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Horror and comedy: screaming and laughing

Both horror and comedy provoke strong emotions, but these two seemingly disparate genres are more closely linked than you would think. 

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Can there be two more contrasting genres of popular fiction than horror and comedy? Horror is heavy, comedy light. Horror is dark, comedy bright. One causes fear and loathing, the other joy – distress versus pleasure. How can they be combined in a single fiction? Yet they are often blended successfully. James Whale’s 1935 The Bride of Frankenstein may just be the greatest horror film ever.

It is uncontroversial that horror fictions often employ comedy, if only to relieve the tension. Think of Freddie Krueger’s strained, one-off jokes. But there are also comedies, such as the 1988 film Beetlejuice, that enlist horror. For the most part the character Beetlejuice is just a clown. But at moments, especially towards the end of the film, he becomes positively menacing – no longer a feckless fool but a monster. And the Men in Black and Ghostbusters films shift effortlessly between horror and comedy. How is it that in popular fictions, their authors can slide back and forth so readily between genres so apparently at odds?

To appreciate how mysterious the marriage of horror and comedy appears, think about the appropriately named actor, Glenn Strange. He played Frankenstein’s monster in 1944, wearing the same legendary make-up that Jack Pierce designed for Boris Karloff in the original 1931 Frankenstein. At six foot five and 15 stone, Strange presented a terrifying figure.  

But in 1948, Strange suited up once more in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to play the Monster, this time in order to provide a comic butt to the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. From being the object of horror, Strange was transformed, often from scene to scene, into a target of laughter. And yet nothing had changed in his look – neither his make-up, his costume, his gait, nor anything else in his behavior.  

In philosophical jargon, the difference in his appearance from one film to the other one was indiscernible: using the naked eye, you could not tell the perceptual difference between how Strange’s appearance in the 1944 film differed from the 1948 film. A strange phenomenon, to say the least – one that underscores the almost paradoxical, if only occasional, affinity between horror and comedy.

To unravel this puzzle, it is helpful to say something about the nature of horror, on the one hand, and that of comic amusement, on the other.

Both are emotional states. Horror – for example, being horrified during a movie – involves fear, if not for ourselves, then for the characters being stalked by zombies, aliens, giant squid or whatever. But arousing fear is not enough. Goldfinger armed with nuclear devices can do that.

What makes Goldfinger and the Predator different? Disgust. The monsters in horror fictions are not only fearsome, they are typically disgusting. You would shrink from the touch of the Mummy; to be kissed by him would make you gag. Nor would you want to pet the Fly. In short, horrific monsters induce revulsion. Why? Because they are not only dangerous but impure.

Comic amusement, on the other hand, is an emotion that requires the perception of incongruity in order to take off. When Homer Simpson argues with his own brain, the situation is incongruous. How can one argue with one’s own brain? So, at least under certain conditions, the perception of incongruity is momentarily enjoyable. Moreover, one of those conditions is that the situation must be anxiety-free. If the slapstick clown, whacked in the forehead, starts spurting spouts of blood, we don’t, in standard circumstances, laugh.

But what do these brief comments about horror and comedy tell us? That there is a possible point of tangency between horror and comedy. Horrific impurity and perceived comedic incongruity overlap. Impurity is a kind of incongruity. 

Incongruity, especially in comedy, involves the undermining cultural norms. Horrific monsters also violate our norms, especially ontological, biological, psychological, moral and so on. Vampires and zombies are both living and dead; werewolves are humans and beasts; and the Alien is both an insect and a crustacean, with a mechanical, seemingly spring-operated jaw.

But how can the intersection between comedic incongruity and horrific impurity be enlisted to turn comedy into horror and horror into comedy?

An important clue comes from the comedian Bill Cosby in a 1965 monologue, delivered long before his sexual offences were known about. Cosby observed: “I remember as I kid I used to love horror pictures. The Frankenstein Monster, Wolfman, the Mummy. The Mummy and Frankenstein were my two favorites. They would scare me to death. But now I look at them as a grown-up, I say to you, anyone they catch deserves to die. They are without a doubt the slowest monsters in the world. Anyone they catch deserves to go.”

Here, Cosby efficiently transforms his favourite monsters into comic butts. How? He erases one of their essential or defining features. Which one? Fearsomeness. 

Recall that the monsters in horror fictions have to be threatening. But by reminding us of how slow these lurching behemoths are, Cosby renders them harmless. A healthy septuagenarian could outrun them. And that leaves us with only their impurity to ponder which is, as we’ve noticed, a species of incongruity – an anomaly in terms of various norms, say, of the body or ontology where the Mummy is living and dead at the same time. 

So, monsters can become comically amusing if they are shorn of menace. This is one of the secrets of many horror parodies. And clowns can be turned horrific, if they are invested with powers that make them dangerous, as are the invaders in the 1988 film Killer Klowns from Outer Space who are armed with rows of incisors and intergalactic blood-lust. Or more recently, think of the cinematic reincarnation of Stephen King’s clown Pennywise, a creature whose infectious yellow maw is accentuated by his blood-red lips, in the two-part movie It (2017, 2019).

Fear, it seems, is the linchpin. Subtract it from a horrific monster and you can produce laughter. On the other hand, bestow some lethal powers and an ill will upon a clown and you’ve just cast the central figure in your next horror film. So, despite appearing as mutually exclusive opposites, horror and comedy are related as cousins under the skin. They share a certain form of incongruity and are just one ingredient apart. And the ingredient is primarily fear.

Noël Carroll is distinguished professor of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Beyond Aesthetics and A Philosophy of Mass Art

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, professor of philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland