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We’re all going to die. We’re not all going to prison. Is there a connection between the popularity of prison-themed programming and our fear of dying? Put another way, why are movies and television programs about prison so popular to people who will never see the inside of a jail or prison? I’ve wondered about how the two concepts might be connected without coming up with a rational relationship between the two. What enamors people to lockup shows and graphic tales of prison life? I may have found a plausible connection.

Prison and Death Plots Are Entertaining

Evidence of prison-themed shows’ popularity is revealed by the recent hacking of season five of Orange is the New Black (OITNB). According to Deadline Hollywood, the theft came after a blackmail attempt by the hacker was rejected by Netflix. Netflix’s production vender’s security had been compromised. OITNB is a good example of the popularity of prison-themed programming—the program was valuable enough to steal after a failed ransom demand. The recipient of seventeen Emmy Award nominations and four wins, six Golden Globe nominations, and many more industry awards, OITNB earned a strong public following that made its programs worthy of black market thievery.

While the entertainment factor of prison-themed programming is incontrovertible, can the same be said about death? The answer is found in the popularity of modern horror movies such as John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween, considered the cornerstone of modern horror filmmaking. Carpenter’s views of his intent as a film director coincide with what University of Chicago’s Alex Lickerman, MD, describes as nervous laughter or, as quoted in the book Supersurvivors, “a defense mechanism that guards against overwhelming anxiety.” The authors of Supersurvivors, David B. Feldman, PhD, and Lee Daniel Kravetz, offer a novel look at the ways people react to adversity and the challenges of life.

Connecting the Dots

By looking at the art form of horror movies and the study of nervous laughter, I’ve created two threads of thought that I propose are woven together:

  1. How and why does the fear of death or harm, emblematic ingredients of horror films, entertain?
  2. Do the reasons horror films entertain apply to why prison-themed movies are so popular?

Nervous Laughter

Think about the times you’ve been frightened or stressed by someone or some event. It could be a frightening situation: You’re speeding down the freeway not realizing the traffic ahead of you has stopped. You apply your breaks in time—but not before there’s a screeching sound and the smell of burning rubber. You’ve avoided a potential tragedy. After catching your breath and feeling your heart palpitation subsiding, you may experience an episode of nervous laughter. Why?

According to Dr. Lickerman, as quoted in Psychology Today referring to the work of neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran:

perhaps “the rhythmic staccato sound of laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes: don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm.” If true, this provides a plausible explanation for nervous laughter. We’re signaling ourselves that whatever horrible thing we’ve just encountered isn’t really as horrible as it appears, something we often desperately want to believe.

Now think of the times you’ve watched a horror movie in a theatre. The plot is building an eerie tension—the soundtrack brings goose bumps to  your arms and chills up your spine. You know from the specter of a figure in the shadows and the glimmer of a knife something ominous is about to happen. And it does. Screams fill the theatre—followed by scattered nervous laughter.

Carpenter’s explanation for the laughter supports Lickerman’s finding that it’s a defense mechanism guarding against overwhelming anxiety.

When nterviewed by A.V. Club, Carpenter gave this insightful perspective of his work:

I always worry about rules. You know, rules for horror. It’s just not that easy or simple. But when I say horror is essentially the same, I mean its purpose. Throughout the years, it’s been to scare you. Its purpose is to take away the reality of your life for a little while and scare you in safety—in the safety of the theater. That’s its purpose.


Suspension of Reality

Horror movies allow viewers to fool themselves into thinking that fear and death are actually safe in a world where reality is suspended by movie making. Eating popcorn and candy in a theater, coupled with laughter that reinforces that the encountered fear isn’t real, makes horror movies entertaining. Likewise, prison-themed movies do the same by vicariously placing the viewers in stress-induced situations from which they know they can escape.

Lickerman sums up the relationship between stress and nervous laughter in a quote from Supersurvivors:

Being able to laugh at a trauma at the moment it occurs, or soon after, signals both to ourselves and others that we believe in our ability to endure it (which is perhaps what makes laughter such a universally pleasurable experience: it makes us feel everything will be all right).



The connection between people’s fixations on fear and dying and going to prison lies in a common entertainment value of vicarious sensual experiences and stimulations that can be endured, at will. Humans have a built-in release function of nervous laughter to placate and soothe highly stressful situations, whether real or fabricated.

Prison-themed entertainment draws on similarities with horror movies in coping mechanisms and reactions—but with two important distinctions:

  1. We are all going to die. The suspension of reality is paused while the inevitable approaches in due time.
  2. Not everyone goes to prison or jail. The suspension of reality appeals to the vicarious horror of losing one’s freedom, but the viewers know they are not necessarily facing an inevitable outcome.

Another topic for a future blog will be how ex-offenders react to prison-themed programming. I’m still exploring my own reactions.

Your comments are always welcome.


Image courtesy of 123rf

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