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The Narrow Line Dividing Horror & Comedy
Once again October has reared its head, which means that the Halloween Season is upon us. All this month be on the lookout for Halloween related articles and discussions to occur on Up Your Geek. The horror genre is one that I have a deep passion for seeing as I’ve worked with it in my past to create my own short films and stories. With this in mind there is a facet to horror that is something worth dissecting, which is the continual connection between horror and comedy. These two seemingly different genres always end up finding a way to reflect each other in many different ways. While I do love when horror stays serious and dreadful the genre can be used to make us laugh just as much. I think this is a valid expression of the genre that should be analyzed and as we hit the spookiest season of the year it is a perfect time to look at the line between humor and horror, where that line meets, and where it crosses.
Intentional Humor In Horror
Horror has many subgenres that help to define the era in which each film is being released in or analyzed from and that often is a reflection of the current socio-political climate when the film is made and released. A common example of this would be the Torture Porn subgenre of the early 2000s that was defined by the film Hostel and was a direct reflection of the War on Terror and the United State’s use of torture to seize information. While these subgenres can often come and go, one that has stayed around for as long as possible is that of Comedy-Horror.
This subgenre has gone back all the way to the beginning of horror film. An early example of the two genres crossing paths is in the 1940s when Abbott and Costello met the different iconic Universal Monsters of that time. Their comedic style alongside the scariest movie monsters of their era was certainly a popular dynamic and it worked to great effect. So much so that comedy has always taken horror elements and implemented it in multiple ways. It is not uncommon to see a sitcom even to this day do Halloween episodes where the comedy is present, but they embrace the chills and iconic imagery of the horror genre. I clearly remember last year’s Halloween episode of The Goldberg’s where they brought back Robert Englund to portray Freddy Krueger. I also think that one of the greatest examples of a naturally comedic film using horror has to be 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. This modern comedy masterpiece was specifically a comedy film,but it cared about the horror films that it was satirizing. The horror in that film worked well because the comedy and the writing was genuinely brilliant. It was certainly silly at times, but it knew the genre and it wasn’t critical of it. It was a love letter to the films of George A. Romero.
While I mentioned inherently comedic films that used horror I’ve seen enough films that fall more into the horror side of the aisle, but use comedy consistently. While it isn’t the most common trend in horror it still is a big part of the subgenre to do so. As a fan of the Evil Dead franchise I’d argue that that is a genre so grounded in horror that regardless of the level of humor it never feels like it’s comedy taking on horror traits. Evil Dead 2 specifically was incredibly self aware and silly. There are scares in the film that work and the writing in the film isn’t typically to land gags, but the gags come through in the intentional absurdity of the situation. Especially with the blood and gore being used for slapstick comedy instead of horror or disgust. This comes from Bruce Campbell’s incredibly expressive face and his willingness to commit to every scene working hand in hand with Sam Raimi and his love of the Three Stooges.
Both approaches to making comedic horror has proven to be extremely successful multiple times with some of my all time favorite films occurring within this type of horror, but what is fascinating about comedic horror is how narrow the line is and how easy it is for seemingly serious films to accidentally fall into being so bad it’s hilarious.
Unintentional Humor In Horror
Horror is a genre filled with B Movies. Films that don’t quite have the higher level of talent or technique, but sometimes make up for in charm. These B movies can be intentionally comedic, but there have been several examples of unintentionally funny horror that becomes famous because of just how bad it is.
If we are to look at the unintentionally funny films a great early example is the work of Ed Wood. His film, Plan 9 From Outer Space is considered a cult classic because of how incredibly bad the film is. It’s a horror/ sci-fi film meant to shock and scare the audience, but it just ends up making people laugh because of how poor the filmmaking, writing, and acting is. This may be an early example and there are plenty of laughable films from this era, but there are many other notable examples. The one that immediately comes to mind is the cult classic, Troll 2 from 1990. It’s a film that is sequel only in name to a much better film where the main monsters aren’t even trolls, but Goblins and referred to such in the film. The dialogue in the film is insanely quotable and it’s a film that has regular midnight screenings. It’s acting is incredibly poor, which has to do with the crew being Itlaian while the cast being American. There was a massive language barrier that led to this incomprehensible mess of a film that is absolutely unintentionally hilarious.
These are just some examples of the so bad it’s good camp, but it does bring up a very important point about the very essence of horror and comedy. They are linked in many ways and finding the line between the two is extremely challenging because it’s so often blurred.
Why The Line Is Easy To Cross
The genres of horror and comedy are often perceived as two separate entities. They are often treated differently albeit they are both often considered as lesser because they are labeled as “genre films”. With this mindset that they are separate it is easy to overlook how easy it is for horror to become comedic even when the intent isn’t there. Even when it is intentional they share some of the same traits inherently.
One of the main areas where their styles cross is within the emotions at which each genre tends to hit. Comedy uses a lot of awkward moments of anxiety or fear and exaggerating them to tap into the relatable experiences we have all shared. The greatest comedy comes from characters being uncomfortable and that uncomfort is a layer of fear for that character. Horror films on the other hand look for what scares the audience. It taps into the uncomfortable to leave an audience on the edge of their seat and worry for the characters life or for when the next scare is coming. Scares work in similar ways to laughs in that they are crucial to each genre and they tap into the underlying emotions of the viewers.
Another shared trait that is often common among the two is exaggeration and absurdity. Comedy uses these to push a situation beyond what is real to exaggerate the sequences to get a laugh at the most absurd possible version of a situation. On the other side with horror exaggeration is used in a much different sense. A lot of supernatural horror that uses monsters and otherworldly creatures exaggerate to get the scares out of the viewer. They both tap into that absurd angle to use a scare or a gag, which is why they can be interchangeable and often times both films share each other’s elements to get the appropriate reactions to bring across the point the film or that particular scene is trying to make.
These elements are more interconnected than one is initially led to believe and filmmakers have pushed the boundaries of what each genre is about combining both to create unique experiences. A great example of a horror film being satirically humorous to make a point about the genre is the modern classic, Scream. A film where the characters are extremely aware of horror films and the perceived rules and tropes of the genre are pulled out for the audience to see and simultaneously subverted. This example is one that perfectly shows how both genres can inherently benefit from one another.
I love Comedy-Horror. It’s a subgenre that sometimes gets overlooked, but it adds a different experience to the Horror viewing experience and can often be used to make statements about the genre and the world we live in. I hope to see more experimentation into this in the future as we expand the ways in which we consume our media and film in general.
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