To Die Laughing
The man in this remarkable photograph appears to be laughing at his own execution
In 2006, the Finnish Defence Ministry declassified a photograph that had been kept secret since 1942. Taken during the bitter Winter War which pit Finland against Russia, the photograph features a young man being killed in two instalments. One before a gun shot and another has the man lies dead in the snow. What is remarkable is man facing death appears to be laughing. In fact, as a revolver is levelled at his head he looks straight at the camera and laughs as if to say: “This is hilarious!”
Then it appears he is shot dead to bleed out in the cold snow.
The photograph was released with this description: Unknown Soviet intelligence officer before being shot, Finland, 1942. It features the execution of a Russian spy somewhere in a gloomy forest in Rukajärvi, in East Karelia, Finland.
It is thought the unknown Russian literally died laughing and little is known about the circumstances around the picture, except the Finnish military had deliberately suppressed the release of the photo possibly for fear it could be used as formidable propaganda — a Russian soldier perhaps laughing in the face of death.
“Death smiles at us all,” Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius famously said. But what if we dare to laugh back?
It’s perhaps impossible to know if laughter can ease the pain of death, but there is increasing evidence that laughing can ease the pain of living.
in 2011 Under the headline “Why Laughter May Be The Best Pain Medicine” Scientific American, reported on a breakthrough study at Oxford University.
Evolutionary Psychologist Robin Dunbar pushed a number of participants to a potent pain threshold in a number of curious ways. He wrapped their arms in a frozen-wine cooling sleeve or alternately crushed their limbs in a blood pressure cuff or the professor forcing them to squat down to their limit. The squatting volunteers would be pushed to the point “where they couldn’t take it anymore.”
However, in some of the experiments the pain sufferers also watched comedy videos while being “tortured”. In this case episodes of Mr. Bean or Friends. The study found pain tolerance increased measurably with laughter.
“When laughter is elicited, pain thresholds are significantly increased, whereas when subjects watched something that does not naturally elicit laughter, pain thresholds do not change,” Dunbar wrote in his paper. “These results can best be explained by the action of endorphins released by laughter.”
A second study in Switzerland produced similar results showing that laughers experienced pain relief as much as 20 minutes after laughing.
Research in 2018 has shown that laughter tends to calm the sympathetic nervous system while also relaxing parasympathetic nervous system activity which may explain laughter’s long term calming effect. The studies are all small, but the idea that laughter can help manage life’s discomforts is growing stronger.
We can credit one man with bringing therapeutic laughter to the world’s attention. Norman Cousins who first made the laughter pain relief connection back in 1964. Cousins, a famed magazine editor, had returned from a trip to Russia extremely sick. Doctors diagnosed Cousins with an extreme case of Ankylosing Spondylitis and gave him six months to live. Cousins, a feisty character didn’t take the death sentence lying down. After a few demoralizing weeks in the hospital he checked into to a downtown Boston hotel. Cousins had noticed that when friends and family visited, they would often laugh. And when he laughed with them, he felt relief from the acute pain, enough to sleep for a couple hours. Intrigued, Cousins decided the would try to laugh on a regular basis. But how? He arranged for copies of the show Candid Camera to be send to his hotel room. With his own projector he began screening episodes laughing as hard as he could.
Cousins would later write: “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he reported. “When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.” A few months later, Cousins, who had been wheelchair bound, walked out of the hotel a healthy man.
I feature Cousin’s story in my documentary Laughology.
Cousins would later write about his “laughing cure”.
However, the concept of people laughing laughing their way to health was ridiculed and still is. But Cousins would be instrumental in working to finance serious scientific studies on the benefits of laughter. Decades later those studies would demonstrate laughter’s calming, pain-relieving anti-depressive effects. In 1995, an Indian Doctor would come across some of those same studies and have a eureka moment.
Madan Kataria a once dour family doctor explained in a scene in Laughology.
“I realized I could do more for people promoting laughter than being a medical doctor,” he said.
Kataria gathered a group of friends and created the first laugher club in a park in Mumbai, India, where the goal was just to sit around and laugh. That would be the birth of Laughter Yoga a laughter exercise trend that now is practiced in over 100 countries. Kataria himself left medicine and now travels the world spreading the gospel of practised laughter.
I would personally meet Kataria at a very strange moment. In 2008 while shooting the documentary Laughology for the Canadian TV network CTV, I arrived in Mumbai by chance on the 2nd day of the Mumbai Massacre, a horrific terrorist attack where heavily armed killers arrived in downtown Mumbai and began shooting everything that moved. 172 people were killed.
Clearly not a laughing matter.
The killers targeted Mumbai’s famous Taj Mahal hotel. At one point they went into one of the hotel’s most famous restaurants murdering everyone inside. I interviewed Kataria against the backdrop of the horrific attack. Kataria said he was a regular at that exact cafe and just happened to stay home the day of the attack.
“It could have easily been me,” he said.
Given that your life is dedicated to laughter what would you have done I asked? If the murderers came for you. Kataria hesitated:
“I hope I would laugh but I really don’t know,” he said.
Most of us would probably freeze in terror when faced with machine gun toting murderers. I had a few occasions in my life where I’ve had guns pointed at me, and I recall I didn’t have much to say.
But experiencing Mumbai at the moment gave me a weird insight. The terror, fear, hate and murder was so clearly one side of the human coin. On the other was light, love and laughter. Sometimes this world is an actual battle between overseriousness and levity.
I’ve been thinking about this after the recent suicide of my friend author and journalist R.M Vaughan. Vaughan was a guy who really made me look at the world differently and we shared a sensibility to laugh whenever possible. While I was horrified to learn of his death, I was struck by his suicide letter which simply read: “Suicide notes are tacky.”
So when I think about that young Russian standing in the cold forest facing his imminent execution, I wonder. If you can laugh at your own death?
Sometimes if we really have no other option, dying laughing might be a good way to go.