“It’s all about execution”: An In-Depth Look at the World of Horror-Comedy

I grew up watching Fright Night (1985) with my dad. It is one of my favorite movies of all time because it so wonderfully combines two genres I am fascinated by and which, at first, seem to be polar opposites: horror and comedy. 

How is that possible? How can a film manage to equally balance horror, a genre centered around making its audiences scream and jump, and comedy, a genre centered around laughter? I argue it is through a mix of tactics. I think that films that successfully blend together the genres of horror and comedy into a new form (aptly named horror-comedy) do so by employing a combination of over-the-top gore and/or grotesque imagery; meta commentary of the horror genre as a whole; moments of straight comedy, such as jokes and pop culture references; and use of the incongruity theory, to mess with audience expectations and, by extension, reactions.

Fright Night is a perfect example of this. It is a film centered on the comical (and horrific) premise of a vampire moving in next door. It is peppered with comic delivery, straight jokes, and references to not just pop culture in general, but specifically the horror movies popular at the time it was released. For example, famed “vampire killer” Peter Vincent remarks at one point that, “nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore, or vampires either. Apparently all they want to see are demented madmen running around in ski-masks, hacking up young virgins.” And, to cap it off, Fright Night also employs the tactic of over-the-top gore. The film’s visual effects are so terrible, they come off as equally grotesque and hilarious. 

However, Fright Night is just one example of the horror-comedy subgenre. I will be discussing several others at length later on. But first, I want to go back and dissect this idea that horror and comedy seem to be so starkly different. I believe this is not necessarily true.

Not So Different: How Horror and Comedy Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Noël Carroll writes in his piece, “Horror and Humor,” that comedy and horror are actually “opposite sides of the same coin,” noting that “both deal in the grotesque and the unexpected, but in such a fashion as to provoke two entirely different physical reactions.” Additionally, he notes that the genres overlap in that they both need “the transgression of a category, a concept, a norm, or a commonplace expectation,” in order to properly work (Carroll). In other words, horror and comedy both operate within the idea of incongruity. Something may be funny because it is different from what is expected. Likewise, something can be terrifying for the same reason. 

While some may argue that watching a horror film builds up tension and watching a comedy film releases it, release is possible from both. True, horror films are filled with tension, but it is tension that eventually breaks, after the inevitable big clash between the killer and whatever survivors are left. The build-up dissipates, the film ends, and the audience takes pleasure in the sweet relief that that those things do no typically happen in real life. Like with comedy films, the audience feels relief once the film is over. However, with horror films, it is more of a relief that the tension that was created has now ended.

Additionally, sometimes people do find humor in straight horror films. In some cases, it is simply because the film itself is so terribly made or executed. In others, it is to hide the fact that they are scared. It is often a basic human reaction to want to appear brave in the face of terror and laughing at something scary can convey that, in addition to relieving some of the aforementioned tension. 

Horror and comedy are not so different after all, at least in regard to their core intents and the impulses they may elicit. Horror-comedy as a genre of its own plays on those similarities. Horror-comedies revel in the concept of incongruity and seek to mess with audience expectations throughout. Often, a scary element in a horror-comedy is all the scarier because you were laughing at something not five minutes before.

Exceptions to Every Rule: How Some Media That Feature Horror and Comedy Are Not Necessarily Horror-Comedies

Not all media that incorporates elements of both horror and comedy can be rightfully labeled horror-comedy, however. Only media that appears to actively seek a balance or indiscernible mix of the two genres is horror-comedy. Media that simply incorporates elements of both do not necessarily qualify.

There are several examples of media that may incorporate elements of both horror and comedy but are not technically horror-comedies. Films that feature gallows humor or dark comedy, such as Heathers (1988) or Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), are examples of this distinction. Those films demonstrate comedy in a morbid, macabre sense and also feature multiple murders. However, neither film intends to frighten audiences in any way and the incorporation of murders in both does not immediately allude to horror, as murder is often featured in straight dramas as well, without the intent to scare. While they are both black comedies and both feature murder (which could be a horror element), they do not feature enough horror aspects to truly be considered horror-comedies.

