Ha-Ha-Horror: Why Horror and Comedy Go Together So Well


Laughing and screaming are not so different, when you think about it. Both are involuntary reactions to outside stimulus that betray the true emotion of a person. Yet when people talk about horror films, they rarely talk about the crucial element that comedy plays in crafting a successful scary movie. And while not every horror movie uses (or needs) comedy in its storytelling, especially those films that are more interested in cultivating an atmosphere of dread and doom, those that do tend to be crowd pleasers that deliver a more complete experience for the audience.

There’s always been a certain wicked sense of humor in horror, whether it’s the clever wordplay of Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft, the ironic morality tales of comics like “Tales from the Crypt,” or even Stephen King’s moments of levity in his gruesome tales of the macabre. And while many point to “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” as the watershed moment where comedy and horror collided, there are earlier examples in films like “Bride of Frankenstein” that have truly funny moments embedded within them. With the rise of a more cultivated viewership, filmmakers have gone on to inject more comedy into their horror fare. Part of this is a recognition of tired tropes and clichés, but part of it serves a real purpose in telling a scary story.

It’s hard to maintain that sense of foreboding doom for an entire film, and requires an excellent artist to do so (see this year’s “The Playground” for an example). But it also becomes incredibly self-serious and too dour for audiences, especially if the horrific payoffs are already televised to the audiences (they know when the killer is going to strike, which one of the dead meat teens is going to go next, etc.). Injecting humor into the proceedings allows filmmakers to get ahead of the heckling audience member and to let them know the film is in on its own jokes and shortcomings. Sometimes this can take the form of metatextual dialogue, getting ahead of the cliché before inverting it in some manner, that makes it work even more effectively. Films like “Scream” and “Cabin in the Woods” play with expectations by letting audiences know the filmmakers are in on the trope but then cleverly subvert them and make them even more powerful by defying expectations. It’s a magic trick; the magician says what’s going to happen, the audience doesn’t believe it, but then he pulls off the trick and the audience is still enraptured by his performance.

By getting ahead of the criticisms and the jokes, it makes the audience feel like they are on the haunted ride along with the filmmaker. It boosts their egos in their own intelligence but then offers them surprises by twisting the tropes to their own purposes. Injecting comedy into horror also does a great job of relieving tension, with moments of levity providing some breathing space for the viewers in between scares. This is why jokes land so well in films like “Jason Lives: Friday the 13th – Part VI,” the remake of “The Blob” or “Night of the Creeps,” because in between those gruesome death scenes are chances for the audience to laugh. It can take some of the steam out of the punch of the scares, especially when the film lands too far in the “comedy” half of “horror-comedy,” but in the deft hands of a skilled filmmaker it acts as a salve for the audience to know they can enjoy the ride and delight in the wickedness unfolding before them.

The other reason for injecting so much humor into modern horror fare is that it humanizes the characters. Life isn’t just a dour, downward spiral of misery, even if it occasionally feels that way. To create a fully fleshed character in a film, they have to portray multiple emotions and not just be scared for their life. By using jokes, it shows intelligence in the character while also endearing him or her to audiences; they’re reacting the same way with the same gallows humor that many of us would employ in the same horrific situation.

That gallows humor has been on full display as of late with the increasing rise of horror-comedies. From “Shaun of the Dead” and “Dead Alive” (aka “Braindead”) to “Deathgasm” and “Housebound,” more and more films have adopted a two-fisted approach to their tones. They still deliver some excellent gore and horror staples, but they use the comedy to underscore the absurdity of the situation. Audiences have grown more sophisticated in recent years, so in order to sell them on a ridiculous premise like a zombie invasion or the demonic possession of a town, filmmakers use jokes as a way to approach the insanity they are about to unleash on screens.

In “Dead Alive,” a zombie baby coming out of the face of a woman is ludicrous, but Peter Jackson knows this and uses its horrific appearance as a chance to gross out viewers while also putting enough emphasis on the humor to allow people to (perhaps uncomfortably) laugh it off as well. It becomes a cartoon, albeit a grotesque one full of blood spray and viscera. A good filmmaker can shift tones to have audiences rolling in laughter one minute and appalled by what they see the next.

Humor and horror aren’t so far removed from each other. Humor can help sidestep clichés of a tired genre, or it can bolster characterization while bringing the audience into the world of the film. It’s harder to switch from screams to laughs, but there are plenty of filmmakers who have shown they are adept at juggling the different tones to deliver some frightfully funny flicks. The point of both comedy and horror films is to elicit an audible (and visible) response from the audience – whether it’s guffaws of laughter or screams of disgust. By combining the two, filmmakers are able to truly impact their viewers and get them to react to the film rather than sitting there stoic and bored. In the end, like some of the best Halloween candy, they are two great tastes that taste even better together.