Could this gloomy song really inspire a person to commit suicide?

Rezső Seress and László Jávor's song "Gloomy Sunday" may be one of the most depressing songs ever recorded, and is commonly called "The Hungarian Suicide Song" because of its connection to a rash of 20th century suicides. But could this admittedly glum song really trigger suicidal behavior?

Top image from Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod.

"Gloomy Sunday" is a song shrouded in so much legend, that even details of its inception are uncertain. Probably the best discussion of the song and its impact comes is Steven Stack, et al.'s paper "Gloomy Sunday: did the 'Hungarian suicide song' really create a suicide epidemic?," which appeared in Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying in 2008. We do know that the music was written by Rezső Seress and the lyrics were written by László Jávor, and that it was first recorded by Pál Kalmár in 1935. Some versions of the legend say the the song was inspired by Seress' breakup with a lover, who later killed herself; others claim it was Jávor's suicidal girlfriend who inspired the song. It's told from the perspective of a person whose love has died and is contemplating suicide in order to be reunited with them, accompanied by a particularly melancholy melody. Seress himself committed suicide on January 13th, 1968. In his obituary, the New York Times reported that "Gloomy Sunday" had left Seress depressed because he despaired that he would never create another hit song.

Tales of the song's connections to suicide start before it was even published, with one urban legend claiming that the second publisher to receive the sheet music killed himself shortly afterward. But "Gloomy Sunday" was an indisputable hit in Depression-era Hungary, and it eventually made the jump abroad. Billie Holiday recorded her version of "Gloomy Sunday" in 1941, and, as of 2008, the song had been recorded 79 times by artists including Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, Sarah McLachlan, and Björk. (However, some of the English-language recordings soften the song's tone, adding a third stanza that suggests that the death was just a dream.) It even inspired a film, 1999's Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (A Song of Love and Death), which spins a fictional account of the song's creation.

A March 1936 article in Time Magazine lists off a spate of suicides in Hungary that were allegedly connected to the song: a shoemaker quoted the song in his suicide note; two people shot themselves while listening to bands; people reportedly drowned themselves in the Danube while holding the sheet music. And reports of suicidal behavior linked to the song weren't just limited to Hungary. In the 1930s, both Time and the New York Times reported on suicides and attempted suicides in the US connected to "Gloomy Sunday." The song was banned on the BBC until 2002, and according to some reports, certain outlets in the US refused to play the song, fearing it was somehow responsible for these suicides.

But of course correlation doesn't equal causation. Many of these deaths occurred in the midst of the Great Depression, when "Gloomy Sunday" was quite popular. And in discussions of "Gloomy Sunday," it's frequently noted that Hungary has an unusually high suicide rate. (In fact, the high suicide rates among Finno-Ugric cultures past and present have led to speculation that there may be a gene that predisposes some members of these populations to suicidal behavior.) And there's a high correlation between approval of suicide and being a fan of heavy music or the blues, but Stack and his fellow researchers found that there was no special correlation after they controlled for marital status, age, sex, education, conservatism, and church attendance.

That doesn't rule out the possibility that "Gloomy Sunday" or any other work of art might be suicidogenic. In fact, the term "Werther Effect", which refers to a spike of suicides emulating a widely publicized suicide (real or fictional), was coined by sociologist David Phillips after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. The main character takes his own life, and after the book's publication in 1774, Europe reportedly saw a rash of copycat suicides. The question of whether people already contemplating suicide have been drawn to these works of art or whether the works of art opened the door to suicide hasn't been fully resolved.

In 2010, Jane Pirkis and Warwick Blood published "Suicide and the entertainment media: A critical review," commissioned by Hunter Institute of Mental Health as part of Australia's Mindframe National Media Initiative. The review rounds up research studies on the possible effects of film, television, music, and plays on suicidal behavior and examines the methodological problems in many of the studies. The review looks at five commonly accepted factors for causation between a certain work and suicidality: consistency ("The association between media portrayal of suicide and an increase in actual suicides is consistently observed"), strength ("The association is statistically significant, and there may be evidence of a dose‐response effect"), temporality ("The association should make sense in chronological terms"), specificity ("The association is clear,such that most people who experience the outcome of suicide have been exposed to media portrayal of suicide"), and coherence ("The association should be in line with known facts concerning the outcome of interest; actual suicides, attempted suicides or suicidal ideation").

Although the review found that, under those criteria, it's still unclear whether certain pieces of media or genres could consistently trigger suicides, there are instances in which airings of particular pieces of media have been linked to spikes in suicidal behavior. Various studies have found that airings of a specific episode of the soap opera EastEnders, certain episodes of the medical drama Casualty, and certain TV movies featuring suicides preceded an uptick in suicides and suicide attempts using the same methods depicted in this shows. Regarding music, however, the review notes that the studies largely failed to provide a temporal link between hearing a piece or genre of music and attempting suicide. Only Stack, et al.'s discussion of "Gloomy Sunday" suggests such a temporal link, which is perhaps part of why the song continues to loom large in our imaginations.

One particularly interesting survey that Stack, et al. cites is a 2003 doctoral dissertation by Patrick Edwin Jamieson at the University of Pennsylvania, "Changes in United States popular culture portrayal of youth suicide: 1950—2000." The dissertation finds the increase in youth suicide rates between the 1950s and 1990s is predicted by a rise in portrayals of suicide in popular film, inviting further discussion about the depictions of suicide in media and their impact on American culture.

So, while "Gloomy Sunday" may have very well been connected to some of those suicides decades ago, it's unlikely that the song acts as a suicidal version of Ringu, getting into your brain and inspiring you to kill yourself. But to be on the safe side, if you find yourself traveling back in time to 1930s Hungary, turn on something a little peppier when you're feeling blue.

This post was inspired by a recent piece from Mind Hacks on "Gloomy Sunday."