I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Comedy and Horror Go Hand in Hand
“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”
This quote from Mel Brooks is strangely truthful in its irony, but he also hits on an interesting point. Brooks certainly knew how to mash up both horror and comedy with films like Young Frankenstein and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. He’s not the first filmmaker to do so, and others have carried the tradition into modern filmmaking.
But how does humor complement horror so well when they are so different? Below I explore this genre mash-up, which has resulted in some of the most entertaining stories ever told in the form of horror comedies.
It’s a Roller Coaster of Tension and Release
Horror stories are meant to scare you. Comedies are meant to make you laugh. Mixing them together should create a tonal mess.
In their true forms, horror builds tension, and comedy releases it. For those who can’t handle pure horror, comedy can make it bearable and even enjoyable.
When you survive a scary situation, you laugh. Why shouldn’t characters make light of a dark moment in a horror movie? They laugh at their reaction (the screaming, the jumping), they laugh because they are still alive, and they are relieved that they made it through, having come out of it safe and sound.
When we get on a roller coaster, we are nervous with anticipation. This is the setup for the scare. Once the ride gets going, we are holding on for dear life.
We’re in the thick of the danger/horror, hoping that we don’t fly off the track or get thrown out of our seats. When the ride comes to a stop, we are laughing with relief, able to appreciate the thrill now that the ride is over.
The same goes for the punch line of a horror-comedy moment. It downplays the scare without taking away from the fact that it was scary.
It Shapes Well-Rounded Characters
Horror characters can feel stiff and way too affected by the events that are surrounding them. But generally, these characters don’t experience horror every waking moment of their lives. It’s usually a moment in time that takes over, but that doesn’t mean that they are stiff, humorless characters all the time.
A sense of humor is a very human characteristic. It takes on many forms, but it’s in all of us, and different types of humor appeal to each of us. Incorporating humor makes characters more relatable, not just pawns to be killed off or survive the horror.
Sometimes the villain themselves is the comic relief. Freddy Krueger will crack a dark pun or two before he slices you up. This doesn’t make him less scary, just more of a character. You remember that he was a real guy, not a demonic force or an inhuman creature.
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Humor also adds a shock-value element to the story rather than a lightened tone. The fact that Krueger is self-aware of his evil and humored by his murder spree makes him even more terrifying. If it makes him feel good enough to laugh about it, he will never stop, just as we never stop doing the things that make us feel good enough to laugh at and joke about.
Comedy Makes for Memorable Scenes and Lines
Comedy is lyrical. It’s easy to remember because it makes you laugh. Pair this up with your monster or villain, and you have a trailer moment, a meta scene, or a line that sticks.
If horror is the cake then comedy is the icing. That makes comedy the showier of the two genres. It will bring in an audience who might not be able to handle horror in its purest form. Think of the Scary Movie franchise, with each movie blending several movies of a particular horror sub-genre together and replacing the scares with R-rated jokes.
Ghostbusters is also a very quotable movie and is even responsible for turning the word “slime” into a verb. Their business of ghost catching is taken very seriously, but the team fumbles and stumbles as they get their business off the ground, starting with their first encounter of a ghost in the library that they are called to investigate and leave running for their lives when they say the wrong thing to her.
Their hesitation and rookie mistakes are hilariously relatable, giving way to jokes that respond to these situations. After all, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say “yes!”
It Makes Horror Kid-Friendly
Maniacs, monsters, and chain saws can be too much for the average kid to handle. But if you make light of these elements, such as The Addams Family, kids will not only be able to handle it but embrace it.
The Addams Family is one of the strongest family units represented on film, despite the fact that they enjoy physical torture and live in a house of deadly traps. Their love of all things horror provides a firm base on which to build jokes and creep out those who don’t understand them.
They are outcasts and potentially dangerous but also endearing and committed to the family as a whole. No family bonds together in a time of crisis like the Addams clan when the going gets tough.
Their embrace of horror gives them the mindset they need to overcome any obstacle. Best of all, their gentle enthusiasm for such a scary lifestyle makes horror fun in this incarnation of the genre.
It Gets to the Meat of the Story and Its Themes
Topics like death, murder, and the supernatural can be hard to handle in their raw forms. Comedy becomes a protective shield that can help audiences face these dark themes and deal with their own relationship with them.
When even the darkest horror scenes get too intense, audience members tend to crack jokes about the situation in order to downplay the horror so that they can get through the scene. They scold the victims, comment on trivial moments, and laugh at how loud their fellow audience members scream at the jump scares.
A good horror comedy will poke fun at the genre itself, playing with the rules and tropes and pointing out the ridiculousness of these recurring themes. Shaun of the Dead puts its own spin on the theme of society becoming emotional and consumer zombies which are found in many zombie movies. It pays homage to famous horror movie lines and scenes and makes its own solid points about society with jokes thrown in for good measure.
One of humanity’s biggest fears is our own mortality, and comedies have had a ball trying to downplay this fear with laughs. Beetlejuice is a perfect example of putting to rest the fear of death, making it as mundane and annoying as life, yet cementing the fact that there is life after death and still teaching us that we have a lot to learn about existence itself.
Conclusion: Jokes and Scares Bounce Off Each Other
When done right, the blending of horror and comedy can spring up interesting ideas for movies and characters where filmmakers can seamlessly hopscotch from one genre to the other. Jokes can be formed within the framework of the horrific situation, and scares can give the jokes something to bounce off of.
Films have been doing it for decades, giving way to creative stories that pack a one-two punch that leaves us better able to deal with the darkest themes of life. They can start us out early in childhood and use it as a tool to make some situations bearable and others even more shocking in their placement and nature of the comedy. Best of all, they provide an escape from the horrors of our everyday life so that we can laugh and scream about our shared sense of humor and fears together.
John Plocar from Weatherford on December 25, 2018:
Film is art, art is subjective. No real right or wrong, good or bad, just perception. I too aren't a fan of a number of the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. Some work, some don't. Same goes for the Scary Movie franchise, some I think work while others are awful in my opinion. But that's just it, an opinion. There's no way to have every reader agree with certain ideas so I say to just say what you want and let the chips fall where they may! Anyways, thank you for the reply, I appreciate it =D
Laura Smith (author) from Pittsburgh, PA on December 25, 2018:
Thanks for the comments! That's a really good suggestion. Of course, my ideas of what doesn't work in a horror comedy will probably clash with most readers. Even some of the examples that I gave above were only included to help make my point. I'm not really a fan of Freddy Krueger or the Scary Movie franchise. I agree with you that a comedy does need to take itself seriously in order to work.
John Plocar from Weatherford on December 24, 2018:
I thoroughly enjoyed your study here on the horror-comedy genre; I've said for years that Ghostbusters is the prime example of that genre done right with how the film itself is truly a horror film and the characters take these situations very seriously, but the characters themselves just so happen to be humorous. I love that, when the characters take their world seriously while still being able to provide a funny line without breaking the tone of the film. However, I've never been fond of the Scream franchise since in my opinion the comedy always felt like it clashed too heavily with the horror element and created a rather unpleasant experience for myself. Although I'm clearly in the minority for that mindset of the series. I would like to know some examples you believe to be when the formula doesn't quite work for horror-comedies? I think that would add to your study here immensely! Anyways, great article and thank you for writing! =D