A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is it possible for someone to be tickled to death?

October 28, 1983

Dear Cecil:

Recently my girlfriend has been obsessed with tickling me. I hate it. I'm very ticklish and find it to be real torture. She on the other hand enjoys being tickled and says it even turns her on. My questions are: (a) Why are some people ticklish and others not? (b) Is it true the Chinese used tickling as torture? (c) Can you actually tickle someone to death? (d) If so, how would death result?

Cecil replies:

Precious little serious research has been done on this topic, W., meaning that the following is going to consist of about 1 part fact to 20 parts harebrained speculation. So what else is new? The physical mechanism of tickling is not well understood (it's thought to be associated with the sense of pressure in some way). Nor is it known why some people are more ticklish than others. Nonetheless, it's clear that tickling is no mere idle diversion. Rather, it's a profoundly ambiguous act fraught with numerous mundo bizarro psychosexual implications. No jive. Consider, for instance, that you cannot tickle yourself. According to Darwin, this is because "the precise point to be tickled must not be known," lest some sort of mental tickle-canceling mechanism be automatically invoked. From this we deduce not only that it takes two to tickle, but that the tickling sensation is associated with a loss of control over the relationship. Furthermore, consider the fine line between pleasure and pain that tickling entails. You entertain babies by tickling them, but your girlfriend is making you suffer by causing you to enjoy yourself (i.e., laugh) too much.

Can you literally be tickled to death? Maybe. According to researcher Joost Meerloo, who wrote a monograph on laughter some years ago, it's possible to die laughing. Epidemics of laughing, a type of mass hysteria, have been noted since the Middle Ages, and similar episodes are occasionally reported in the medical literature today. For instance, 1,000 people in Tanganyika suffered a mass laughing fit lasting several days in 1963. Most of the victims of laughing fits recover. But some die from a combination of starvation and exhaustion. You can't eat or sleep while laughing, and we all know if you try to drink it just sprays out your nose. As for being tickled to death, Meerloo offers a possibly apocryphal story about a sadistic method of torture devised by the Romans (and for all I know, used by the Chinese as well). The victim is strapped to a scaffold and his feet are dipped in a salt solution. Then a goat, attracted by the salt, licks the victim's feet with its raspy tongue. This drives the poor sap nuts with laughter and gradually abrades away the skin at the same time. The feet are then recoated with salt and the process resumes. Finally the victim, having suffered unimaginable agonies, dies horribly.

However, according to Meerloo, the more important meaning of being "tickled to death" is not real death but metaphorical death--i.e., sexual surrender. Sez he, "In a deeper sense, being tickled to death means taking part in sexual orgasm and experiencing the _sterbe und werde_ feelings (to die and to be resurrected) provoked by deep ecstatic sexual satisfaction ..."The clitoris ... is in other languages called the organ of being tickled and titillated (in Dutch: _kitelaar_). All these words are also related to itch, the old English _yicchen_: a combination of restless hankering and irritation, of ambivalent yearning after fun and the taboo against giving in to the yearning.... `I'm being tickled to death' means ... that the pleasure is nearly too much for me." You're now thinking one of two things: (a) yowsah, or (b) this guy's been putting something funny in his meerschaum pipe. I make no judgments.

What does all this signify for you, W.? God knows. On the one hand, your ticklishness may mean you're a putrid swamp of repressed psychopathic compulsions. On the other hand, maybe you're just ... ticklish. Can't expect me to figure out everything.

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