Another example of media that incorporates horror and comedy elements, but are not horror-comedies, are straight comedy films featuring monsters. Examples of these include Ghostbusters (1984), Beetlejuice (1988), and the Abbott and Costello films where they encounter various Universal Pictures monsters. These films are often classified as horror-comedy by others—Matt Barone of Complex, for example, lists Ghostbusters among his “15 Best Horror-Comedies of All Time”—but they do not necessarily qualify (Barone). In all of the examples listed, comedy elements prevail by far over horror elements. There is not an even mix or balance, nor is there an attempt to achieve one. Sure, the Ghostbusters bust ghosts and Beetlejuice is a poltergeist, but the films are still straight comedies and the “monsters” are never scary. 

One more example of media that is not quite horror-comedy is that which incorporates “spooky” elements but never intends to truly frighten because it is meant for children. The most classic example of this is (the many incarnations of)Scooby-Doo. The Mystery Gang are constantly being chased by monsters and ghosts, but the audience is never supposed to actually be scared and the monsters themselves are usually not real. Other such examples besides Scooby and the gang’s adventures include ParaNorman (2012) and Coraline (2009).

There are, however, some films that have blended together elements of horror and comedy so thoroughly and purposefully that they have created a whole new subgenre.

Scream, Shaun of the Dead, Tucker and Dale, and The Cabin in the Woods: Examples of Successful Horror-Comedies

Though marketed largely as a straight horror film, Scream (1996) is undeniably a horror-comedy. It artfully mixes together the horror and comedy genres, employing all of the necessary tactics.

First, Scream has a horror movie premise and it never shies away from gore. The plot centers around a town terrorized by a masked killer called Ghostface, who brutally murders the teens (and principal) of Woodsboro High School. Two characters are killed in the first twelve minutes of the film and murders continue throughout, but even at its most horrific and gory moments, Scream is still funny. For example, a little over midway through the film, a character dies after trying to escape Ghostface by squeezing through a cat door in a garage door. It is horrible that she dies, but it is also really funny because her escape attempt was so ridiculous. 

Scream also features moments of incongruity, including the one above. When Tatum, the character who dies, goes down into the basement, the audience is (probably) surprised to find Ghostface down there because they did not expect him to be. Therefore, incongruity leads to terror. However, not five minutes later, incongruity leads to a mix of terror and humor when Tatum is killed by the garage door. The audience likely did not expect her to try to escape through a cat door and so they laugh because she does, but then they wince seconds later because she dies. 

Scream also employs the tactic of incorporating moments of straight comedy in the midst of its horror. For example, when protagonist Sidney Prescott tells one of the Ghostface killers, Stu, that she has called the cops on him, his response is, “My mom and dad are going to be so mad at me.” The line is a perfect example of Screammixing horror and comedy because it is undeniably funny and would be in any situation, but it is also delivered by a character covered in blood in the middle of a tense horror film moment. 

Scream’s most important horror-comedy tactics, however, are its incorporation of references to other horror films and its self-reflexive meta commentary on the horror genre. First, the film is brimming with allusions and direct references to other horror films. The Woodsboro High janitor is dressed similarly to Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Kreuger and portrayed by Scream’s director, Wes Craven, the man behind the Nightmare franchise. When the town closes for curfew, Sidney remarks, “it’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” And Tatum even says that Sidney is “starting to sound like some Wes Carpenter flick or something,” a mashup of Craven and John Carpenter, the creator of the Halloween franchise.

But what is most significant about the references in Scream is how self-reflexive they are. Unlike seemingly every other horror film, where the characters within appear to have never seen a horror film themselves, Scream’s characters are the opposite. As Jim Holden writes, “Probably the most important level of comedy in the [Scream] films stems from the fact that the characters in these movies have grown up on American horror films.” He goes on to add, “Any number of earlier horror films contained intertextual references or jokes at their genre’s expense; but from the very first scene of Scream…it was clear that self-consciousness is here possessed not just by the film, but by the characters themselves” (Holden). The ironic, horrific humor ofScream is that it is a slasher movie about slasher movies. 

