Horror and Humor

I’ve seen the Exorcist 167 times, and it keeps gettin’ funnier every single time I see it. -“Beetlejuice”

While the genres of Horror and Comedy are vastly different from each other in tone, they might cross paths more so than any other two genres in American Cinema. Whether intentional or unintentional, there is an absurdity that often plays a subtle role in many of the most popular horror films of the past 40 years. Furthermore, what has become evident over the years is an audience’s tendency to derive its own humor out of a moment in a film that perhaps wasn’t meant to be funny at all. Their reasons for doing so might be out of sheer enjoyment, or deeply psychological. Among the most clear patterns, however, within so many horror films is an emphasis on the characters’ bodies–their physical being and its frequent manipulation (or perhaps, mutilation). It is actually from these emphases–whether they be on spinning heads or dismembered limbs–that these comedic undertones are so often born.

The over-the-top mutilation of the victim in slasher and zombie movies strongly correlates with classic “Looney Tunes” episodes that often show its characters getting blown up or losing their head, literally. The frequent failures by Michael Myers to catch Laurie Strode in the “Halloween” movies almost mirror those of Wiley Coyote with the Road Runner, as both antagonists suffer through immeasurable physical harm in their own respective pursuits. This paper will examine the role humor tends to play in horror films, paying specific attention to how humor arises through the films’ treatment of the human body.

The highly stylized and over-the-top nature to so many horror films contribute to their comedic undertones. This may include a knife-wielding little old lady or a demon child firing neon-green vomit at a priest. In his book, “Laughing Screaming”, William Paul describes the element of playfulness found in films like “Psycho” and “The Exorcist”, despite each film’s intended seriousness. “In defining ‘Psycho’s fun, Hitchcock also compared it to a roller coaster, which seems particularly apropos,” he writes. “As roller coasters make us both laugh and scream, these films present a constant shifting back and forth between extreme states and then mark their conclusion by ascending to the highest point and rushing into a vertiginous descent.”

A good example of such humor–especially that which focuses on the body–is forcefully demonstrated in Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow.” In the film, the Headless Horsemen claims his victims by cutting off their heads. This seeming “head envy” by the antagonist already sets the film off toward a comedic angle; yet it is the stylized, somewhat obnoxious depiction of gore and death that makes the film work almost like parody. One scene shows Ichabod Crane, the film’s hero, operating on a corpse only to have its blood squirt in his face like a water gun. The blood’s surreal bright red demonstrates Burton’s appreciation for the exaggerated and pure spectacle in this film, while the blood shooting at a disgusted Ichabod seems similar to the cream pie-in-the-face gag with which audiences have become so familiar after watching cartoons or clown acts.

Another example in “Sleepy Hollow” shows the Horseman chasing down a fat man and swiping his head clean off. The head, like so many others in the film, temporarily goes astray–tumbling down a hill before landing in the lap of an exasperated Crane, staring at him with a frozen look of shock. The idea of the head seeming to have its own personality can be interpreted as comedic in the same way as the old “Looney Tunes” skits; when a character like Daffy Duck would literally blow up after some failed exploit, and his head would hobble disappointedly back to his torso somewhere offscreen.

The climax of Brain DePalma’s “Carrie” is another example of latent comedy in horror via emphasis on the body. In the famous prom scene, Carrie White gets pig’s blood poured all over her immediately after being crowned. This scene of an innocent and vulnerable virgin girl drenched in blood, together with the opening scene where she gets her first period, evoke imagery of menstruation. The humor of that moment, at least for the kids laughing at her, is the same that we identify with many of the more recent slapstick comedies where a nerd has some embarrassing experience with (maybe his or her own) bodily fluids, as in “There’s Something About Mary”, when Cameron Diaz’s character removes semen from another character’s hair and puts it in her own–thinking that it is hair gel.

Furthermore, the fact that Carrie is drenched in anything–whether it had been paint or merely water–resembles numerous comedic gags throughout entertainment history. The scene operates under an unofficial comedic principle, one that tells us that something falling on top of somebody is often funny–like when an anvil drops down on a “Looney Tunes” character. Any time someone gets something poured on them, it usually is meant to be humorous, like the Nickelodeon network’s tradition of pouring “slime” on people during game shows, award ceremonies, etc.

Zombie movies place a great amount of emphasis on the human body, and they do so in a manner that makes them all the more similar to numerous cartoon sketches. Films like “Night of the Living Dead” and “28 Weeks Later” focus on the dismemberment and/or mere torture by the zombies of their victims. This portrayal of immense physical harm is reminiscent of numerous “Looney Tunes” skits, where characters all-too-often get manhandled, blown up, shot at or crushed; leaving characters like Daffy Duck with his bill turned completely around and protruding from the back of his head, shouting “You’re despicable!”.
As the essay has suggested thus far, the humor similar to that of the “Looney Tunes” makes its way in a variety of horror films. The same attention towards the body demonstrated on Daffy’s contorted bill can be seen in a famous scene in “The Exorcist”, when the possessed Reagan twists her head backwards to taunt her mother. It is another film, as William Paul states in his book, that strikes certain comedic chords despite it generally terrifying feel.

