On this week’s episode, Anton and his guest James A. Moore discussed the concept of humor in horror. On one hand, I can understand how some people might think, “What? How can horror be funny? How can, say, a family being stalked by an indescribably hideous beast whose sole purpose is to slay them, be humorous?” On the other hand…
Well, I kind of have a sick sense of humor, anyway.
When I was fourteen, my mother had a bad accident which left her immobile for the whole summer. Speaking of horror, I suddenly had to learn how to cook for a family of four, keep the house sort of clean…and, because I like to think of myself as a good daughter, make my mom feel as comfortable as I could and spend some quality time with her. This was not easy. See, I inherited my sense of humor from my mom. We could see the most nasty, horrid, sick movie ever, and it would become something hilarious. This didn’t work out well for her with broken ribs. We’d start laughing about something, and it would soon become this fest of, “Heehee! OW! Haha! Oh God, it hurts! Hahaha Stop making me laugh!”
After she almost wound up in a coma from pain after our MST3K style viewing of Puppet Master 3, we decided it would be safer for me to read to her versus watching movies. We started with Dean Koontz’s Watchers, because heck, I was fourteen and loved to be scared, and it would be safe. It was a horror novel, right?
Well… It was all fun and games, until the squirrel sex.
Yeah, you read that right. The book was wonderfully creepy, and though there were a couple romancey moments that I didn’t like reading with my mom there, it was all good. Then came the parts from the dog’s point of view, and it was all over. We were laughing again, and poor mom was in pain.
Koontz using humor in his horror novel is not an anomaly. Stephen King, Joe R. Lansdale, and many others have used it as a counterpoint to their macabre scenes. It seems to be used perhaps even more often in horror movies. Evil Dead, The Cabin in the Woods, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland all can be considered equally funny and gruesome. At times, it can be refreshing. Sometimes a reader can only go so long chewing their nails without some relief. And a lot of people naturally use humor as a way to deal with horrific situations.
“I feel that humor is the perfect counterpoint to horror,” says Brian Kirk, who is himself a horror author. “For one, it’s disarming. It quickly warms one up to characters and establishes deeper connections. It makes us cringe that much more when our heroes are in danger. Secondly, humor adds texture to a horrific tale. Consider how master composers craft their symphonies. The best ones have moments of quiet or whimsy interspersed with full-throated explosions of sound. Play any one note too long and it becomes monotone. It’s best to keep readers, listeners, or any attentive audience, on its toes.”
Katie Cord, president and founder of Evil Girlfriend Media, concurs. “Comedic horror takes something gruesome, disgusting, and vile then puts a fake mustache on it. Just as horror in general allows us to explore our darkest fears, comedic horror gives us permission to laugh at those fears. Both have their place and give the human psyche a great release. I personally enjoy watching and reading comedic horror.”
Is comedic horror for everyone? Of course not. Even for people like myself, who love a good laugh, sometimes it’s nice to have a truly bone-chilling tale that stays with you long into the night. Sometimes comedy, especially in a shorter story, can break up the thrill a little too much and ruin the focus of a story. Among those who don’t always want a laugh mixed with their shivers is award-winning editor Ellen Datlow.
“To me, it dissipates most of the creepiness and dissolves the sense of unease that I expect or want from horror stories.”
And who can argue with that? Part of the staying power of a horror story is how it haunts you (arf arf) long after the story is over. Certain images that the words evoke stay in your mind and grow. Often your subconscious will fill in blanks that the author left, making situations even more scary. This wouldn’t happen if suddenly the scene is broken up by comedy relief.
So, is comedy in horror for everyone? No, of course not. Nor is it right for every story. But sometimes, in just the right proportions, it be a perfect seasoning to an otherwise terrifying tale.
What do you think? Do you like your horror sprinkled with humor? Or do you just want a bone-chilling story? Any suggestions? Leave a comment below! You never know if I might be doing a giveaway to a random commenter.
About Melanie R. Meadors:
A writer of speculative fiction and lover of geeky things, Melanie R. Meadors lives in a one hundred-year-old house in central Massachusetts full of quirks and surprises. She's been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on on more than one occasion.
Her short fiction has been published in Circle Magazine, The Wheel, and Prick of the Spindle, and was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. She is a freelance publicist, publicity coordinator for Ragnarok Publications, and the Marketing and Publicity Specialist at Mechanical Muse.