I love scary costumes. I love trick-or-treating. I love carving pumpkins and tacky spider webbing and
handing out eating candy. But the thing I love most about Halloween is that the entire country suddenly remembers that horror movies exist and aren’t just for making out.
Now, that’s great and all, don’t get me wrong, but I actually like watching horror movies, and not for the reasons you’d expect. Scary movies don’t scare me. On the contrary, they make me laugh. When the audience gasps and jumps, I crack up.
Take, for instance, one of this year’s biggest horror releases, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, the story of two precocious kids that visit their long-lost grandparents for a weekend of dirty diapers, chocolate-chip cookies and Yahtzee. In a year of dismal comedy releases, The Visit is by far one the funniest movie I’ve seen since Spy, and I think this is what M. Night was going for. You don’t cast Kathryn Hahn by accident. It just doesn’t happen. And yet, when I watched it in the theater with your typical audience, there was a mixture of laughter and shock.
Some researchers have theorized that the difference is genetic, a mutation in the gene responsible for creating COMT, an enzyme that regulates emotion and anxiety in the brain. To some, anxiety leads to fear and revulsion, while others have a milder response, like laughing. This mutation may have evolved as a way for humans to survive in the wild and hunt without fear. Psychologists have argued that those who laugh at scary movies have not properly developed their emotional response skills and are simply misreading the cues, or that they are simply too uncomfortable with emotion to express it fully. Now, that’s probably true in my case, but I like to think there’s more to it. Nobody misreads Schindler’s List as a comedy, after all.
My favorite horror auteur (try saying that five times fast), Wes Craven, just passed away not a month and a half ago and I’ve been paying special tribute to his filmography this Halloween season. Wes understood horror and comedy like no other, seamlessly blending the two, often in the same sequence. He had no equals.
In his most beloved film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes introduced us to one of horror’s iconic — and hilarious — characters, Freddy Krueger. In 1984, Freddy was a revolutionary character; horror in the 1970s and early ’80s was exclusively comprised of cheap, gross-out slashers, chock-full of silent, hulking baddies like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Leatherface. Freddy was never silent, or hulking, for that matter. He was a wisecracker who never shut up, preferring to lick his victims through the phone — “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy” — rather than eviscerate them with a machete by surprise. More importantly, Freddy wasn’t unstoppable outside of the dream world, pratfalling and tripping over things during climactic, and otherwise terrifying, chase scenes. In the climax of the original film, Freddy chases Nancy through her booby-trapped house. A light bulb explodes in his face, he gets smacked by a falling sledgehammer, and trips down a flight of stairs. While on fire. It sounds like a Buster Keaton bit. And it is.
Wes honed this style with Scream, a horror-comedy that stands with Evil Dead II as perhaps the greatest example of the genre. The cast itself is a group of actors primarily known for their comedic roles, like Courtney Cox, Drew Barrymore, Matthew Lillard and Jamie Kennedy. Even Henry Winkler, the Fonz himself, shows up as the schleppy principal of the school. Scream stripped away the supernatural and left us with the story of a serial killer (well, just watch it) that was supremely human, with all the faults and mistakes to be expected of such. In my favorite scene of the movie, Ghostface, having cornered a victim in a garage, is unceremoniously clotheslined by a freezer door with an audible “Gah!” It’s a funny little flourish that seems unnecessary and vital at the same time.
As in Nightmare, this bit makes the fear funnier, more human. It’s more real. It seems silly on the surface, but this vulnerability makes these killers believable. And isn’t that scarier? An unstoppable killer like Jason seems serious and frightening, but it’s so unrealistic, so innately supernatural, that we can leave the theater knowing it will never happen to us. Jason doesn’t get dropped by kitchen appliances, but a real person? Yeah, probably. The scariest thing, they say, isn’t the monster under the bed, but the monster within our hearts.
Horror and comedy are the two most visceral genres of film you can watch. When executed correctly, the audience instinctively responds in a physical way, either by laughing or getting scared. Something unexpected happens — a joke or a jump — and the audience immediately reacts. The only difference is in how they react, but there’s overlap; think of any time you’ve laughed until you cried, or you cried until you laughed. They’re not all that different, and Wes taught us that it’s okay to laugh.