Gallows humor

Gallows humor

Gallows humor is a type of humor that arises from stressful, traumatic or life-threatening situations such as wartime events, hostilities, mass murder; often in circumstances where death is perceived as impending and unavoidable. It is similar to black comedy but differs in that it is made by the person affected.


The apocryphal story of the condemned man being led into the execution chamber. The condemned prisoner points to the electric chair and asks the prison warden:

From William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1:

As Sir Thomas More climbed a rickety scaffold where he would be executed, he said to his executioner:

Immediately after the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence, but before the wars that secured independence, Benjamin Franklin is known to have said the following in danger of being accused of high treason to his fellow, often fractious delegates:

After her career had declined and she had started aging, actress Tallulah Bankhead would answer the question "Are you Tallulah Bankhead?" with

Author and playwright Oscar Wilde was destitute and living in a cheap boarding house when he found himself on his deathbed. There are variations on what the sentence exactly was, but his reputed last words were

Perhaps one of the best examples of gallows humour in recent times is the conclusion to Monty Python's Life of Brian, in which a group of crucified criminals joyfully sings "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".

Nature and functions of gallows humor

Sigmund Freud in his 1927 essay Humour (Der Humor) puts forth the following theory of the gallows humor: "The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure". Some other sociologists elaborated this concept further. At the same time, Paul Lewis warns that this "liberating" aspect of gallows jokes depends on the context of the joke: whether the joke is being told by the threatened person themselves or by someone else.


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