Thursday, January 8, 2009

Laughing yourself to death.

It’s a pretty creepy way of murdering someone—drugging your victim with a chemical that forces him to laugh himself to death. Or, at the very least, have his face contort into a grotesque smile when he dies.

The most famous killer to employ this uncanny method of murder was, of course, the Joker. First appearing in Batman #1 (cover dated Spring 1940), the Joker is one of the great comic book villains.

It’s a great story, with a strong script by Bill Finger well-served by Bob Kane’s effective, atmospheric art. The Joker introduces himself to the world by publicly announcing his intent to rob and murder particular people at particular times. No matter how well-guarded these people are, the Joker manages to keep whacking them at the exact pre-planned times. He uses a toxin of his own design that leaves the dead men with wide, bizarre smiles on their faces. Batman and Robin put a stop to the Joker’s schemes, but it won’t be long before this visually creepy villain returns to wreck more havoc.

But was the Joker the only mad killer to use this M.O.? Just about the same time Batman #1 was hitting the stands, the Shadow was facing off against a man who threatened his victims with “the laugh of death.”

The March 10, 1940 episode of The Shadow radio show (with Bill Johnstone starring as the invisible crimefighter) involved a man who was injected his victims with a drug that caused them to laugh as they die.

The script, by Sidney Sloan, is a good one, helped along by the very, very effective sound effect of the maniacal laughter of the dying victims. It’s a really spine-chilling episode—demonstrating how dramatic radio could often build an entire story around one particular sound.

The Shadow episode aired about two months before Batman #1 was published. The time-frame is too narrow to assume that Kane and Finger were pilfering an idea--the two similar methods for murder were simply coincidental. But it does seem as if the Shadow's nemesis narrowly beat out the Joker to be the first to use this particular M.O.

Or did he? Actually, the mastermind behind a really weird real estate scam was the first, as detailed in the July 1938 issue of Doc Savage.

The story in this issue was titled “The Giggling Ghosts,” written by Lester Dent. A residential area in New Jersey seems to be infested with, well, ghosts that giggle. Before long, some of the local citizens begin giggling uncontrollably as well. Several of them die.

Doc Savage and his assistants investigate. As is typical in their adventures, there are more double crosses, triple crosses, false leads and faked deaths than you can shake a stick at. The heroes get captured by the bad guys, then escape only to get captured again, before Doc Savage manages to pick the real mastermind out of a host of suspects and put an end to the villainous scheme.

So there you have it. One prose story, one comic story and one radio play, all featuring murders accompanied by smiles, giggles or laughter. All were published in less than a year’s time.

Even taking the Doc story into account, the time frame is still too narrow to assume that any one writer was lifting the idea from one of the others. It seems to be a weird coincidence, in which the world of fictional characters inexplicably suffered a brief but violent plague of killers using the same eerie method of dealing sudden death.

But whatever the reason, the world is a better place because of it. All three stories are excellent examples of the strong, entertaining storytelling that was a regular part of our popular culture in those bygone days.

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