A couple of clips from a Brazilian hidden-camera show are making the rounds on YouTube. In both cases, unsuspecting victims are told to take an elevator to a certain floor. On the ascending ride, the elevator appears to stall.
In one scenario, the lights flicker before going out. A few seconds later, the room is illuminated again, but the victim is no longer alone. A haggard, wild-haired girl wearing a hospital gown clutches a doll and stares at the victim, then shrieks.
In the other clip, the victim boards the elevator, followed by men loading items for a funeral. After wheeling in a casket – leaving it upright – they exit to fetch other items. Before they can get back on, the doors slide shut. Once again, the elevator stalls and the lights flicker. This time the lights stay on, but the top half of the casket lid can't contain its contents any longer. A corpse tumbles from the box, doubled over the bottom half of the lid. Cue the terrified screams.
In case after case, the victims look as if they have experienced the most frightening episodes of their lives. They furiously press every button on the elevator keypad. They scratch at the doors. One man actually pries them open with his bare hands.
After watching the footage with the girl, my first thought was: “That's one of the funniest things I've ever seen.” My second thought was: “They'd never be able to pull that off in the United States.” You can be assured victims would sue everyone even remotely associated with the program for causing mental anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
One has to assume that the people who ended up appearing in the show consented to the footage being aired. They're either really good sports, or were offered something in exchange for their co-operation. Or both. But as funny and over-the-top as this show is, at its heart, the prank is mean.
Which brings us to a posh London hospital. A nurse finds herself answering a phone call from a person she believes to be the Queen. She passes it on to another staff member, who then provides confidential information about the status of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, admitted earlier in the week with severe morning sickness.
The conversation was a gag – the work of a radio morning-show team in Australia (who later said they never imagined they'd pull off the ruse, let alone see the story go viral).
And just after we had all enjoyed our final chuckle at the nurse's naïveté, we learned she had taken her own life.
So who's to blame? The nurse, who made the error and overreacted to the subsequent humiliation? The radio jocks who made the nurse look like an unprofessional idiot? Or all of us who enjoyed a laugh at the expense of someone we didn’t know? Without question, the answer is a combination of the latter two.
It’s easy to relate to the feelings of the nurse. Have you ever returned to a gathering – say, a dinner table or an office meeting – where everyone knows what's going on except you? At first they giggle and chuckle because they’re in on the joke and you’re not. It's mildly embarrassing. When the group’s laughter can no longer be contained, they explode into howls, snorts and even tears. This time, knowing it’s all at your expense, it’s simply humiliating.
We usually associate power with money or social status. But the truth is, “scientia potentia est.” (Here's hoping saying it in Latin makes it sound less cliché.)
Knowledge is more powerful than any other human asset. With it come the skills and information to save lives, earn wealth and manipulate others for your own benefit. Knowledge is the source of many negative traits of humanity. We use it to steal, blackmail, shirk social duties and ridicule others.
No one could have predicted the nurse would have reacted to her public humiliation in such a tragic way. But when you take into account the scale of the embarrassment, you can hardly claim to be so surprised. Imagine the biggest error you've ever made being broadcast across the planet.
We'd be kidding ourselves if we thought jokes made in good fun will stop being funny. But this episode should remind us that jokes can have serious consequences – some of them deadly.