My favorite Horror media are all in the sub-genre of Horror-Comedy. From Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice, and Young Frankenstein (which I recommended last week) to things like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Welcome to Night Vale. Popular and classic films within the Horror genre are Horror-Comedy; things like Shawn of the Dead, Scary Movie, and many of Sam Raimi’s non-Spiderman films. Disney Channel and Cartoon Network got in on the act with Gravity Falls and Over the Garden Wall, respectively, which are colorful cartoons for children ages 8-12 that feature Eldritch horrors as the primary antagonists. Mystery Science Theater 3000 has built their franchise on adding comedy to terrible and over the top Horror films like Manos: The Hands of Fate, Hobgoblins, and Reptilicus. And the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise wouldn’t be the same without Freddie’s constant puns and one-liners.
What gives Horror and Comedy common ground is the techniques that they use to achieve their effects: suspense, exaggeration, and transgression. These techniques are not unique to these genres, but they are intrinsic to them, and mesh well together. It allows them to work together in these films and shows. What is horrific and what is funny can often be the same thing, depending on the framing, and that’s what the real difference is between the two genres.
Suspense is typically more associated with Horror, for obvious reasons. Often in Horror, in fact, the suspense is far more frightening than the jump scare that follows. But the most basic Horror set up is that something unusual happens, the character walks into an area that looks dangerous, and then the monster appears. This set up is used in the opening of the Stranger Things season 2 trailer that aired at Comic-Con. Will Byers hears a strange noise while he’s in the arcade. He turns around to ask his friends about it, but the arcade is suddenly empty. The lights flash off and he’s instantly transported to the Upside Down. The arcade door swings open and outside, obscured by clouds and surrounded by lightning, is a giant creature slouching over Hawkins.
But even the most basic jokes use suspense, building to the punchline. Good suspense in comedy is often as funny as the punchline. The classic knock-knock joke format relies on the audience being kept in suspense until the punchline, typically a pun. Sometimes, the audience isn’t even aware of the set-up until the punchline. In Frozen, there’s a scene towards the end where Anna stops Kristoff from attacking Hans before walking over and calmly telling him off. Then she punches him. At this point, the audience is aware of Hans’ antagonistic nature, and expects Anna to retaliate. Her telling him off is a bit underwhelming until she punches him in the face. Remember, kids, violence is hilarious! (Actually, we’ll get to that in a moment.)
In this classic Ghostbusters moment is the build up from the reveal of Slimer, to Venkman seeing Slimer, to the punchline of Venkman being slimed.
And in this scene from Beetlejuice, the man characters force the humans in their house to sing “Day-O” and dance.
Both of these scenes show the versatility of Horror-Comedy. In one, it’s a funny build-up before a surprise scare. In the other, it’s a tense build up with the punchline of Bill Murray covered in slime. In both, the surprise from the result comes from the audience not knowing which way the movie will go.
Horror is built on exaggeration. It exaggerates violence, certainly, but the greats exaggerate concepts and ideas. Frankenstein is an exaggeration of scientific experiments that were going on at that time. Dawn of the Dead is an exaggeration of consumer culture. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is an exaggeration of Horror films. In Horror, the exaggeration is usually focused on the grotesque and Gothic elements of the story. Long, dark hallways are longer and darker. The beam of light from the flashlight only reveals what’s in that beam, and the camera’s “eyes” don’t adjust to the dark.
Comedy also relies on exaggeration. It also exaggerates violence, concepts, and ideas. LEGO Batman from The Lego Movie exaggerates the modern grimdark interpretations of the Dark Knight (including The Dark Knight). The “Springtime for Hitler” sequence in The Producers (all versions) exaggerates the theatricality of fascism. Even something as basic as sarcasm relies on the exaggeration of language and pronunciation. In Comedy, exaggerating such things are to poke fun at them, to make the thing itself the punchline. This is the basis for satire and parody– which is relevant to Horror-Comedy.
In this clip from Young Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein is being strangled by his monster and tells his assistants to give it a sedative.
In a straight Horror film, a scientist being strangled by his creation is almost always deadly for the scientist. But the comedy, of course, doesn’t come from the strangulation itself, but from the fact that a) it takes so long for the monster to kill him that he can play an entire game of charades while he tries and b) the exaggerated and unrealistic motions of the strangulation. The layers of comedy are so well done that even taking it apart like this makes it seem like that’s all that’s going on.
Horror uses transgression at its core– almost every monster, creature, villain, and force represents some sort of transgression. Even things like sexual assault (I Spit On Your Grave, many vampire fictions) and cannibalism (the Hannibal Lecter franchise). To go back to Frankenstein (the original novel) there is a lot of literature that asserts that building the monster is a transgressive act of creation, either attempting to create life without a woman or attempting to become God (or at least a god) by imbuing the lifeless with life. Either way, the punishment for that transgression is lots and lots of death, as Horror generally goes.
Comedy is also transgression. Much of comedy is making fun of and tearing down societal norms and powerful people. Political humor is often transgressive. Returning to The Producers‘ “Springtime For Hitler”, the reason in the film/show/film that Springtime for Hitler is actually successful is because it is taken as satire against Nazis and Nazi Germany, despite the fact that the book is written by an in-universe Nazi who meant for the whole thing to be taken seriously (“You are the audience, I am the author, I outrank you!”). Lindsay Ellis (the essayist formerly known as The Nostalgia Chick) did a pretty good job on why satire against Nazis works in a recent video essay.
The ultimate transgressive Horror-Comedy is of course, The Addams Family.
The Addams family are transgressive in traditionally Gothic ways, as well as some modern gothic ways. They live in an old Victorian-style manor, they’re served by a detached hand, and most of them wear nothing but black. However, they are also an incredibly well-adjusted family who are all extremely devoted to each other and love each other very much. The joke is always that this odd family with strange hobbies and interests are also incredibly friendly and fail to see what could be abnormal with their lives. They think the rest of the town is weird for liking puppies and flowers.
Horror-Comedy ultimately works because, as Edgar Allan Poe put it, Horror and Comedy are less distinct genres and more of a scale. The comic antics of the Three Stooges and Looney Tunes are also brutal assaults with the sound turned off. And even the best Horror films rely on a certain amount of absurdity for the situation to unfold. Horror-Comedy relies on both the dark nature of Horror and the light nature of Comedy to balance each other out and make an even product. Some go for more Horror, some for more Comedy, and that’s why it’s a scale and not a 1:1 formula. Either way, it’s all perfect for Halloween.
What are your favorite Horror-Comedies? Let me known in the comments! Also like, if you’re able, and subscribe by following the blog, or signing up for an e-mail subscription.