Some thoughts on dead baby jokes

I don’t know anyone who’s never heard or told dead baby jokes (crude, very simple jokes designed to evoke an emotional reaction of disgust along the lines of “What’s the difference between a truckload of bowling balls and a truckload of dead babies? You can’t unload bowling balls with a pitchfork!”). I told them myself when I was young; they seem to be a staple of American culture.

Or rather, that part of American culture that’s between, say, ten years of age and fourteen years of age. When you get above a certain age, dead baby jokes abruptly cease to be a part of your social landscape.

Over the last several days, ladytabitha has been sharing very creepy pictures of spiders with me. I know that the links she’s sending me will take me to creepy pictures of spiders; I’m not especially fond of spiders; yet I look at them anyway.

But I didn’t come here to talk about dead baby jokes or spiders. I came here to talk about the nature of reality.

To some extent, everyone constructs an illusion about the world we live in. We all like to feel safe, secure, and protected, and the reality is that none of these things is ever really true; a drunk driver, a careless mechanical engineer, or a religious extremist with heaven on his mind can intrude into our lives without warning at any moment, no matter where we may be.

It’s impossible for a person who is constantly in fear to function. So we build a set of emotional defenses, or construct an illusion of safety, that protects us emotionally; this illusion serves us because the fact is, the odds of a sudden and guesome death in a stadium collapse or at the hands of a terrorist, while not zero, are extremely small.

But we’re still fascinated by those things that frighten, disgust, or shock us.

That fascination takes many forms. When we’re young and unsophisticated, we tell dead baby jokes–which, crude as they are, are a mechanism for probing that simultaneous fascination and disgust. When we’re older, we watch Nightmare on Elm Street. As we become still more sphisticated, we read about Nazi atrocities and turn Stephen King into a cultural phenomenon.

Is it genetic? Is it hard-wired into us? I think it is.

The world is not always a pleasant placel there’s plenty within it that’s gruesome and horrifying. That fascination, I think, is an evolutionary adaptation; we’re fascinated by what’s repulsive because we live in a world where these things exist, and we need an emotional mechanism to deal with them. Without that compelling fascination, we would simply seek to avoid these things–stripping us of the tools to handle them when they happen.

So we tell dead baby jokes, and look at spiders, and read Stephen King, and develop a sort of gallows humor about it all. In the end, laughing at the Void does help protect us from it.