Humor is very useful in a tale of horror. Hitchcock was a master at creating a rollercoaster of humor & fear. Every chuckle lowered his audience’s defenses, softening them up before something scary jumped out and sealed their fate.
Horror stories, and movies, that are relentless — with scary chapter after scary chapter — are never as frightening as the stories that mix in some humor.
When I was a kid, I fell in love with the classic horror movies on TV. Some of the humor may have been unintentional — or simply the result of dated clichés — but for every ridiculous moment there was a shiver of real fear. That first moment when the Mummy comes to life, the bat outside the window, lightning on the moor… all those key scenes were heightened by whimsy, if not a full belly laugh of a joke.
By the time I found my way to classic horror parodies, I was primed for the laugh/shiver/laugh/shiver ride. I’m not saying that I was actually scared when I saw “Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein” (the Mummy, Jekyll & Hyde, etc.), but frantic physical comedy set up moments that went BOO!
“Love at First Bite” and my all time favorite film, Mel Brook’s masterpiece “Young Frankenstein” never aimed for that mix of fear and fun. They were steady humor machines. (I cannot even guess how many times I’ve seen “Young Frankenstein” but I’m happy to see it again and again and again…)
Lately I’ve been reading a variety of scary stories — full out horror, terror, mystery, suspense, romantic suspense, paranormal and more — and I’ve been studying the ones that have the greatest impact on me as a reader. The humor/fear mix is a winner and so is the frisson created by the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the outlandish. But I think the stories that create the most true fear in me — the stories I decided to read in daylight instead of at bedtime — are the ones that tickle with a feather light touch of humor (charm or whimsy) and then slither gently into the dark before the big reveal.
Wow! Now that’s scary! I’m working on it.