Gallows Humor: A New Generation of Death Jokes


Emma Komar, Managing Editor

“Lmao that’s just my depression.”
“Well, if all else fails at least I can jump off a bridge!”
“Ugh, I just want to die.”
Phrases like these are a cornerstone of Gen-Z humor. Whether it’s verbal, written, or embedded in an intricate string of memes, dark humor has become more and more common with the growth of internet culture.
Often called gallows humor, it’s something pretty unique to our generation—joking about death or mental illness is something that adults just don’t seem to get. So why has gallows humor become such a huge part of millennial culture?
Obviously, many agree that telling someone to kill themselves as a joke isn’t funny, especially as more and more teenagers continue to be diagnosed with illnesses like anxiety and depression. But this upswing in mental health issues could actually be part of the reason why death jokes are becoming more commonplace.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 25.1% of children between 13 and 18 years old. That’s over 1 in 4, and that number still only represents those who have been officially diagnosed.
Therefore, it’s possible that our generation’s cynical humor is a coping mechanism not unlike that of high-stress careers. If this many teenagers suffer from depleting mental health and stress, we/they may be laughing to keep from crying.
Alexandra Robins of the Washington Post agrees. Studying gallows humor between on-duty hospital workers, she worked to uncover the reasoning behind such cynical jokes that are often at the patient’s expense. While many people found this humor unsettling or ethically unsound, she determined otherwise:
“The primary objections to gallows and derogatory humor in hospitals are that it indicates a lack of caring, represents an abuse of power and trust, and may compromise medical care. But in my reporting, I found that nurses who use this humor care deeply about their patients and aren’t interested in abusing their power. Their humor serves to rejuvenate them and bond them to their teams, while helping to produce high-quality work.”
Indeed, it has been proven time and again that humor reduces anxiety, whether it be across the medical field or between two teenagers laughing at a meme.
Another explanation for such a dramatic increase in gallows humor could be the large degree of negativity and upsetting events in the world. Whether it be global warming, police brutality, or the threat of nuclear war, there’s much to be worrying about. When lots of things are bad, humor can be a relief.
“It sounds cruel and cold, but we’ve reached the point where we hear bad things happening so often that we are unable to mourn things like we should,” says writer Veronica Faison. “Instead of dealing with tragedy head-on, we exploit its irony.”
Much of Twitter’s content following a tragedy perfectly backs up this theory. From accounts personifying Hurricane Sandy to a fake Helen Keller tweeting jokes about her disabilities, Twitter is a breeding ground for dark humor, especially relating to recent tragedies.
And the versatility of meme culture makes it easier than ever to join in. Since the whole idea of memes is that one builds off of another, it’s so easy to add a new idea or personal joke onto a growing thread. In short, gallows humor grows because teenagers expand it.
Whether you appreciate gallows humor or think it’s gone too far, it has integrated into Gen-Z culture beyond many other generations’ understanding. I hope you liked this article. If not, I guess I’ll go jump off my roof.