“Even ‘The Exorcist’, with its apparent cover of dour seriousness, has an underlying playfulness that can break through at unexpected moments and become a central appeal in our experience of the film,” he writes. “Certainly a shot of [the priest] getting hit by green goo would be completely at home in a ‘Three Stooges’ short”. Indeed the scene where Father Karras gets hit by the neon-green vomit, is similar to the previously mentioned “Sleepy Hollow” scene where Crane gets hit with the bright-red blood. They are both moments which bear similarities to that age-old cream pie-in-the-face gag.

Few horror films dedicate as much attention to the human body–and therefore bear as many similarities to the “Looney Tunes”–as the “Halloween” movies. What is interesting about these films is not just the physical harm that the victims endure; but more so, the horrible pains that the villain, Michael Myers, suffers in pursuing them. It is fair to say that in each film, Michael endures an equal if not heavier amount of harm than his victims. In his never-ending pursuit of Laurie Strode, he has been shot and stabbed nearly thirty times; his eyes have been punctured–giving him a blindness from which he somehow recovers; and he has been burned alive.

The idea of the antagonist being harmed more so than the victims he or she is pursuing, and being harmed usually as a result of that pursuit, is reflected in what seems like more than half of the “Looney Tunes” skits ever made. Compare Michael’s frequent physical sufferings in terrorizing Laurie to that of Elmer Fudd with Bugs Bunny, Sylvester the Cat with Tweety Bird, and especially that of Wiley Coyote with the Road Runner. The humor in all these skits lies in the fact that each antagonist ends up paying enormously–usually through physical harm–for every repeated attempt to catch the protagonist. The same humor lies within the “Halloween” films. Every plan by Michael to catch Laurie ends up backfiring, the way Elmer Fudd’s shotgun would explode in his face after Bugs plugged it up with his finger. Michael will often end up falling on his face the way Wiley Coyote falls down an impossibly steep canyon cliff.

Further emphases on the human body in the horror genre are demonstrated by recurring emphases on the sexual act. It has become tradition among teen-slasher films for the nerds to survive, and the popular to die. Yet the distinction between the two classes is often made clear through the idea of the popular being sexually active, and the nerds not at all. So if a character is having sex during the film–which pretty much excludes the possibility of it being a nerd–then he or she is basically doomed. In “Halloween”, the first character to die is a girl who just finished having sex; whereas the prude and virtuous Laurie is among the few to live in the end. In “Carrie”, the character of Sue Snell, who develops throughout the plot as studious and compassionate, is the only main character to survive; DePalma makes sure, however, to show the only two characters who had sex in the film die a horrible, flaming death. Therefore, it is as though horror films more or less teach that sanctity or purity of the human body entitles one to survival.

There is something inherently comical about these plot trends. Perhaps it is a reflection of our perverse desire to see the successful fail and to see the struggling succeed. Yet in the case of the horror film, success correlates with survival whereas failure correlates with death. Though these desires may be part of our subconscious, the disturbing nature behind them is somewhat comical. It is almost as though we laugh at the way these characters die, and then at the sick and disturbing fact that we are laughing.

Chance alone cannot be the only reason humor is so often demonstrated or interpreted–whether that be through a focus on the human body or not–in the horror film. There must be some deeper purpose. As much as audiences enjoy being scared, they only enjoy it while it remains within the confines of entertainment and sheer thrill; for no one would possibly enjoy true terror–actually being in the presence of a malicious spirit or, regarding this essay’s key argument, enduring such horrible physical pain. There is an innate desire in all of us then to seek reminders that what we see onscreen is only make believe, and to scoff at its improbability before deriving from it absurdity. Horror parodies like “Shaun of the Dead” therefore serve among the most direct of these defense mechanisms society has embraced. What better way to mock the idea of being eaten alive by the undead, than to welcome a film which intentionally does just that?

Whether through Hollywood’s frequent creation of horror parodies, or audiences’ own search for humor in the horror film; society in general has revealed its tendency to belittle the idea of being terrified. It is similar to the way a person with stage fright might try and picture the audience naked, or in ballerina outfits. The idea is to make their fears less fearful and intimidating. It is as though our way of staying on the defensive is by taking the offensive. We scoff at the idea of being terrified–either consciously or subconsciously–because, naturally, we never want to be truly terrified. Terror is an enemy to our emotions and thought processes; we therefore embrace it (or pretend to) through the medium of film in order to combat it in real life.

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