfort sensitivity." In a room of strangers imagining psychopathic behavior, I certainly felt a need to reduce discomfort.

I laughed along to participate socially, but sadness hovered inside. We seek reasons why these women did terrible things, craving explanation for the un-explainable. Could it be their teenage years of rape and prostitution? Could it be their lack of role models? Could it be traumatizing marriages or lack of education?

We lust for something which makes them different from ourselves because it's too scary to contemplate the randomness of brutality. There must be a reason, we think, else what's to stop us from doing the same?

A riveting Invisibilia podcast recently discussed the attempts of a Princeton sociologist looking for a computer algorithm that could predict "high school GPA, which child would persevere when faced with adversity, who would become homeless." The socio-cultural metrics that really matter. This study followed 5,000 kids to age 15, and with anticipation we expected some sort of pattern. We craved it.

Unfortunately, the study revealed...nothing. The likelihood of predicting behavior was closer to 0% than 100, and the researchers concluded that randomness is as important as pattern, "though obviously it doesn't get the same respect."

This is not the question asked last night at Caveat, where we bonded socially over uncomfortable laughter. The evening left me wondering why these women continue to live in infamy, more remembered and popular than the sweet grocery store clerk or foster parent.

Perhaps that's the real pattern: we pay attention to fear more than positivity because it keeps us on our toes. Better safe than sorry.

And if uncomfortable laughter helps us survive in a brutal world, then so be it.

Image courtesy Caveat website

Madame Morbid’s "Death Becomes Her"
Presented by Caveat

Allison Huntington Chase
Tija Mittal
Lindsay Pasarin
Stephanie Fagan
Robin Browne

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