The Evil Laugh – Does It Exist?

We’re all familiar with movies where the villain gives an evil laugh before his evil deeds. In fact, the most recent movie I saw was a children’s movie where the villain instructs his muppet companions to give a maniacal laugh every time he asserts a nefarious goal. But is this just a Hollywood stereotype?

In his book Evil Roy Baumeister discusses whether evil people laugh during their victimization of others. Baumeister says that there are cases when victims claim their victimizers laughed. He is somewhat reluctant to accept sadistic pleasure as a reason, so he comes up with various other reasons torturers or other bad guys might laugh – maybe because they are succeeding at a difficult task (of obtaining information) or maybe as a release of tension.

Then he says: “A final reason to laugh is the humiliation of another person. Humiliating, degrading experiences are sometimes funny to watch and a great deal of comedy is based on just that principle.” For instance he says gang members “forced a robbery victim who was riding with them as a prisoner to sing several songs for their amusement. In such circumstances, the singer knows that he or she is being deliberately humiliated, which affects the singing and makes it more difficult to hold the tune–thereby intensifying the amusement of the captors who can play at being music critics and comment on the false notes or resolute style of the singer.”

Baumeister quotes a Moslem survivor of a Serbian massacre as saying that right up to the point where the Serbian soldiers opened fire, he could not believe that the soldiers would shoot him and his unarmed friends. But he says they did, and that they were laughing like crazy men.

Baumeister also says that killers sometimes make a game out of killing, such as when Nazis required naked prisoners to run across a field while the troops shot at them, thereby increasing the marksmanship challenge. Yet, he says, “making a game of killing does not prove the killing is pleasant. Rather it suggests a shockingly callous attitude toward deaths.”
But then again, humor can be a defense against a shocking or disgusting task. Medical students are renowned for practical jokes such has hiding a severed hand in a lunch box. Such humor, says Baumeister, helps to overcome the normal reactions of shock and disgust that a physician cannot afford.

From some of my own readings in the distant past about Nazis and Concentration camps, there seems to be attempts to create humor by the Nazis. Some of what follows is rather obscene, so please skip the post if that bothers you.

Nazi Guard Humor:
In once incident a Jewish male was nailed to a pole by his penis. Obviously this was meant to be funny.
Another time two Jewish males were put on a roof and one had a hose full of water that he had to spray at the other. If either fell off the roof, I believe one was going to be shot, (though as I say, I read this a long time ago). The two men managed to keep their footing. The scenario was supposed to be funny.
Another time a sadistic child was let loose in the concentration camp. Inmates obviously couldn’t attack him, because he had the backup of the guards.
Yet another time a once famous Jewish entertainer had to lick the boots of a Nazi guard.

In addition from my experience with evil, I do believe that the answer to this post is that there is an evil laugh.

Here is my story (minus most details).
I was humiliated (the details would be rather x-rated so I leave them out) by a group that was diverse racially, but shared a dislike for me. In this situation I had one of the males involved ask his female companion if she liked the idea of what he was about to do, and she gave a wild crazy laugh and assented.
As part of the same campaign of nastiness, I was put in an ethical bind at one point where any of the choices I made was a bad choice and an immoral choice. A woman who helped create the situation laughed about it and once I made a bad decision, said she “loved it.”

There is a lot you can tell from intonation of a persons voice – you can tell sometimes how a person feels. Facial expressions, when people let their guard down, can also tell you something about the person. In fact, there is a whole science of “micro expressions” (googling for Paul Ekman’s work on this subject will give you websites on his research as well as videos showing micro expressions).

But the underlying question to evil laughs is – is there a delight and humor and pleasure in causing suffering to people you don’t like? And if so, is it limited to a few sadists, or to maybe some or all of us?

People who write about evil are reluctant to buy into evil stereotypes. For instance:
Timothy Snyder (author of Bloodlands) cautions us that “The identification with the victim affirms a radical separation from the perpetrator.” He also says that “it is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding…To yield to this temptation, to find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.”

However, in my experience, there is a segment of the population that, if they dislike you enough, and if they get you into a situation where they can do anything to you, they will attempt to hurt you, and may well laugh when they succeed beyond all expectations. They will use their imagination to make your life into something like a humorous (for them) horror movie.
In my own case though, there did seem to be a self-righteousness about some of the bad guys. One black man told me very bitterly “We will annihilate you!” and one white woman said very self-righteously that “he (me) must be kept down!”. Perhaps these evil people (from my point of view) were not evil from their own point of view, though they must realize that society would see their acts as evil.

