All logic tells us that horror and comedy are two genres that should be worlds apart. But, finally getting to hang out at the big genre dinner party, while Fantasy and Sci-Fi are chatting happily, Romance and Drama have retreated to the kitchen with the champagne bottle and Arthouse is smoking in the bathroom, Horror and Comedy find they have more common than one might initially think.
The conventions that make us laugh are, strangely enough, the same sort of things that make us scared. Juxtapositions, for example. Things doing what they should not normally do are funny; for instance, elderly women forming gangs and beating people up a la Monty Python, or children’s stuffed toys being foul-mouthed drug users, a la Ted. Things being the wrong size, like a giant sandwich falling from the sky, or being where they shouldn’t, like finding Rowan Atkinson in the cabinet under your kitchen sink.
These tweaks of the ordinary make for humour, but the same idea is also a fundamental ingredient in scaring the bejeezus out of people. The dead, for instance, should stay dead. It is an accepted piece of logic in most cultures, despite whatever succinct beliefs they hold about what happens to the soul afterwards. That is why zombies and ghosts are scary, because once somebody has died and been laid to rest, the general consensus in society is that they should stay there. It’s immediately eerie when the dead in question subverts that by dragging itself back into the picture.
Furniture should also not move of its own accord, which is what makes poltergeists and other demonic tomfoolery freaky. In fact, generally speaking, demons and company should stay in mythology where they came from, and black magic, unquiet spirits and bloodthirsty night-crawlers are immediately disconcerting to any viewer because they’re already defying the rules of the world.
Just as the image of old ladies going savage amuses us, the image of children acting creepy terrifies us. Old ladies are, traditionally, quiet and refined and soft and lovely and not going to go out into the streets on motorbikes and start bashing up phone booths. And children are, traditionally, pictures of innocence and cuteness and need to be protected by adults. This is why it’s so effective when horror movies or books use the creepy child trope—it subverts every instinct we have about the nature of children, and it freaks us the hell out.
Kids aren’t meant to murderous, or psychic, or ghostly, they’re meant to be cute and squishy. It sets off a red light of ‘WRONG, WRONG, WRONG’ in our brains and sends us straight into terror mode. Especially if they’re creepy little girls, because the sweet young lady is the epitome of innocence in the hardwiring of most of humanity. So how do you scare humanity? You send a shock straight to that wiring by sticking a knife in her hand, or better yet, telepathic powers. Or something. Or, strap a gas mask to the kid’s face and watch every Doctor Who fan within a 10 kilometre radius run to the nearest lockable bunker.
The supernatural is also scary because it’s beyond our control. You can’t reason with a zombie horde or a vengeful ghost, can you? Strangely enough, control being removed from the characters is also a large staple of comedy. Your lead character is stranded in an uncomfortable situation: maybe they’ve been caught in the middle of enacting their embarrassing hobby, or are locked out of the house in their underwear, or are a compulsive slimy liar bewitched to spend a day telling only the truth. It’s hilarious.
But removal of control of the situation is also what creates a horror atmosphere. Like in The Shining, where tension is ramped up as winter sets in, sealing the main characters off from the outside world and in with whatever bizarre horrors reside in the hotel. Or in the Saw movies, or anything where you’ve got characters locked up in a room or stuck in a maze or lost in a forest or caught having to make small talk at one of Hannibal Lector’s dinner parties.
Psycho killers are scarier than ghosts and monsters, to me at least, because there’s some degree of reality factoring in. You’re more likely to meet a serial killer than an alien. Viewer empathy is what makes us cringe in second-hand embarrassment when something funny befalls our comedic hero, and what makes us hide behind our couches when our horrific one is caught in a tense scenario.
A lot of comedy finds its way to our funny bones because it’s relatable, after all—often we laugh because the comedian before us has hit some universal truth on the head, or told a story that we see ourselves in, or are making jokes that we ‘get’ on some deep level. There are lots of things that people just generally find funny, due to culture and experience, and so comedy writers can delve into those emotional databases for material. Horror writers work the same way—primal fears, my friends, are putty in the author’s hands, things like spiders, the dark, and creepy-ass old-fashioned toys that people everywhere have built an evolutionary sense of ickiness towards.
There are so many romantic comedies because the majority of the population can relate to the struggle of wanting to find someone nice to spend their time with, and there are so many movies about caves and haunted houses full of things that want to kill you because the majority of the populace has a sense of claustrophobia and fear of the dark that is easily triggered.
There you have it, things that make us laugh also make us shriek: things being the wrong size (giant spiders: scary, giant sandwich: funny), things behaving as they shouldn’t, people doing bizarre things with their bodies…
Does your brain hurt yet? Mine certainly does.