Laughing in the Face of Fear: The Intersections of Horror and Comedy

A high school boyfriend once took me to see a Friday the 13th film on our first date, quite possibly hoping horror = fear = girl clinging to his arm. Instead I spent the entire film laughing my ass off, as I’d laughed at many a Friday the 13th film before it. But that was a case of unintentionally funny horror. What about horror that is actually aiming for laughs?

This past summer, at a week-long workshop for Odyssey Writing Workshop graduates, I did a lecture on writing humor. When thinking about examples to use in that lecture, I found a lot of horror-comedies coming to mind: Shaun of the Dead. Cabin in the Woods. Ghostbusters. Army of Darkness. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sooooo many others. I also realized just how much I draw on that well myself as a writer (having a story included in the anthology Funny Horror earlier this year should have been my first clue).

So why do these two genres work so well together?

Let’s start with some basic definitions. Comedy is intended to make an audience laugh. Horror, on the other hand, aims to instill feelings of fear, shock, disgust, or unease. So at first glance, the genres appear to have contradictory goals — because we generally see laughter as a good thing and fear and disgust as bad things, right? But when you dig a little deeper, it turns out that horror and comedy actually have a good deal in common.

In researching my aforementioned lecture, every source agreed that humor of all types shares one underlying quality: the unexpected. In fact, the very structure of a joke relies on this quality, in whatever shade it comes in — surprise, reversal, incongruity. A joke sets up a familiar situation, then provides a punchline that takes things in an unexpected direction. Like this scene in Ghostbusters:

A large part of the humor in that scene is the way it subverts our expectations. When we think “supernatural creature that’s going to destroy the world,” a familiar image would be something along the lines of a giant, toothy, tentacled monster. We don’t expect the world to end at the hands of a ginormous fluffy marshmallow guy in a sailor’s outfit. Mr. Stay Puft is the punchline.

Horror relies on the unexpected as well. One of the most surprising reversals I can think of is in Psycho, when our seeming protagonist is killed off halfway through the film. And incongruity — the unexpected juxtaposition of things that don’t belong together — is a large part of what makes many horror-movie villains scary. Just think of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, calmly listening to a piece of classical music right before he bites a guy’s face off:

Lecter’s refinement is incongruous with his cannibalism, and that makes him all the more chilling.

And of course, surprise lies at the heart of many a horror movie jump scare, like this moment from Jaws:

Notice the humor in that moment as well? “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” is funny because it takes the expected information (“the shark is way bigger than we are prepared to deal with”) and delivers it in an unexpected way — via droll understatement. Yet it makes us laugh while maintaining an air of fear, because that big-ass shark can totally jump out of the water again at any given second.

In his introduction to the anthology Prime Evil, Douglas E. Winter had this to say about the entertainment value of horror:

“We love to see something so groteque and so unexpected that it makes us scream or laugh (and sometimes we do both) — secure in the knowledge that here, in the funhouse of fear, this kind of behavior is not only accepted, but encouraged.”

There it is again — the unexpected as the source of both screams and laughter, the respective purviews of horror and comedy.

Winter goes on to talk about horror as catharsis, offering release from the real world by allowing us to safely experience something worse via fiction. People often turn to comedy for the same reason: release from the stress of the real world. Catharsis through laughter. When viewed that way, the previously contradictory-seeming goals of horror and comedy — fear vs. laughter — are actually different means to the same end.

In both horror and comedy, that cathartic release is only possible after we’ve built up tension. The role of tension in horror is pretty obvious. Take, for example, the way the opening scenes of Jaws and Scream build tension:

The release in horror can take on different forms — a scare, a death, an escape, a fake out (cue the old “oh, it’s just the cat” cliché). It can come quickly, as with a jump scare, or after a slow burn, as in the clips above. A good work of horror knows how to use timing to maximum effect.

And isn’t that what is often said of comedy — that it’s all about the timing? I mentioned the structure of a joke earlier: setup, then punchline. Translation: tension, then release. The start of a joke creates tension by making the reader/listener/viewer wonder, “What’s this joke about? Where are they going with this?” For the punchline to be effective, the comedian needs to carefully position the payoff, aka the moment of release.

The Ghostbusters clip from earlier is a great example of this. We have a setup that establishes tension: they’ve been asked to choose the form of the Destructor. Then the tension builds. Don’t choose, clear your minds. Shit, who chose something? And what? If Ray had immediately blurted, “Stay Puft Marshmallow Man” when asked to choose the Destructor, the scene wouldn’t have been anywhere near as funny.

I think this is why horror and comedy can work so well together — both genres are all about building tension, carefully positioning the moment of release, and delivering the unexpected. Of course, some horror-comedies skew more heavily toward one genre than the other. Get Out, for example, ultimately falls on the horror side of the fence, but it definitely has comedy as well, usually courtesy of my favorite character, Rod:

Ghostbusters, on the other hand, is undeniably more comedy than horror, but it’s got the latter in its DNA. This Ghostbusters scene is straight out of a horror movie playbook:

And there are horror-comedies like Slither that walk a finer line, delivering equal parts horror and humor. But whatever the balance, I think what makes the combination so effective is that shared sense of the unexpected. In horror, the unexpected usually leads to a scare; in comedy, to a laugh. But in horror-comedy, it can go either way at any given moment, adding yet another layer of surprise to genres already rife with them. We can never be sure if we’re going to laugh, scream, or both.

Featured image from The Evil Dead 2, Alamo Drafthouse via EW.com

No Comments

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: