Horror and Comedy: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Anyone who has studied both genres probably has reacted to this title with something along the lines of “well duh!”  However, many people have only lightly glanced at one or both genres.  A few people even refuse to consume one of them.  So, the close relationship between the two may be lost.

On the surface, the two couldn’t be more different.  One genre is about eliciting the emotion of fear in its audience.  The other is about eliciting the emotion of humor.  Since these emotions feel very different, you might assume they are opposites, but the truth is more complex.

The Evolution of Emotion

Emotion is a very fundamental part of human psychology due in part to how early in our evolutionary history it developed.  Long before we began to experience the conscious mind, emotion began to emerge.  As a result, emotion is tied to the older parts of the brain and can be experienced without any input of reasoning.

We are pretty sure that fear was the first emotion to develop.  Even in some of the simplest animals, aspects of fear can be seen.  It is the response that says “thing bad” and drives creatures to flee.  What exactly will cause this response in different creatures will be different, but at its heart, it’s a response to something causing the expected patterns in the environment to break.

This worked fine for when our ancestors were only able to recognize the most basic of patterns.  However, as we grew more intelligent the patterns we were recognizing grew more and more complex.  This meant that it took smaller and smaller deviations to cause a noticeable break in the patterns we expected.  If we kept feeling the same kind of fear to these breaks in patterns, we would become paralyzed by fear and never get anything done.  Of course, we could have just evolved away from our pattern recognition skills, but that was quickly becoming one of our most powerful tools so we were better off keeping them.

So, a new emotion evolved.  One that would trigger when a break in the expected pattern was noticed but a lack of threat was confirmed (or at least expected).  Humor had the feeling of being very different from humor, so it functioned well as an “all clear” signal.  When we feel humor, that is our subconscious mind recognizing a break in pattern but also saying “false alarm, there is no threat”.

Delivery in Fiction

This close evolutionary tie between the two emotions means that a writer trying to trigger them in their audience must use very similar techniques.  Both require something incongruous to occur.  Both benefit from a well-timed building of tension to allow that incongruity to sink into the audience.  Both need to chose the right moment to break that tension with a reveal of some kind.  The only difference is that while horror reveals that there is a threat, comedy reveals that there isn’t one.

Both genres can also mix up that order of delivery.  It isn’t necessary for the reveal of if there is a threat or not to wait until the end.  That can be made clear early in the story.  If that is the case, the desired fear or humor will start immediately when the incongruity is presented.  Some comedies declare their lack of a threat by adding a laugh track.  Your subconscious mind hears the laughter and concludes that someone else has already confirmed a lack of a threat.  But, there are many other ways of achieving the same result.

An example that is common in horror is to kill a character early in the story.  This confirms the threat by firmly establishing something lethal being present.  On the other side of things, some comedies will dive so strongly into absurdism that taking any sort of threat seriously becomes impossible.

Compare how the SS troopers feel in Inglorious Bastards (2009) and Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971).  In the first one, the SS is given a menacing presence and in their first appearance, they kill several people.  This firmly establishes them as a significant threat to the characters on screen.  In the latter, the SS is never shown killing anyone and is portrayed in a more caricature manner.  This leaves them feeling like less of a threat while their presence can still be used to build tension.

Of course, both are very sensitive to having to match their audience.  What is a break in established pattern to one person might not be to another.  Something that is a confirmed threat to one person might be a confirmed lack of threat to another.  This means that for both Horror and Comedy there is no one size fits all.  They have to be properly paired with the right audience for them to land appropriately.  This is why there are some comedy movies that certain people will have to watch through their fingers.  To them, it feels like a horror movie which can be very uncomfortable if that wasn’t what you intended to watch.

Horror and Comedy Together

Upon reading this so far, you might conclude that Horror Comedy could therefore never exist as a single genre.  Or, if you are already familiar with the genre you might think I’m making things up.  You would be wrong on both accounts.  Horror and Comedy can exist together in a single work, it is just difficult to pull off.

To do so, the work needs to first establish itself as firmly as either Comedy and/or Horror by using tropes classically associated with one of the genres without actually targeting the desired emotion.  They then build tension as both genres require and then reveal the presence or lack of a threat as appropriate as opposed to which genre their earlier tropes had been hinting at.  The result is the audience feeling a confused rush of both emotions at the same time.  Having both emotions at once is itself an incongruity that then serves to heighten both emotions.

Scary Movie (2000) is a great example of this.  The film stuffs itself with as many classic horror tropes as possible while at the same time presenting as ineffectual and not feeling like a true threat.  There are many comedy TV shows such as The Simpsons (1989-Present) that have gone the opposite direction in their Halloween specials.  They present with the same joking tone as they have been for the whole show, but will then start delivering horror tropes that tell the subconscious mind to feel fear.
Some examples are successful at doing both at once.  What We Do in the Shadows (2014) establishes itself from the beginning as both genres by both heavily using the mockumentary format (a standard modern Comedy genre) while also being a solidly vampire-based Gothic Horror (a classic Horror genre).  As the movie progresses, there is an equal mix of scenes that indicate a threat or a lack of threat.  There are scenes of the characters brutally killing people intermixed by scenes of them being flummoxed by basic problems that normal people have an easy time dealing with.  The result is the audience being saturated by both the fear and humor emotions and feeling both to a strong degree.

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