A couple of teenage boys from Kansas went to Los Angeles to try to make it big. What could go wrong? Sam Golbach, 19, and Colby Brock, 18, had amassed a moderate following on YouTube and Vine, churning out nice-guy videos like “WEIRD but CUTE things girls do” and “HOW TO TALK TO BOYS,” when they got an opportunity to collaborate with an even brighter digital star. On the way to the meeting, Golbach and Brock’s car broke down in an alleyway. They got out to look under the hood. A masked man approached Golbach from behind, threw a black bag over his head, wrestled him to the ground, duct taped his wrists and legs together, tossed him in the trunk, and drove him to a second location. When the masked man removed the bag, Golbach found himself on a downtown L.A. rooftop, tied to a plastic chair. Brock was kneeling on the concrete, his head still bagged. The masked man put a handgun to Brock’s head and fired. Brock slumped over. Golbach wailed and rocked violently against his shackles. Then, 40 seconds into Golbach’s mourning, Brock got up, pulled the bag off his head, and grinned. “I’m sorry, dude!” Brock said. “It was a prank!”
This is “KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK,” and it’s just the latest entry in YouTube’s most gruesome comedy genre. This one was engineered by Big Brother housemate turned YouTube vlogger Sam Pepper—the masked guy with the gun—but a handful of digital pranksters have flooded YouTube with similarly extreme practical jokes in the past year and change. See also: “PRANKING MY MOM!! BLOODY MURDER PRANK!,” “The EXTREME stalker PRANK on my Girlfriend!,” and perhaps the vilest permutation of the genre, “ESCORT MURDER PRANK!!! (Gone Sexual),” in which a man hires a woman to have sex with him in a hotel room, then enlists his buddies to storm in and point a gun at her face. No end is too gruesome to stage, film, and post online: For elaborate videos like “Blowing Up My Kid PRANK!” and “Killing My Own Kid PRANK!,” YouTuber Roman Atwood enlists his two young sons to help trick their mother into believing that they’ve been incinerated in an ATV crash or accidentally tossed off a second-story balcony.
When did pranks get so grim? In 1947, Candid Microphone—the radio program that later evolved into the pioneering prank show Candid Camera—introduced Americans to the secretly recorded synthetic scenario. Candid Microphone’s pranks were banal, if sometimes tasteless: In one early episode, pranksters recorded a fake charity worker collecting donations for “needy Eskimos” whose “igloos melted” after a warm winter, then enlisted a diner patron to ask his waiter to make endless substitutions to the restaurant’s fixed blue-plate special. (Still, one listener was so offended on behalf of the pranks’ targets that she wrote in to the program to call the Candid Microphone crew “a bunch of dirty, sneaking spies.”) More than 50 years later, MTV’s Punk’d advanced the game by picking higher profile subjects and fabricating more elaborate pranks: Punk’d confederates seized Justin Timberlake’s property over unpaid taxes and made Taylor Swift believe that she had ruined a wedding at sea with an errant firework. But the show stopped short of waving a gun in their faces and making them watch their friends die. Just a decade later, pranksters are getting their kicks by staging terrorist hijackings of tour buses and chainsaw murders next door. That escalated quickly!
In a 2006 essay in the Journal of Communication Inquiry, written before this latest generation of prank videos, Rutgers media professor Jack Bratich argued that while early prank shows tested a subject’s limits, the genre later became so familiar that pranksters turned to “testing the very limits of the pervasiveness of the prank program.” As Bratich puts it, “given the widespread popularity of pranking, can we still be fooled?” The SyFy channel’s Scare Tactics, which debuted in 2003 and went on to stage encounters between unsuspecting marks and aggressive aliens, bitey werewolves, and a hulking unfrozen caveman, was an early property to test that question. SyFy’s scenarios are extravagant but deliberately absurd, which gives viewers an added thrill when they watch the show’s marks fall for the trap. But pranksters in 2015 often choose to ground their videos in reality—a burglary gone wrong, a by-the-numbers murder, a man stalking a woman. Perhaps that’s because the creators aren’t just competing with Scare Tactics, and one another, in their quest to scandalize viewers. They’re competing with the horrific real life videos that punctuate our social media feeds: terrorists beheading hostages on tape, a disgruntled TV reporter killing his former colleagues on live television, and a bloody live-streamed shootout between a couple of suspected mass shooters and a street full of cops. These days, it takes a lot to freak us out.
Luckily for the YouTube prankster, amateur status lends the videos an automatic edge. Reality television programs can certainly exploit their untrained stars and occasionally endanger their contestants, but at least they hire risk consultants to help protect people on-set and enlist legal teams that advise them against staging scenarios that could make them vulnerable to big fat lawsuits or hefty FCC fines. But YouTube vloggers are rogue actors. Are their pranks even safe? You’ll have to watch to find out. Viewers deemed Pepper’s murder prank particularly horrifying —the modern barometer of popular outrage, a Change.org petition denouncing Pepper, has amassed 190,000 signatures—in part due to his reputation as a loose cannon and a creep. Pepper had previously posted offensive “pranks” where he’d approached women on the street and just straight up assaulted them by grabbing their butts or forcing his mouth on theirs. As outrage over Pepper’s videos mounted, a number of YouTube viewers and vloggers came forward to accuse Pepper of assaulting them off-camera, too. The YouTube ad network that had previously repped Pepper dropped him. Now he’s back, riding solo, and pretending to murder people.
The latest twist on the genre is the viral video purporting to show a “PRANK GONE WRONG,” one that “BACKFIRES!” on the prankster himself. These make me think about the surveillance tape of 12-year-old Cleveland boy Tamir Rice, gunned down by a cop for playing with a toy gun in the park. And earlier this year, the Palestinian-American YouTube prankster Yousef Erakat made this connection explicit, opening his “BARBERSHOP MURDER PRANK!” with a note acknowledging that not everyone who has used a prop gun in play has survived, adding: “Rest in Peace Tamir Rice.” Click on a “prank gone wrong,” and you never know whether the video will escalate to real-life violence, or fizzle out in the face of the target’s disbelief. When one prankster smeared his face in fake blood, splayed himself out on his apartment floor, and set up a camera to catch his girlfriend’s reaction, she walked in and said: “What the hell are you doing? I don’t know what type of prank this is meant to be.” She stood over her boyfriend and pushed at him with her shoe. “You can get up now,” she said. “It’s not good.”