Comedy and Horror: Strange Bedfellows

This would perhaps be a more appropriate post for next month, but I’ve been on a pretty big horror kick lately. I can count the number of horror movies that I’ve ever been able to sit through on one hand, but I’ve read a lot of adult horror novels over the course of this year. And come October, I’m going to be going out with friends to haunted houses, paying literal money to have hockey mask chainsaw clowns chase us into meat lockers full of zombies and giant spiders. Yes, I’m aware that my tolerance of scary things is weirdly selective. The only explanation I have is that maybe my useful fear responses kick in when something’s chasing me, but not when I’m watching it chase other people.

In any case, I, like a lot of people, have noticed that there are two flavors that unexpectedly go great together: comedy and horror. Comedy-horror has become its own subgenre, and it’s a delicate dance. All of the good comedy-horror that I’ve been exposed to is self-aware without becoming parody, doesn’t take the bite out of the horror, and doesn’t just use the comedy as comic relief in between genuinely gruesome scenes.

And the reason that I think it can often work so well is that comedy and horror really aren’t that different.

Sure, they’re pretty opposite extremes: something that’s gruesome is horror, and something that’s funny is comedy. The end goals—instilling fear and laughter, respectively, into the audience—are different. The protagonists can be John and Jane Everyman, but the way they’re developed and portrayed depends on the story and their role in it. One man’s hilarity is another’s horror and vice versa.

That’s a lot of differences, but despite that, there are three things that both genres have in common that helps them mesh together as well as they do:

They both tend to be highly physical or highly mental experiences. Slapstick and slasher are totally different subgenres, but both require that the audience is entertained by something physical happening to the main characters. Who we empathize and the nature of the injuries depends on the genre and the characters, but there can still be overlap: in a comedy, a cheating boyfriend might find himself hit in the family jewels with a baseball bat and we find it hilarious and don’t blame the girlfriend despite the fact that she literally assaulted him. In horror, though, that same boyfriend might suffer a very similar injury or series of injuries, and while we might find it thematically appropriate, especially if he was an unrepentant jerk, we don’t necessarily believe that the injuries were justified because no one deserves that.

Humor and horror can also be very smart. Some comedies and more psychological horror have schemes and puzzles thrown into the mix that the characters are trying to solve or survive. A lie that spreads out of control can either result in hilarious or deadly misunderstandings, and we’re going to stick around to see how it plays out and whether we can figure out what will happen before the characters.

They both tend to be very good with details and the conservation thereof. This works both ways: either there are a lot of details, or there are none at all: the trick is focusing on the right things. Neat freak characters appear in comedies just because the juxtaposition of their attention to very minor details and the plot at large is often very funny. At the same time, horror can use a downright clinical amount of detail to describe exactly how a zombie bite transforms its victim.

Alfred Hitchcock once said “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” He was of course talking about horror, but comedy has a very similar device in the form of the “noodle incident,” named by Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. What makes the situation funny or scary in this case is the fact that we don’t see the details. All we know about the noodle incident is that it involved noodles and was disastrous, and all we know about the abandoned bedlam house on the outskirts of town is that something happened there. The story trusts the imagination of the audience to fill in the details, because anything they can imagine is scarier or funnier than anything that can be written.

They both aim for universal experiences. Comedy and horror come from thematically different places: horror is drawn more from basic instincts, where comedy is drawn more from things that people learn. However, the underlying experiences are universal. We have to learn what a monster is and does, and those things can be very different across age and culture lines, but the idea of an actively malevolent entity with unclear motivations coming after you is universally scary. Conversely, everyone knows what it means to be embarrassed, but whether the most embarrassing thing that can happen to you is misspeaking during an important presentation, an unfortunate stain on your pants that you don’t notice until just now, or having one of your darker secrets plastered all over the internet depends a lot on who you are and where you come from. What matters, though, is that deeper connection is made so that the rest of the story can have maximal impact.

 

Comedy-horror has to take a story that could go to either extreme and decide how to balance the different components. As someone whose early drafts are more comical and turn more dramatic and sometimes horrifying in subsequent revisions, I’m a bit jealous of creators who can pull off that mixture. The result has the best of both worlds: laughter is said to be the best medicine, but catharsis isn’t a bad treatment option, either. So this October, let’s all find something that makes us laugh and something that scares us—bonus points if you find something that does both at the same time.

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