But a good prank is, in the end, a simulation of a crisis and not the real thing. And it serves as a valuable reminder that not every precious box contains precisely the treasure you might expect
The 1960s activist and prankster Abbie Hoffman reportedly divided practical jokes into three categories. The bad ones involve vindictive skewering, or the sort of head-shaving, shivering-in-boxers fraternity hazing that the sociologist Erving Goffman described as “degradation ceremonies.” Neutral tricks are more akin to physical punch lines, like wrapping the toilet bowl in cellophane, depositing a massive pumpkin on top of the student union building, or pulling some electronic high jinks on a co-worker’s keyboard (though on deadline this falls quickly into the “bad” category).
What Hoffman called the good prank, which humorously satirizes human fears or failings, is found in a wide variety of initiation rites and coming-of-age rituals. The Daribi of New Guinea, for example, have children make a small box and bury it in the ground, telling them that after a while a treasure will appear inside but they must not peek, according to Edie Turner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia.
Invariably the youngsters succumb to curiosity — only to find a sample of human feces.
The Ndembu of Zambia have an adult in a monstrous mask sneak and scare the wits out of boys camping outside the village as part of a coming-of-age ritual in which they are showing their bravery.
“These kind of tricks are very common,” Dr. Turner said, “and they are really a way to put a person down before raising them up. You’re being reminded of your failings even as you’re being honored.”