This is never more clearly evidenced than when the men behind Ghostface are revealed. When Billy Loomis (whose last name is also a reference to Halloween) reveals he is one of the people behind the killings, he does so by quoting Psycho and licking the “blood” off his fingers. “Corn syrup,” he says. “Same stuff they used for pig’s blood in Carrie.” He and Stu then explain to Sidney that they have built their whole scheme around what they have learned from horror films. Therefore, the entire basis of the horror in Scream—and, by extension, the horror-comedy—comes from commentary on the horror genre as a whole. 

Scream is just one example of a horror-comedy, however. Another example, which likewise employs the required tactics, is Shaun of the Dead (2004). Like Scream,Shaun comments on and plays with its audience’s existing expectations of horror, comedy, and the horror subgenre of zombie movies. As Linda Badley writes in her piece on the carnivalesque nature of zombie films, “Updating zombie comedy generally and Romero’s [the writer/director of Dawn of the Dead] satire on consumerism specifically for the post-Simpsons, post-South Park, post 9/11 generation, Shaun of the Dead played off culturally attuned viewers’ expectations and offered a metaphor for the mindlessness of routinized capitalist culture” (Badley). The characters of Shaun are so set in their ways that they literally become zombies, a comically horrific concept. 

Shaun also plays with incongruity, both in relation to horror and to comedy. For example, the film’s audience may be shocked because they don’t expect David to be pulled through the pub’s window and ripped open by zombies. Alternatively, they may laugh because they don’t expect Ed and Shaun to fight zombies by throwing vinyl records at them. 

The film also features moments that employ the over-the-top gore tactic. The aforementioned scene where David has his intestines pulled out is as disgusting as anything one might find in a straight horror movie and especially a straight zombie movie. In the complete opposite direction, it is also not without moments of straight comedy, like Shaun fighting off zombies with a cricket bat (physical comedy that would work, zombies or no zombies) and lines like, “Who died and made you the fucking king of zombies?” (Miller).

Finally, the film also features references to other pop culture media, aside from just other zombie films. For example, when Ed and Shaun are choosing which records to throw at the zombies, they name-check a few (“Purple Rain?” “No.” “Sign O’ the Times?” “No.” “The Batman soundtrack?” “Throw it.”). 

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010) and The Cabin in the Woods (2012) are more examples of horror-comedies that use incongruity to flip the script while commentating on specific horror movie tropes. In Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, the film capitalizes on what horror audiences expect when they see a hillbilly character—a backwoods serial killer, who probably kills with power tools (think Leatherface fromTexas Chainsaw Massacre)—and turns those expectations upside down. In Tucker and Dale, the hillbilly characters are not the serial killers that the (comically large) group of college kids think they are. In fact, amusingly, they actually don’t do anything wrong at all. Watching Tucker and Dale deal with the chaos around them is twice as funny because, ordinarily, they would be the bad guys.

The Cabin in the Woods utilizes incongruity even further. From the marketing of the film, audiences likely went into it thinking they would get a typical horror film experience: a group of college kids go camping in a cabin in the woods and are met with terror. To an extent, that is what happens, but the plot also goes much deeper than that. The college kids have actually been unknowingly sent to the cabin by larger “Powers That Be,” who are controlling them and the things that happen to them in a Truman Show-like facility nearby. If that was not incongruous enough from what audiences may expect from a horror film, The Cabin in the Woods also takes certain specific character types common in horror films—the macho jock, the skeptic, the brainiac, the oversexed blonde, the wholesome brunette—and amps them up to ridiculous levels as part of the film’s master plan. Everything about the film is such a heightened version of a typical horror film that you can’t help but laugh, which is what the filmmakers want. 

Aside from the incongruity and commentary tactics, both Tucker and Dale and The Cabin in the Woods also heavily feature the horror-comedy tactic of comedically over-the-top gore. With Tucker and Dale, the gore is one of the most comedic aspects of the film overall. Tyler Labine, who played Dale, said, “The hook of the movie is that it’s a genre-bender. I love that it’s really funny, at times riotously funny, but it’s still got gross-out gore moments. But those moments are some of the most laugh-out-loud moments in the movie” (Clark). One of the funniest scenes in the film involves a college kid basically leaping into a wood chipper, a horrific premise but with hilarious execution. The Cabin in the Woods, on the other hand, doesn’t start out particularly gory, but slowly descends into an all-out bloodbath. It’s gruesome, but the absurd nature of the gore and the reactions of the characters to it allows it to be hilarious at the same time. 

