What Our Love of Sadistic Pranks Tells Us About Ourselves

Scientists know where fear comes from—it's triggered by the feeling of losing control or being rendered powerless in some way. But why is it now a cultural obsession?

by Lara Williams
Nov 21 2016, 4:15pm

Prank culture is bigger than ever. It used to be that only men called Dom Joly, Tom Green, and Ashton Kutcher were given the platform to pull tricks on unsuspecting bystanders, but now anyone with a WiFi password can make a name for themselves by doing something shitty to someone else and posting the results online.

Like the guy on YouTube who told his partner he'd blown up their kid, or pretended to throw it off a balcony. Or this Australian prank-bro who routinely terrorizes his girlfriend. Or Sam Pepper, who inexplicably has built and retained a huge following. And it extends beyond the internet—the so-called killer clown craze, which began as a prank and morphed into people in clown masks trying to terrify other people by running after them with knives is YouTube prank culture gone mainstream.

Scientists know where fear comes from—it's triggered by the feeling of losing control or being rendered powerless in some way. We've all experienced it, and sometimes we even volunteer for it: We watch horror films, dress up for Halloween, go to theme parks, and submit ourselves to terrifying rides. We find pleasure in making people jump. There's an element of eroticism in recalling a particularly grisly story. But why is it now a cultural obsession?

"There is a value in being able to shock," says Tony Blockley, a criminologist at the University of Derby. The desire to frighten someone, he says, is a product of a society obsessed with sensationalism. Shock has become currency, a way to impress.

"By attaining that 'shock value,' you feed your personal ego. There is a status, a credibility, a kudos attached to it," he says. "We don't shock or scare for the sake of shocking or scaring. We do it to achieve something."

Look through these videos on YouTube, and you'll see that all the perpetrators are men and most of the victims are women. Blockley argues this pattern is so evident because pranks are a way for men to maintain their dominant position in culture, in a society that rewards aggressive and dominant male behavior—or, in his words, "hegemonic masculinity."

"In frightening someone," Blockley says, "you are asserting your power and control over them. The intense psychological drive to be dominant is predicated by an environment that aggrandizes these values. Why do they do it? Because they can. They can scare somebody. They can control someone. These men would never see the people they frighten as 'victims.' They don't consider that person. They don't try to. They see that person as an object for their achievement—not as a person."

In one study, 78 undergraduates were asked whether they'd rather kill insects, assist in the killing of insects, cleaning toilets, or submerging their hands in ice cold water. Over 53 percent of the volunteers elected to grind the insects to death.

"Everyday sadism" is the label attributed to casual acts of sadism. These might range from a seemingly benign competitiveness in a violent video game through to more stealthy behaviors, such as stealing or manipulation. The consistent thread is a pleasure derived from the suffering of others. I wonder if there's an element of everyday sadism in online pranks. "There is a degree of narcissism," says Blockley. "A lack of compassion, too."

In 2012, psychologist Erin Buckles undertook research into whether or not "ordinary, everyday people" are capable of acts of sadism. Seventy-eight undergraduates volunteered for the study, thinking they were being investigated for their tolerance to challenging and unpleasant jobs, choosing between killing insects, assisting in the killing of insects, cleaning toilets, or submerging their hands in ice cold water. Over 53 percent of the volunteers chose killing or assisting to kill insects over the other two jobs.

The "insect killing" was set up so that no bugs were actually harmed, though the volunteers did not realize this, electing to grind the insects to death via a machine that mimicked the crunch of the insects' exoskeletons. The more sadistic volunteers derived pleasure from killing the insects, and the more insects they killed, the more pleasure they derived. "It reinforces the sadistic behavior via pleasurable experiences," Buckles concluded in her study.

This perhaps explains the escalation of the clown craze, from passive clowns frightening people up to clowns actively perpetrating acts of violence.

Moroni Matteo's Axe Murder prank

Moroni Matteo runs the YouTube prank channel DM Pranks Productions. Early pranks include the mostly gentle "huge sneeze prank" and "confusing people," but some of the more recent videos you'll find on his channel feature a man in military attire chasing strangers with a flamethrower, a blood-stained "zombie" replicating axing someone's head off, and, of course, a very literal killer clown.

Ask Matteo about what compels him to scare people, and he is peculiarly earnest, describing one of his pranks as "realizing a childhood dream."

How does he feel executing a prank? "I feel very good," he says. "There is a lot of hard work that goes behind my videos, sometimes months of work and thousands of dollars. I started the channel in 2013 after watching other people playing pranks and thinking I could do better. I wanted to have the highest quality videos on the prank scene."

"A lot of this," says Dr. Jeremy Phillips, senior lecturer in forensic psychology at the University of Chester, "is driven by the simple need to be liked."

Like Blockley, he recognizes the influence of power and control. "People's behavior is unpredictable. We mostly cannot control how they will respond to us. And if someone is not getting the response—be it respect or validation—their self-esteem requires, they will seek it out via extreme modes of behavior," he says.

Phillips believes social media feeds into this—anonymous feedback on pranks only reinforces the need to do them. "People see others gaining kudos for these acts and want to elicit the same reaction," he argues. "You do not stand on the roadside dressed as a clown for no reason. You are expecting a reaction. You are expecting to be filmed."

Of course, while it's easy to sit back and judge, blaming the success of the sadistic prank videos on the individuals making them, we're all complicit. It's classic schadenfreude material. And in a culture in which everything is content, by clicking on videos and laughing at the misfortune of others, we've all made scaring people on the internet something worth doing.

Follow Lara Williams on Twitter.