A funny thing about Americans: every year, crowds flock to the theatre and spend millions of dollars for the chance to see pretty people die on screen. The horror genre is popular for the same reason that people spend hundreds of dollars to go to a theme park to ride roller coasters – people love being scared. In fact, while sitting in a movie theater watching a horror movie, you’re likely to hear equal parts laughter and screams coming from the audience. Generally the cries of terror are heard first, followed almost immediately by a wave of chuckles, giggles, and knee slapping. In a paper on the functions of humor, Dr. Julia Wilkins calls this phenomenon “relief theory”. According to her article, we achieve such joy from being scared in certain situations because, while our bodies tell us that they’re dangerous, we still know deep down that we are safe, and this release of tension results in laughter. This is why comedy and horror go hand in hand both in literature and on film. Both genres have their own set of rules for achieving their intended goals, and by combining the “rules” of comedy and horror, one genre can greatly enhance the other.
When a Horror-Comedy wants to focus on humor, it focuses on what the audience already knows about horror movies as a setup, and then subverts it. The tension typically used to cause a scream results in a “punch line” that is either harmless, or so over the top in dark comedy that the audience can’t help but laugh. This tactic was used in the 1948 classic, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The film, cashing in on the popularity of both the biggest comedy duo of the day and the wildly successful Universal Monster franchises, takes the atmosphere and slow tension of those classic films and the mile-a-minute back and forth dialogue of its’ two leads and creates a film that hasn’t lost a step in sixty-six years.
In this clip, Dracula continually attempts his slow, creepy, ascension from the grave behind Costello. Audiences were familiar with this sequence from past Dracula films, but this time he was continually interrupted by Costello calling for Abbot, followed by a quick round of banter, (“That’s the wind!” “It should get oiled”).
Another great example of this strategy can be found in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, a tale about two southern gentlemen who are just trying to enjoy a quiet fishing trip, until some college kids show up, mistake the loveable rednecks for hillbilly serial killers, and proceed to accidentally kill themselves while trying to escape.
We know how the situation looks to these college kids, because we’ve seen the setup before in actual horror movies, but Tucker and Dale haven’t. This leads to their assumption that these “stupid college kids” are obviously partaking in a suicide pact on their property.
Meanwhile, the comedy in a horror-comedy can be used to help create suspense. Alfred Hitchcock, in a dissection of what makes “surprise” and what makes “suspense”, gave the following famous anecdote:
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ’You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’
While the movie proceeds to deviate slightly from these rules, this scene, although played for laughs, sets up the tension for the rest of the film, telling the audience what kinds of things they are going to see and leaving them helpless to stop it. This also leads to the best foreshadowing in the film when one of the movie’s killers, Stu, played by Matthew Lillard, leaves the room claiming he’ll, “Be right back” only to be told that Randy would “See him in the kitchen with a knife.” This is assumedly a funny line about how Stu would soon die. However, later in the movie he’s shown covered in blood in the kitchen, holding a knife, and crazier than a shithouse rat.
The cult classic Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon uses this same method and takes it a step further. The first hour of the film is a mockumentary of the very personable killer–to-be, Leslie Vernon, as he sets up his home and trains for the night teenagers will arrive for the slaughter. This portion of the movie uses the method of subverting our horror movie expectations, all while telling us exactly how Leslie plans on committing his slasher murders. However, 2/3rds of the way through, the film not only switches film techniques but genres as well, abruptly stopping being a comedy and turning into a more traditional horror film. At this point we see all the planning that we had been a part of begin to take effect. The tension rises as we see these familiar set ups come closer and closer to the bloody ending we have already seen so meticulously planned out.
Comedy and horror are intricately linked. That’s because these feelings are so primal. We don’t have to sit and analyze their effectiveness like a drama or a romance. We know their successes are based purely on the raw responses they provide us. A movie doesn’t even have to choose one focus over the other. Using both styles can be an effective way to keep the audience on their toes and elicit a bigger response from the sheer unpredictability. Simply put; when tension is built, it has to be released, and whether that catharsis is a scream or a laugh, you can bet it’s going to feel good.