Have you ever been in pain—and I mean pain—from being tickled? Have you been the victim of a bully who enjoyed watching you squirm in laughter by stroking your ribs or armpits? You probably have laughed uncontrollably against your will until you cried and thought, “who the hell could actually find tickling fun?”
Indeed, tickling isn’t inherently fun. It may sound like a joke, but tickling is a legitimate torture method that, in the most extreme cases, can even result in death. It can be used to abuse, dominate, harass, humiliate, or interrogate an individual, so it is a serious thing. We’re not exaggerating here: tickling is bloody torturous. That seemingly harmless activity we’ve engaged in for centuries may appear benign (when executed in a safe and friendly circumstance), but it is arguably one of the worst forms of torture someone could be submitted to.
Sure, that sounds strange. We’re used to hearing a lot about the methods governments have used—and use still—to torture victims and extract information. You wouldn’t think death by tickling is one of them. But it is. Though perhaps one of the strangest, this method can prove highly effective—and highly lethal.
Though laughter is ordinarily a pleasant and welcomed reaction when it’s brought about by tickling, it can generate acute and severe stress since laughter is, fun or not, inevitable. The one being tickled laughs whether they want it or not, despite of whether they find the experience pleasant or not. In these cases, laughter can indicate a panic reflex rather than a pleasurable response.
Forced tickle can cause real physical and mental distress. The tickled person completely loses control over their body and their system enters a state of tension, fatigue, and anxiety. So, even if it doesn’t look as dangerous as being physically mistreated with punches or some special machine designed to maximize pain, it can in some cases result in a brutal death regardless.
One of the most famous warnings against this strange method was remarked by the researcher Irene Thompson in her book A to Z of Punishment and Torture. Called the “Chinese tickling torture,” it was practiced mostly during the Han Dynasty (206-220 AD). It was used as a subtle method of punishment against criminals and traitors since it didn’t leave any marks and the victim could almost always recover fully. It is believed this method was used at other time periods, but no general register exists to point to cases where it led to death. Indeed, this result is uncommon. According to Mark Schreiber, another researcher and analyst, in Japan people used to tickle any criminal “mercilessly.”
Thompson also points out that a similar method was used in Ancient Rome against other sorts of lawbreakers. The victim’s feet were submerged in a kind of salt mixture and were subdued as a goat licked the substance. According to Thompson, this procedure caused laughter at first, yet soon became unbearable and extremely painful. The method was not carried out in Rome alone, but seems to have been implemented in several other European nations in several distinct periods. There is, however, no clear record on the matter, so it’s impossible to know how many deaths it caused.
Some believe this method didn’t cause any deaths at all, since constant laughter can lead to fainting before the victim suffers lethally from bodily stress. However, there are in fact records of death-inducing tickling. Josef Kohout, a homosexual prisoner in World War II, claimed to have witnessed Nazi officers tortured a fellow prisoner through tickling until he died. Likewise, in a 1842 article, a historian known simply as L.G.C. spoke of another kind of torture, comparing it with tickling, and pointed out that “even tickling the feet has commonly caused death.”
It is possible to die of laughter, specifically due to a heart attack, asphyxia, or even brain aneurysms—or other stress-related injuries. As previously mentioned, the individual loses control of his or her body and, unable to regulate their breathing and being subdued by stress, any of said harms can occur—depending on the intensity and duration of the torture.
In fact, there are multiple cases of people who’ve died from laughter attacks, which can alone serve as proof that death by tickling is not as far-fetched as you might think. So… if someone wants to physically force a laugh out of you, now you have the perfect excuse to stop them.
Translated by Oliver G. Alvar