I just finished Christopher Moore’s amazing book A Dirty Job and I got to thinking about the horror genre. One of the thoughts that ended up developing was how the book managed to both make me laugh and at times descend into horror territory. I won’t say that it’s a scary book. I can’t really think of any times where I was really feeling the glacial drift of ice slowly filling my veins. However, there were parts that could certainly be said to be uncomfortable. Still, the thing that got me was just how well the two seemingly opposed aspects fit together. This got me thinking about the 80’s again (though that isn’t all that hard to do.). What struck me was that many horror films in the 80’s managed to pull of being genuinely scary while being humorous. And I’m not talking about the camp-tastic Army of Darkness either. I’m talking about genuine frightfests like Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and to a lesser degree In the Mouth of Madness. These films, while certainly not comedies, brought forward material that managed to provide us with a giggle, even an uneasy one. But why mix such diametrically opposed tones into a single work? Could it be that maybe they are more alike than they seem and that they may even complement each other?
The obvious and I suppose you could say calculating reason to include humor in a horror story is to disarm your viewer or reader. Often horror is like an arms race. You bring out a scare. The next one has to be bigger, otherwise, the emotional impact will lessen and then stagnate then the reader or viewer will totally lose engagement. So the ante has to be constantly upped to keep the audience enthralled and frightened at what will come next. However, if you frighten the audience then disarm them, the next jolt will seem as powerful as the first since they won’t expect it. They will go from a low anxiety state immediately to a high anxiety state and the shift will be very jarring. This isn’t as easy as throwing in a joke or a clown in the middle of a scene though sometimes the characters can lampshade the events of the story and try to crack a wry remark. It’s risky but if done right it has the potential to give the audience a moment of levity before rubbing salt in the wounds again. So this tactic is used in conjunction with scares to keep the audience afraid. The risk of course is that the addition of humor in an otherwise straight-faced horror film can call attention to itself like a beacon and draw the audience out of the world of the story. But this is not the only reason horror and humor cooperate.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an absolutely terrifying film in my opinion. It’s a demented odyssey into realms of twisted human psychology. But it maintains a perverse sense of humor that is just as entertaining as the scares. So how and why? How do we not end up taken out of the film? The answer to that I think is that the humor and the horror grow organically from the situation. The humor is not forced into the situation but is a direct result of it. The main psychopaths are funny themselves. But they aren’t funny in the way that a genuine comic relief would be funny. Instead they are funny as a result of their absurdity. While they are undoubtedly insane and dangerous, their instability and exaggerated personalities allow for the very stuff that humor and horror are made of: exaggeration. And that is why I think that, when done well, humor and horror may actually be great partners.
“The divine is no less paradoxical than the vicious,” said Eric in The Crow and there is a lot of truth to that. Both humor and horror develop when the universe drinks too many whiskey sours and ends up flopping on its ass. Both take what is expected, what our lives have so far told us is possible and to be expected, and subverts it to the point where we can either react with mirth or terror. For example, the dead coming back to life can be played for laughs since the idea is so absurd as to be unthinkable or we can play it as horrifying since it takes something that shouldn’t happen then slaps you right in the face with it. It all depends on what aspect the creator wants to emphasize. But by recognizing that both horror and humor are both a result of roughly the same process, the creator opens up new avenues to explore the idea. How far can you push until the horrible becomes laughable or the humorous horrendous? What does that say about the subject or our reactions to it? How can it just switch emotional textures? We also have to consider that both laughter and horror can be used as defense mechanisms. Sometimes something can be so horrible that the only way to respond to it is with laughter. Like when people suddenly laugh at a funeral. The more accepted or predictable response to something frightening are the typical physiological reactions we usually associate with fright. But both are ways of reacting to uncomfortable stimuli therefore, playing with both reactions can be very powerful for the audience especially since it can potentially lead to cognitive dissonance where they are no longer sure what they should be feeling. This ties nicely into the feeling of being trapped in a dream or rather a nightmare. Without any rules or land marks, the audience is totally at the mercy of the story. This takes the horror and elevates it to the level of a subconscious assault where the audience may be uncomfortable and not even know why. And the unknown is always scarier than anything any author or director can com up with. Thus, using humor in horror is a way of snaking into the audience using a method they may not be aware of and thus have no defense against. As an audience, we no longer can say what is safe and what is dangerous. Is there any safe place at all? Can anything in this insane world of the story be trusted? The humor here only heightens our apprehensions so that the world of the story becomes one massive dangerous labyrinth.
To wrap up before I go on for too long again, humor and horror, seemingly of the good twin evil twin dichotomy may not be so at odds as they seem. Both play with what we expect and subvert our expectations. Because of this, both can be deployed in the service of creating more tension and unease in the audience. When done well, the audience is stripped of a sense of knowing what will or what ought to play out. This thus a fantastic way of keeping the audience of balance and constantly wondering where you’ll take them.