Can you die laughing? Like, literally? Yes and no. Laughter can bring about cataplexy (where you're conscious but can't move) or syncope (fainting), as Gizmodo points out, and people with heart conditions can laugh heartily and put too much "stress" on their tickers. So laughter can, in certain cases, make your heart fail or put your body in harm's way. Strictly speaking, laughter isn't the cause of death, but in those cases, laughing is definitely a contributing factor.
The demographics of people who died laughing throughout history vary wildly. You can be young, old, healthy, sick, starving, or stuffed to the gills with goose (check out King Martin's story below). Sometimes it's a joke you told that does you in; sometimes it's a silly character in a play that literally slays you. There are also cases where the truth behind the fatal laughter is obscured through slander and the fog of time (see Pietro Aretino's bizarre demise). Read on for 10 (or maybe 9.5?) examples of people that literally laughed until they died.
Perhaps the most straightforward account of someone “dying laughing” is the story of Alex Mitchell, a 50-year-old bricklayer from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, England. On March 24, 1975, Mitchell was watching one of his favorite shows: The Goodies, a slapsticky BBC sketch comedy show that hasn’t aged well at all. Exhibit A: This skit from the episode “Kung Fu Capers,” which apparently made Mitchell laugh hard enough to cause his (unknown to him) genetic heart condition to act up. The disorder is called Long QT syndrome, which Snopes describes as “an affliction in which the heart is prone to experiencing long pauses between heart beats, especially after instances of excitement or exertion.” (The Telegraph reported in 2012 that Mitchell’s granddaughter nearly died from the same disorder, but not from laughing.)
Mitchell’s wife Nessie says he was laughing for almost the entire show, but this skit caused him to have one last “tremendous belly laugh” before he “slumped on the settee, and died." Nessie later famously thanked The Goodies for giving her husband so much joy, even to the very end.
So what’s so funny about the skit? Not much, unless you like sub-Benny Hill slapstick with a heaping of 1970s casual racism. In a spoof on martial arts movies, several racial and cultural caricatures—including a guy in full blackface and an afro wig—try to take down a guy practicing a “little-known” martial art that involved thumping your opponent over the head with blood sausage. Your move, Eric Andre!
One legitimate account of dying-while-laughing is from August 20, 2003, when 52-year-old ice-cream truck driver Damnoen Saen-um died in his home in the Phrae province of Thailand, about 300 miles north of Bangkok. Damnoen’s wife says he wouldn’t stop laughing in his sleep and she couldn’t wake him up to stop him. After about two minutes of laughing, he stopped breathing. Local doctor Somchai Chakrabhand said that he likely had a “heart seizure” from laughing too hard, but he had never seen a case quite like this one before. Makes you wonder what he was dreaming about, eh?
If the ancient accounts are true, Greek painter Zeuxis (b. 464 BCE) is probably the only painter in the world that was ever killed by his own painting, albeit in a roundabout way. The fourth-century Roman historian Festus (citing ancient Roman scholar Verrius Flaccus) claims that his last painting, in the words of 18th-century French historian Charles Rollin, “was the picture of an old woman, which work made him laugh so excessively, that he died of it.” Rollin notes that a fellow historian at the time thought this fact was “hard to believe” but “not without example.” Dutch art historian Karel van Mander is at least partially responsible for keeping the ancient account alive. In his massive (and massively influential) tome Book of Painters (1604), van Mander says Zeuxis died “suffocating on his own excessive laughter one day painting the likeness of a funny old wrinkled woman.”
Some historians doubt the story: Sir William Smith says in his Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1848) that it’s just “another instance of those fictions which the ancient grammarians were so fond of inventing, in order to make the deaths of great men correspond with the character of their lives.” It's a difficult thing to verify: none of Zeuxis's paintings survived, which is a shame. He was hailed by Lucian—one of the first novelists in Western civilization—as "the greatest painter of his time."
The Italian satirist, playwright, poet, and early pornographer Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) had a lot of enemies, mainly because he liked to blackmail people via letters he would send and later publish. He considered himself to be something of a literary Robin Hood figure, out to “punish the vices of princes and expose the hypocrisy of priests” through his writing. So it’s no surprise that accounts of his final moments vary; the history of his life was “written by enemies,” to quote Paul Van Dyke in The Atlantic Monthly. So how did he die? There are essentially three different variations; two of them involve him falling out his chair, as Anselm Feuerbach depicts in the painting “Der Tod des Dichters Pietro Aretino” (1854) pictured above (that’s Pietro there on the left):
- Pietro is "fatally hurt by falling over backward from his seat in a fit of laughter at an anecdote of dishonorable adventure of one of his sisters." There are several variations on this one, but it's basically the same account: the shameful Pietro Aretino dies laughing at his prostitute sister. In some stories he suffocates; other versions claim he "dashed out his brains on the marble floor."
- Pietro collapses "in a fit of laughter that provoked a stroke" after helping his friend Titian by hiring a beautiful prostitute to pose for a painting for the Duke of Urbino. The Duke wanted a nude portrait of his wife, whom Titian thought was too old and ugly for such a depiction. So Titian painted the prostitute's body with the wife's head on top to avoid upsetting the Duke. When the Duke saw the finished painting, he allegedly said, "If I could have had that girl's body, even with my wife's head, I would have been a happier man." This is the line that supposedly killed Pietro. (This is a total myth, by the way, despite being published as fact in Terry Breverton's Immortal Last Words. Titian's "Venus of Urbino" is from 1538, 18 years before Pietro Aretino even died. The Duke of Urbino's wife was also extremely young.)
- In Edward Hutton's biography Pietro Aretino: The Scourge of Princes, Hutton notes a letter from the Florentine ambassador—an enemy of Pietro's—claiming that he was "carried off into the next world by a stroke of apoplexy without any decent man being sorry to lose him." In another letter from a different ambassador three days later, Pietro "departed to the other world and rather miserably, for one evening about the fifth hour seated in a chair he fell backwards." Hutton dismisses the alleged "fit of laughter" as merely "popular tradition."
Pietro Aretino scholar Harald Hendrix from Utrecht University wrote in 2000 that he believes the "prostitute sisters" part of the story to be a fabrication, but he's confident that it was, indeed, a backwards fall from an armchair that did him in. Historical documents confirm a "stroke of apoplexy." Was he laughing? That's debatable.