Why Horror Comedy Movies Work
“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 what about comedy and horror? Brooks certainly knew how to mash those two up 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 compliment horror so well when they are so different? Below I explore this genre mash up which has resulted in the most entertaining stories ever told.
"Scream's" Stu has many funny lines.
It’s a Roller Coaster of Tension
Horror stories are meant to scare you. Comedies are meant to make you laugh. Mixing them together should create a tonal mess but not if done in the right way. 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 set up 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.
Freddy Krueger loves to crack jokes during his kills.
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 any other 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 appeals to each of us. Incorporating humor makes them 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. He was once a living, breathing human like you or me who became this monster in death. It adds a shock-value element to the story rather than a lightened tone. The fact that he is self-aware of his evil and humored by it 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 and joke about.
"Ghostbusters" famous line.
It 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. It’s usually the showier of the two. It will bring in an audience who might not be able to handle horror in its purist form. Think of the Scary Movie franchise, which each movie blending several movies of a particular horror subgenre together and replacing the scares with R-rated jokes.
Ghostbusters too is 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!”
Only The Addams Family can get away with some of the dark humor they have.
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 the 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.
"Shaun of the Dead" comments on the zombie movie genre using humor.
It Gets to the Meat of the Story and its Themes
Topics like death, murder, and the supernatural can be hard to handle in its raw forms. Comedy becomes a protective shield that can help audiences face these dark themes and deal with their own relationship to 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 (“Don’t go in there, stupid!”), comment on the trivial effects of the blood and gore (“That stain’s not coming out.”), 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.
Horror comedies have been around for decades.
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 which leave 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 its 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.