It’s normal to enjoy a good laugh, and since the dawn of the internet, prank videos have been a way for people across the globe to do just that. But with the ever-increasing number of social media platforms on which people share video content, these pranks seem to be proliferating at unprecedented rates. As I’m increasingly being shown these videos, and as people expect me to enjoy them and have a laugh at the expense of the prank victims on screen, I find myself wondering, more and more frequently, what it is about these videos that makes them so popular. I also wonder whether this genre of videos, which has in fact grown into an entire prank culture, is even healthy at all, or whether it masks a far more sinister element of human nature.
When I voice my thoughts about prank videos people, at best, look at me as if I’m nuts or, at worst, look at me as if by neglecting to laugh I’ve personally offended them. I thought for a long time that I was alone in the sympathy I feel towards the victims of these pranks – which might include anything from fake, plastic snakes being hidden in startling places, to being led to believe their spouse has dropped their baby on a concrete floor, or having raw eggs smashed over their heads. To me, it’s hard to find amusement in another’s terror or discomfort. That’s why I was relieved when I came across this article by Tanya Chen on Buzzfeed.
The uncomfortable feeling I’ve often experienced while watching prank videos – many of which have gone viral after having been viewed millions of times – was finally articulated by Chen, when she wrote that prank culture “walks a tightrope between entertainment and, in some cases, allegations of abuse”.
Calling pranks abuse may seem like a bit of a stretch, and of course, not all pranks would apply – but many of them might. Some viral pranks have been called full-on sexual assault by their victims – the reality of which must be made all the more traumatic by the fact that they’ve been readily shown off to anybody with an internet connection. Even those which don’t seem on the surface to be as damaging have an element of manipulation – a kind of jocular gaslighting.
According to Chen, “the person who comes up with the prank holds the power; they know the truth and their intent is to manipulate the truth for laughs. The other person is the pawn in the game; they must either participate in the manipulation or, if they don’t want to, risk being invalidated and maybe told to ‘lighten up'”. It’s as if, if the victim isn’t amused by whatever unexpected shock they’ve been made to receive, they’re the wet blanket who lacks a sense of humour. As if there’s something inherently funny about being put in a position of fear, confusion, or even trauma.
It seems clear to me that millions of people find great joy in watching prank videos. But it’s equally obvious that prank culture is toxic regardless of the relationship dynamics between the victim and instigator. Surely it makes it hard to trust a partner who’s constantly springing unpleasant surprises on you for the amusement of their TikTok fans? How could you be at ease with someone – or even an entire friend group – who at any moment might do something to humiliate or scare you?
While, admittedly, spousal pranks could be consensual and enjoyable for both parties (like a lot of other things that don’t necessarily appeal to everybody else), prank culture becomes a lot more harmful when its victims are children. Surely it makes it hard to trust anybody if you’re a six year old whose parents are pranking you by telling you they’ve given away your beloved puppy?
Parents who have gone too far with their “pranks” (read: abuse of power) in order to gain a social media following have even lost custody of their children. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise considering the fact that they’d used their children’s suffering as a tool for their content, and even purposefully triggered it in the first place.
There are so many kinds of pranks being recorded and posted online that it’s hard to keep track. Some of them are even funny to me on occasion. A large number of them, however, just don’t feel right, and I feel like that’s something that warrants a bit of discussion.
“Prank success on YouTube probably says a lot more about our society and its values than it does content creators,” writes Chen. “But perhaps it’s time we engage in honest dialogue about this form of entertainment that’s been around for decades — as long as media has existed — and why it’s so popular”.
There are so many other forms of entertainment out there that I feel have a lot more integrity and value, and I wish people would share those with me rather than clips of unsuspecting women being scared of fake spiders their husbands have left in their beds, or – heaven forbid – another video of a child being tricked into believing their parents have thrown out their dog. Maybe that makes me a party pooper, or maybe it means that more of us need to question the content we’re consuming and sharing.
Perhaps we need to start asking ourselves how we’d feel if we were in the prank victim’s position, and whether we’d want that shared on the internet. If not, we need to interrogate our fondness for this seemingly innocuous prank culture a little more thoroughly.