You’re watching a zombie film and the protagonists finally meet their first undead. That’s usually meant to be your first horror beat. But in Shaun of The Dead, they assume the zombie, a woman, is drunk. And when she leaps onto one of the protagonists, he protests saying, “I’ve just come out of a relationship,” clearly mistaking her intentions. Scary or funny? Why not both?
For the uninitiated, let’s get the basics out of the way: yes, horror and comedy. Who knew two seemingly polar opposite genres could go together so well? But the more you think about it, the more similarities you see—from their reliance on surprise and timing to their playfulness with tropes. Horror comedy is not, however, the same as dark comedy–a tradition which began with “gallows humour” and lives on in mainstream media in both the West (The Banshees of Inisherin, Succession) and India (Delhi Belly, Blackmail).
India doesn’t have that many horror-comedy flicks, which is a little surprising given that we’re known for mixing and mashing genres. But there are a few, from the camp-horror of the Ramsay Brothers to massive Akshay Kumar hit Bhool Bhuliyaa, which alternates between the funny and the frightening while still being a traditional Bollywood blockbuster. More recent films like Stree are a good successful example of the sub-genre.
But what all counts as horror-comedy, how does the humour work, and why do we love it?
One sub-type is films which deconstruct their genre and joke about its tropes, while still being a loving and faithful homage. They refer to the ‘rules’ of horror films, often ridiculing, referencing, or subverting them. Think Shaun of the Dead for zombies, What We Do In The Shadows for vampires, and The Cabin in The Woods for, you know, the classic, cabin-in-the-middle-of-nowhere horror film, a staple of 80s American cinema. The genre takes the best of both worlds, walking a tightrope on a razor blade, making you laugh one second, and gasp the other.
A lot of Indian horror-comedies, including those from regional cinema, fall in this category but the quality has been lacking, to say the least. This seemed to change in 2018 with Stree, which followed common Hindi films beats of drama and comedy, as well as having a ‘social issue’ message, but was also about the very real threat of an angry spirit, with some of the humour being directly about her. The film was followed by two more horror-comedies by the same director, Dinesh Vijan. Although Roohi and Bhediya, weren’t as well-received, they fall in line with a larger recent trend in Hindi cinema of experimentation and boldness.
Some horror-comedies take on the form of straight up parodies (A Haunted House, the Scary Movie series). These often react to the previous decade’s horror trends. This includes spoofs of monster films in the 30s, slasher and splatter horror in the 70s, gross-out humour in the 90s, and even the reflexive self-aware horror films of the 21st century, many even explicitly saying something about being in a horror movie.
The best example of this is the Scream series, a number of slasher flicks centred on in-universe slasher-film obsessed villains. In fact, they even have a fictional film-within-a-film series (called ‘Stab’) based on the events of each Scream film, helping it make fun of itself and its fandom. While the first film in the series makes it a point to explicitly talk about, then deconstruct genre tropes, some of the others have opted for more general meta comedy. But this strain of comedy has progressed, both in horror and otherwise. It’s main joke has just been being self-aware, while not fully committing to making the miserable funny.
Another brand of horror-comedy is the unintentional one—though this might be cheating. These are just bad or campy films (Killer Klowns From Outer Space or many of Bollywood’s erotic thriller/horror films) where the scares become funny, either due to poor filmmaking, incoherent narratives, or wooden dialogue. Just because they don’t count doesn’t mean they’re not fun–and some manage to even sneak in a genuine scare or two. So, yeah, alternating between humour and horror? Counts in my book.
But the real gold of the genre is mined by those films which do both tones at once, much like how dark comedy peaks when it makes you laugh but feel awful all the same. Intention makes all the difference, especially when it shows.
This is a rare feat, and rarer still when horror-comedies themselves blend with traditional horror films. Take the Evil Dead franchise, for example. What began as a low-budget, campy horror film (of the cabin-in-the-woods subgenre), slowly turned, film by film, into a fun action-adventure with sharp dialogue and terrifying monsters in its 2015 television reboot, Ash vs Evil Dead.
A pitch-perfect example? American Psycho. Absurdly funny and absurdly dark, with a truly terrifying, ridiculous performance by Christian Bale, whose psychopathic, iconic Patrick Bateman takes too much pleasure inflicting pain for it to be outright funny, but also does things like agonize over business cards to the point of homicide. It’s the rare horror-comedy which feel sincere.
But the real gold of the genre is mined by those films which do both tones at once, much like how dark comedy peaks when it makes you laugh but feel awful all the same.
We’ve explored what horror-comedy is but why do these films work?
One theory is that laughter and fright are actually very similar. Humour is often a product of unexpected surprise, and horror of shock. The awkwardness and anxiety that make for good comedy (“that’s cringe!”) are physiologically similar to the discomfort and unease of good horror. Both are known to work through exaggeration and excess. Both heavily rely on anticipation–the timing needs to be just right. But because they’re different on an emotional level, bringing them together satisfies two very different parts of our subconscious. Another way you can think about their compatibility is the relationship between building and breaking tension. When the horror builds up, it can be broken by the comedic more effectively, and vice versa.
Another key to the genre is juxtaposition: when the auditory content contrasts with the visual. Sometimes this is in the form of dialogue or action that doesn’t match the character. In Little Evil a little boy, who’s treated like a typical shy kid by his mother, behaves like a demonic entity with his new stepfather. Other times, this can be music that is strikingly different from the tone of the scene. Famously, Reservoir Dogs, which is otherwise more dark comedy, has a scene where Mr Blonde tortures a police officer. It’s horrific enough to feel genuinely scary. But the music, which the aforementioned torturer does a silly dance to, is Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You, a folksy pop bop.
Recent trends in comedy, too, suggest a broadening of the idea of what can be funny. From hour-long improv comedy specials (Middleditch and Shwartz) to existential musical-theatre (Inside), to the popularity of the ‘alternative comedy’ section in Comcistaan, we’re finding that audiences around the world are hungry for more. So, while we’ll probably see horror-comedy continuing the pattern of joking about the last decade’s trends (elevated horror) as well as its run of irony and self-awareness (Bodies, Bodies, Bodies), there’s definitely still more to come. We’ll be waiting–giggling in the shadows.