There’s one last horrendous example that might shed light on this:

A quarter-century later, the sergeant of the guard that morning says he can still see the face of the man driving the truck.
Sgt. Stephen Russell was sitting in his guard booth outside a barracks in Beirut. He was one of about 1,600 Marines who’d been sent to Lebanon as neutral peacekeepers but found little peace to keep. He says he heard something snap behind him and a diesel engine revving.

He turned.

What he saw, at 6:22 a.m. that bright Sunday in the fourth decade of the Cold War, was the future, coming straight at him, in the form of a 5-ton truck. It was Oct. 23, 1983, a day Ronald Reagan called the saddest of his presidency, maybe his life.

The truck would shatter the Marines’ building with a bomb more powerful than 12,000 pounds of TNT — the biggest non-nuclear explosion since World War II, the FBI concluded.

It would kill 241 servicemembers, including 220 Marines — the Corps’ bloodiest day since Iwo Jima….

Marine commandant P.X. Kelley called the bombing “mass murder,” but it was really a different kind of war, one of bombing and suicide.

It was Sgt. Russell’s war.

The yellow Mercedes truck had plowed through the Marine compound’s barbed-wire perimeter and was speeding toward the building immediately behind his booth, where hundreds of men slept.

The truck passed between two sentry posts. Russell says the sentries’ rifles, as ordered, were unloaded. Neither got off a shot. Russell grabbed his .45-caliber pistol and stepped from the booth. He would not be able to stop the truck. It was too big, too close, too fast.

Russell says that as he stood there in the path of the truck, for a second he looked the bearded driver in the eye. The driver was smiling — a big, leering grin, as if to say, “Gotcha!”

Evil by Roy Baumeister
25 years later, bombing in Beirut still resonates by Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

As far as the bombing goes, we know the name of the man who blew up the marines, (Ismail Ascari) and we know that one of the people responsible, an Iranian named Mohsen Rafiqdoost, is now a millionaire.  See:


2 thoughts on “The Evil Laugh – Does It Exist?

  1. I am afraid that there are a number of people who do indeed gain pleasure (and express this in laughter) from inflicting pain on others. I don’t know what the percentage is today, but a few hundred years ago large numbers were hugely entertained at public executions and apparently thought the struggles of the dying very amusing. Today it really worries me that 95% of new DVDs are basically about hatred, violence, and sadism. The covers usually comprise one or more vicious looking men either holding weapons or using them on others — and these are just the heroes. (At least I save a lot of money not buying DVDs.) Microexpressions are fascinating but I think the reaearchers have made a mistake limiting their investigations to easily categorised expressions. Some expressions obviously point to significant internal states but they can’t easily be defined. You will find them in (e.g.) candid photos by people like Cartier Bresson, Doisneau and Oorthuys.

  2. A number of people are emotionally handicapped and so unproductive in the grand scheme of things—very selfish, especially when they work in simple jobs in dance, drugs, and certain kinds of entertainment—that their simplicity does not allot them the emotional depth to comprehend higher reasoning, and thus empathy. Instead, they perceived reality in terms of superficial egos and presentations.
    These sociopathic individuals, because of their superficiality, are obsessed with appearances; they maintain appearances through lying, exaggerating, manipulating, inappropriate conquesting, imitation, and so-forth. They absorb their own insecurities into holding a position that upholds itself in paradigms that abhor the charm. In this realm of charm, they must cut corners, hide details, and maintain an image; perfectly content with the manipulating & exploit of the superficial self, which may entice many (it is not necessarily a setback depending on their environment)—the humiliation and pain of others comes to them in an emotionally retarded form of shock.
    This level of the unexpected tickles them because they are walking liars, manipulators, & facades; by denouncing the honest self of truthfulness (the light/visible self) to be expressed in their spirit through words and other vibrations that emanate feeling, instead they mimic others’ truths and absorb themselves inside a haze of illusion. The extremity it requires to be a manipulator makes them very easily amused, and of course self-centered because their inability or refusal to emote their own truths makes them unable to feel others’ with value, but only superficial expression, allotting them the skill set of acting (professional lying).
    There is a perpetual state of laughter in these individuals who do not wish to contribute to mankind but only channel it; their method of stimulation is psychological exaggeration, and the drama of exploit & someone else “losing” is enough to tickle them because they are perpetually bent on conquest through lying & acting, too cowardly to emote their own truth & live by their words. The numbness requires an intellectual stimulus, and to see anyone lose, to them, is either supremely disgusting in contrast to their own exploits or amusing because they do not understand it.

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