A Comedy of Horrors

Plant writer and horror movie buff Elise Favis explores the history of the genre and its emerging counterpart, horror-comedy.

Some bite their nails. Others shiver even if the theatre is warm. Some have goose bumps crawling over their skin like a disease. Others grab the arm of another spectator for safety, or use their popcorn as a shield against the fictional forces of evil.

Those who go to horror films usually jump out of their skin from fright. The blood spilling across the screen in 3D seems like it’s splurging into your face. This would be overwhelming for most people, right?
I guess I’m not most people.

I find myself trapped in hysterical fits of laughter while pointing out all the comedic absurdities in a scene. I mock the lousy actors, and shrug off the tension by laughing while my friends and I are ‘grossed out’ by bloody scenes. I’m so entranced by the comedy that I forget I’m watching horror. Today’s uncreative Hollywood horror movies lack engaging plots and are, quite simply, hilarious.

Hollywood horror can be cheesy, ridiculous, and even dull if you don’t make your own fun. Most horror fans would be more frightened with a suspense-driven plot, interesting characters, and psychological twists, as well as violent horror. Doormat-stupid characters and over-exaggerated gore just turns the film into a comedy.

Nevertheless, from watching these unintentionally funny films, a tradition between my friends and I was created. We routinely drive to our local Blockbuster and dive into the horror section. We scan the area to find a DVD with a disturbingly odd cover, such as a shish kebab on a pointy skewer aimed at a man’s mouth (the film Happy Birthday to Me) or a cliché title, like Prom Night. In the end, we’ll usually end up with something ultimately bizarre, like Stephen King’s Children of the Corn remake, which involves adult-murdering children who worship corn and live in cornfields.

The stranger and more twisted the plot is, the better our comedy night will be.
Teenagers are not drawn to horror merely because of the thrill anymore. Many are no longer intimidated by the fear it may induce. Instead, they find the genre comedic.

“Any type of horror movie can be scary, and any type of horror movie can be funny. It really depends on the quality,” said Pure and Applied student Joseph Rakofsky, a friend who accompanies me at Blockbuster. “For example, I’m generally not fond of gore, but if the blood looks more like ketchup than blood, or if the guts and innards look like plastic, I can’t really help but laugh.”

“I go with my friends and we make fun of it the whole time,” said first semester Child Studies student Sydnee Puritt. “I laugh at how ridiculous they are. We go and we mock them. Obviously if there’s a good jump part, I’ll jump, but I won’t be scared to the point where I can’t sleep.”

Horror-comedy, a sub-genre that was marginal in the past is making a comeback. Its goal is to use Hollywood’s violence and parody it. This genre chews up horror and spits it out so that the result is disgustingly hilarious. It uses gore as a comedic technique.

“[Horror comedy] is even more exaggerated, and more funny,” Puritt said.
“If horror-comedy can successfully be funny with the intention of being funny, then I would definitely be interested in watching similar movies,” Rakofsky said.
Horror-comedy has a much shorter history than its big brother. In the mid 1900s, horror-comedy made its subtle debut through drama. Plays such as The Cat and the Canary and Zombies on Broadway, although noteworthy at the time, never became  major hits.

But it was during the ‘70s and ‘80s that horror-comedy became more prominent and developed a fan base of its own, with films like Rocky Horror Picture Show, Beetlejuice and of course, the Evil Dead trilogy.

Evil Dead, the first of the series, directed by Sam Raimi, was among the first in film to consciously incorporate humour in horror. The film revolves around five teenage characters who spend a weekend in an isolated cabin in the Tennessee Mountains. Soon they uncover horrific mysteries, and with each step towards the truth, the characters become possessed one by one. This ultimately leads to their absurdly executed deaths, such as stabbing each other in the back multiple times with a fireplace poker.

Last year, Raimi directed and produced Drag Me to Hell, which uses similar techniques found in his previous work Evil Dead. In one scene, we fear for a character’s life. In the next, a simple nosebleed turns into a bloodbath. The blood erupts from the protagonist’s nostrils, aimed straight at her boss’ stern face.

Horror-comedy inevitably crosses a thin line towards black comedy. Both genres face the challenge of making one laugh using dark circumstances, but black comedy depends more on dialogue and morbid jokes. Horror-comedy creates humour by producing fear and uncertainty. This style is known as ‘gallows humour.’ It makes light of serious issues such as death, and comedy arises more from the audience’s reaction rather than the dialogue or action from the movie.

In a typical horror film, a psychotic killer with a ghoulish figure is hunting down attractive, teenage victims, whom, before the encounter, had perfect lives. Typical Twilight Zone music will play as the hunter approaches the victim.

Footsteps will creak on the floorboards, and the camera will zoom in on the doorknob as it turns. However, in a comedy-horror, the murderer is an overweight waiter from a diner, who targets rude customers who didn’t leave a tip. The kill is executed in an amusing, ludicrous fashion. Perhaps he uses cooking utensils as weapons. Once the killer finishes his work, he steals the corpse’s wallet, and with a customer-friendly smile, he says, “Thanks for the tip.” And the victim becomes an additional dish to the diner’s menu.

Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock would often ask, “Now wouldn’t this be a funny way to kill them off?” He was one of the first directors to introduce gallows humour in film. In films such as Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt, he merged irony and suspense to give a new meaning to horror and thrillers. “For me, suspense doesn’t have any value if it’s not balanced by humour,” Hitchcock once said.

The horror genre has been around since as long as we’ve been telling stories. Classic mythology was full of monsters and evil, and it was also seen in gothic literature, folklore and art. Hieronymus Bosch, a Netherlands painter from the 15th century, experimented with this genre. The famous Edgar Allan Poe, a horror literature pioneer, took the genre into a new direction. He didn’t focus solely on devils and monsters, but explored human psychology and fear of the unknown.

Although the macabre genre was taboo for a long time, film was its first solid step towards fame and recognition. The earliest horror films originated from Germany, which commonly portrayed the vampirism and ghoulish theme, such as Nosferatu from 1922. German horror expressionist films became a large influence for modern filmmakers, such as Tim Burton and Orson Welles.

Some of the first horror films to hit American cinema were Frankenstein and Dracula, which scared the audience with the idea of how an ordinary human had no control over becoming a monstrous, evil beast. Because these films were depicted by simple graphics, using no advanced technology, the audience was forced to use their imagination to fill the gaps. Horror was more of a creative experience, where the audience had to involve themselves in the film in order to feel fear. The horror elements were not as blatantly expressed like in present film, but in a more subtle manner, which ultimately, can terrify the mind more than special effects can.

In today’s mainstream horror films, there are less innovative plotlines with twists and turns. Rather, the focus is on bloody effects, shock value, and violence at its highest intensity. Society is becoming increasingly desensitized; not only from film, but also from TV and media in general. Hollywood has fed us an overabundance of violence, so we are blindly hungry for more.

As a result, horror-comedy is becoming more popular, and more appealing to society. It can easily parody the imperfections of mainstream horror, and use the same gory techniques, but for a different purpose.

“It’s hard to find a good horror movie, but when you do, it’s memorable,” said third semester Cin/Vid/Com student Dylan Rosenthal. “Horror is interesting. You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not what you typically see in most movies.”

Halloween’s not far off, and soon October will hit us with horror flicks. Between Paranormal Activity 2 and Buried (coming out this Friday), I’ll be spending a lot of time at the theatre in the next month. Amidst dirt suffocating a living person in a coffin, and doors opening and closing on their own, I’ll find some strange comic relief while others are terrified and maybe you’ll do the same.

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