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Horror-Comedies Don't Exist

  Several years ago, I took a creative writing course which had an intense focus on horror writing. As a big fan of H. P. Lovecraft and an enjoyer of such classics as The Evil Dead, I was looking forward to discussion of various horror authors, weighing in on what makes something frightening, and perhaps taking one simple concept and refining it to a short story which was truly scary. After we were handed the syllabus on the first day, I looked at the assignments and was a little taken aback. Write a page of a horror movie script. Draw a single page of a horror comic. Write a short, three page horror story.

  So the assignments weren’t quite what I was expecting. This could still be a valuable class! After all, if you’re teaching this course, you obviously have a love for the subject and know what you’re...


  You’re citing Buffy the Vampire Slayer as something that’s scary? And... and you’re saying that horror and comedy are necessary components of horror?

  Looking back at it, I should have stuck with it. I’m sure that I would have learned a lot and really come to appreciate what she was trying to get at. At the time, though, as a hard-headed idiot who was easily annoyed, my first course of action was to drop the course. I made no grand gestures about it, like leaving in the middle of class - I am somewhat of a gentleman - but I didn’t feel that I could effectively write that definition of horror. I’m sure that I would have been fine: most lecturers and professors are human beings, after all (with the exception of MATHBOT 4000), and are willing to work with you. But, hey, stubborn idiot, remember?

  Anyway, the main conceit that I want to address with this column is the idea that horror and comedy are bestest buddies. I think people get confused because Buffy the Vampire Slayer had incredibly witty dialogue with monsters. They see the creepity demon-things and immediately say “That show must be horror!” without actually realizing that it’s a drama - well, as much as a television show about jamming pointy wooden things into people’s chests can be a drama. It would be like taking the “For British Eyes Only” episode of Arrested Development, ignoring the goofiness of the entire thing, and claiming the entire program was a terse mystery show. Or watching the scene from Gilmore Girls where Luke is arrested for wailing on his wife’s car and coming to the conclusion that the show is a psychological drama about spousal abuse where the characters all happen to talk super fast.

  Returning to my point (yes, I do have one), I don’t think that you can classify Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or anything for that matter, as a horror-comedy. Certainly, there were scary episodes of the show. The episode “Hush” for example, is pretty damn scary. But does that one episode outweigh the others, rich with Whedon-dialogue-fueled humor? Hardly. I would suggest that horror and comedy are diametrically opposed - they can have elements of each other within a single heading, but blending the two does not make some kind of pure fusion.

  If we were to imagine this as a spectrum, I suggest it would appear like so:


  Do you see how starkly different those two things are? At no point in Airplane! does Leslie Neilson turn into a bucket of human jelly and attempt to eat the other passengers. At no point does Kurt Russel have a “Don’t call me Shirley,” moment in The Thing. Having a horror sequence in Airplane! would have felt awful and really disquieting, completely throwing off the entire movie. Trying to make The Thing light-hearted in anyway would have made all the characters seem intensely stupid in the face of unthinkable cosmic horror.

  “Now Jonathan,” someone may say condescendingly in preparation for their knockout punch of logic™, “those are two very different films. You’re being difficult to prove a point.”

  Well, don’t bring a knockout punch to a burning-a-strawman-argument-alive fight, figment of my imagination, because we’ll now move into the territory where the movies are so closely related, they may as well be twins. Of course, I’m talking about:

graph 2

  Sorry, Mr. Strawman, I can’t hear you above the flames of logic! And your screaming, so you may want to stop that. People are trying to read.

  First off, let me clarify Evil Dead 2's position on the scale. Remember, I’m making a point, so while I would personally classify the movie as an action-comedy hybrid (you know, two genres that actually can be combined), on this particular scale, it comes off as a comedy. If I were to include every combination, it would be a clusterfuck. And I don’t want to bother with lazily designing another graph, so let’s move on!

  Evil Dead is intending to horrify right from the beginning. There’s none of this pussy-footing around which genre it actually wants to be in. People get hacked up and those doing the hacking are all appropriately horrified with their actions. As their numbers grow smaller, the survivors become more and more desperate. The creatures are brutal and their methods of torture are physical and mental. The only laughs one may have is if you have ridiculously high standards for special effects - at which point you’re terrible and I hate you.

  Evil Dead 2 tells pretty much the same story, but the infusion of whimsy removes any potential horror. While people are dismembered, the effects are played more for Looney-Tunes-style laughs (something which Bruce Campbell himself notes in his autobiography is especially apparent when it has been edited for television). Even when the main character’s hand is possessed, he chainsaws it off with all the gravitas of a man popping a pimple. The makeup effects are indeed grotesque, but since the rest of the movie is already so farcical, it’s not scary: it’s funny.

  Let’s take another approach to this little conundrum: would you call the movie Robocop horror? Probably not, despite the various aspects which would suggest the classification as such. You have a man who is turned into a cyborg after being grotesquely mutilated and left for dead, kind of like Frankenstein’s monster (I said kinda). There are piles of bodies and gallons of blood sprayed in the movie, but it certainly isn’t horror. It’s usually listed under action.

  Or how about Inglorious Basterds? Stripped of context, it’s about a group of men brutally murdering other men. Is it horror? I’ve heard arguments ranging from action to comedy, but no one has ever said that it’s a scary film. Of course, that may be because Nazis totally deserve it.

  Maybe it needs monsters to be truly classified as horror. Does that make The Goonies a grim roller coaster ride of terror? How about Legend? The Lord of the Rings? Star Wars?

  My point here is that you can’t really have a successful fusion of two conflicting emotional states in a movie and expect it to define the entire experience. Shaun of the Dead was indeed gory and dealt with the monster-of-the-moment, zombies, but it was unabashed comedy. It certainly wasn’t for all audiences - but that’s what the R-rating is for. If, for whatever reason, I picked it up expecting to be frightened, I’d be certainly disappointed. Ergo, it’s not horror.

  “But what about self-aware films, like Scream? It was pretty funny at times.”

  Well, Mr. Strawman, you have a nasty habit of surviving. Let’s fix that, shall we?

  You can certainly have charming moments of comedy in a horror movie. Sometimes, there is such a thing as too much tension. Also, you don’t want your audience throwing up in the aisles, so laughter sometimes helps to alleviate such awfulness from occurring. But Scream wasn’t intending to be a comedy - it was intending to be horror. The moments of joking came across as natural ways that the characters were trying to come to grips with an awful situation. If anything, the central mixture of Scream is mystery-horror, not horror-comedy.

  You can even see this in the huge differences of gameplay in horror-themed video games. Resident Evil played it straight, even as the plots got more and more batshit insane. It took Resident Evil 4 to finally drop that conceit and go action-adventure with a lot of attempted wit and humor. When it became self-aware, the game became a rollicking good action-fest rather than a plodding pseudo-scary mess. Sure, there were dudes with bags on their heads and chainsaws, but the developer wasn’t bothering to scare the player in the same way they were the first time around... or, really, at all. You know. Before people realized the plot made about as much sense as kiwi grapefruit pumpkin Nickelback.

  Which is the final point, I guess. Horror and comedy at the same time doesn’t - and can’t, really - work. You can have a comedy with horror elements, or a horror movie with some comedic lines, but trying to combine them turns them into something else. It all comes down to the tone you're trying to establish - and you can see here (Part One @ 20:14, although you should just watch all of them to understand why you hate those movies - just make sure no kids are watching) how too many disparate elements can irreparably damage a movie's overall feeling. A group of teenagers making endless pithy comments as they get dismembered is closer to comedy than horror - their mutilations can be gross and horrific from an empirical standpoint, but they have all the emotional weight of Daffy Duck being shot in the face and having his beak do a 180. And that’s the thing: comedy and horror are trying to stimulate emotions which can’t operate at the same time. We laugh because we’re safe. We’re scared because we’re not. Please stop trying to make me laugh just because someone gets stabbed in the boob.

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