As with the previous examples, both of these films also feature moments of straight comedy, both mixed in with horror and on their own. For example, a hilarious early scene in Tucker and Dale, when the characters are pulled over by a cop and caught in a compromising position, takes place long before any of the horror starts. Similarly, in The Cabin in the Woods, nearly every line spoken by the stoner skeptic, Marty, is extremely funny. But in both films, the comedy is at its highest when it is happening in moments that are also horrifying, like when Marty fights off members of the “zombie redneck torture family” with his bong. 

Finally, both films also employ straight comedy and meta commentary together by referencing other horror films. Tucker and Dale could be boiled down to one long parodic allusion to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and related films, while almost every single thing that happens in The Cabin in the Woods is referencing some, if not all, existing horror media. 

Conclusion: Screaming With Laughter

The place where horror and comedy meet is a complex one. While the two genres on their own are not as different as they may at first seem, combining elements of them can yield a mix of results. Sometimes, you simply end up with comedic films with dark or spooky elements, but if the combination is done in just the right way, with the right tactics employed, you end up with something completely new. 

Successful horror-comedies don’t focus on one parent genre more than the other, but strive to strike a balance. By amping elements of horror (like gore) up to comedic levels, taking a few good-jabs at the genre, and working moments of comedy seamlessly into the blood and carnage, horror-comedies mess with audience expectations and create a different movie-watching experience for fans of horror and comedy alike. 

Works Cited

1. Badley, Linda. “Zombie Splatter Comedy from Dawn to Shaun: Cannibal Carnivalesque.” Zombie    Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead. Ed. Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette. Lanham:  Scarecrow, 2008. 35-54. Print.

2. Barone, Matt. “The 15 Best Horror-Comedies of All Time.” Complex. 12 Apr. 2012. Web. 9 Apr.      2015.

3. Carroll, Noël. “Horror and Humor.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring 1999. Rpt. in Comedy in Film and Media RTF 370. Comp. Kathy Fuller-Seeley. Jenn’s  Copies, 2015. 290-304. Print.

4. Clark, Noelene. “‘Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil’ spoofs hillbilly horror movies.” The Los Angeles 

   Times: Hero Complex. 29 Sept. 2011. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

5. Holden, Jim. “Balancing Horror and Comedy in the Scream Series.” Alternate Takes. 1 Apr. 2011. 

   Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

6. Miller, Ross. “Horror Plus Comedy: Shaun of the Dead.” Blastr. 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

Filmography

Note: I went ahead and listed all of the films I used as examples, to be as thorough as possible. They are listed in the order I referenced them.

1. Fright Night. Dir. Tom Holland. Columbia Pictures, 1985. Film.

2. The Blair Witch Project. Dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduard Sánchez. Artisan Entertainment, 1999. Netflix.

3, Heathers. Dir. Michael Lehmann. New World Pictures, 1988. DVD.

4. Drop Dead Gorgeous. Dir. Michael Patrick Jann. New Line Cinema, 1999. DVD.

5. Ghostbusters. Dir. Ivan Reitman. Columbia Pictures, 1984. DVD. 

6. Beetlejuice. Dir. Tim Burton. Warner Bros., 1988. DVD.

7. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: Complete Series. Warner Home Video, 2012. DVD.

8. ParaNorman. Dir. Sam Fell and Chris Butler. Focus Features, 2012. Netflix.

9. Coraline. Dir. Henry Selick. Focus Features, 2009. DVD.

10. Scream. Dir. Wes Craven. Dimension Films, 1996. Netflix.

11. Shaun of the Dead. Dir. Edgar Wright. Rogue Pictures, 2004. DVD.

12. Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. Dir. Eli Craig. Magnet Releasing, 2010. Netflix.

13. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Dir. Tobe Hooper. Bryanston Pictures, 1974. DVD.

14. The Cabin in the Woods. Dir. Drew Goddard. Lionsgate, 2012. Netflix.