Comedy of Terrors: Humor in Horror

I keep forgetting to mention — I finally did see the Fright Night remake a few weeks back. Loved it. I liked the changes they made — I thought they made for a tighter, better story, over all. And I also very much appreciated the fact that it managed to be both funny and scary.

That’s had me thinking ever since — what’s the relationship between humor and horror? Why do the two work together so well?

Mind you, it doesn’t always work. The Scream movies, for example, did a very good job with a particularly fine bit of tightrope-walking — completely mocking the conventions of the genre and being very, very self-aware while somehow managing, just barely, to keep suspension of disbelief from crashing down. On the other hand, the parodies they spawned, the Scary Movie series, don’t try to provide any suspension disbelief at all, so they definitely fail as horror — which, to be fair, they aren’t trying to be — but, for me, fail as comedy as well. They completely take me out of the moment, break the illusion of story that I’m looking for.

Give me a movie that does its best to scare you and make you laugh, that never feels like it has to sacrifice one for the other.

The two emotional reactions are really not that far apart. How many times has some friend crept up behind you to make you jump? And once you’re done jumping out of your skin, you burst into laughter — “Man, you scared the hell out of me!” A lot, right?

Comedy and terror both rely on some of the same tricks. Both of them rely on building tension — tension between what’s supposed to happen, what you’d expect to happen — and what really is happening.

F’rinstance, let’s say we’ve got a scene where Our Heroine is working as a waitress, and her boss has been yelling at her, and now a customer is being a real jerk to her — we know what’s supposed to happen. She’s supposed to just suck it up and do her job, and stay calm and graceful as possible — maybe defuse the situation as best she can, maybe just quietly take the verbal abuse and move on. Buuuut instead she takes the pie she’s carrying and shoves it in the guy’s face! We laugh, because she’s not supposed to do that. She’s crossed a line, done something transgressive.

Ahh, but. Now it’s later that night, and she’s home alone and talking on the phone to her boyfriend, and again, we know what’s supposed to happen. She’s supposed to be able to just sit and relax and enjoy her phone call. She can let her guard down — she’s at home, this is her safe place. Buuuut instead a guy in a mask suddenly jumps out of her closet with a knife. That’s not supposed to happen, either. That’s pretty damned transgressive. That guy? He’s definitely crossed a line.

In a way, the only difference between humor and horror is how much is at stake. In the first situation, the stakes are social. Really, the consequence is that she might lose her job, or she might just lose face. But in the second situation — she really might lose her face, if you see what I mean.

That kind of tension is what drives everything in the two genres. And you can take that kind of tension and keep building it up and up within a scene. Maybe she’s having a funny misunderstanding with her boyfriend on the phone, and the more they talk around it the more confused it gets, and maybe that tension keeps building. And maybe the masked killer doesn’t leap out at her right away — maybe we, the audience, know that he’s just inches away as she gets undressed to go to bed, and that tension keeps building.

You build the tension and finally release it. In humor, that comes with a punchline. In horror, that comes with a knife in the chest. The two can go together like peanut butter and chocolate.