Horrible Humor

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.



  1. I agree. Though at times they can be hard to watch, the films that capture true horror, are the ones that walk that fine line. The original Jaws was a fantastic joy ride of horror and humor.

    I think many times we forget where true horror lies. I am reminded of a story I heard long ago. A leader in horror talked about what really scared him. He mentioned a scene in the original Cat People where a little girl was beating on a door to come inside before she was eaten. They showed the little girl and the door but never showed the monster. And then the end of the scene they showed the door with blood coming underneath it. They didn’t show the little girl die, but you knew.

    The sense of fear that comes from a scene like that is so much more dramatic than any kind of shock horror. It tears into your psyche.

    Another great moment of horror came from a short story I read a while ago. It was a story about some B52s that were about to nuke Japan. During the process of the flight one of the bombers had gotten off course, possibly traveling through the Bermuda Triangle. He dropped his bombed on what he thought was a city in Japan. But in looking back it was the Emerald City of Oz. It was a revelaion of dread.

    Stuff like that, is horror for me.

    • Candy

      Bombing OZ — seriously scary!

      I remember seeing the original Cat People, and now think I’d better get it from Netflix. I think I was simply so terrified during it that I missed big chunks of the film.

      In both movies and books, humor gets used to soften us up, to tickle us until our guard is down. I remember seeing “Dead Again” the Kenneth Branagh film co-starring his then wife Emma Thompson and thinking this is Hitchcock-ian. I’d start to giggle and then SLAM!

      When a story goes from bad to worse to even worse to terrifyingly worse without a single respite, the power of even the most frightening image is diminished.

      • Oh Dead Again is one of our favourite movies! Derek Jacobi was just so good – that scene where he smothers his mother with a pillow!! Ahem, sorry I got a little carried away. I can’t stand modern horror movies but those old[er] ones were just pure genius.

  2. The premise of something hiding tends to do it for me, whether in film or in books. There is so much power in what’s left unsaid, and doing so takes much more skill. Though I’ve not seen it in years, and can’t say for sure if it was as scary as I remember, the original Children of the Corn scared the bejusus out of me! I wasn’t supposed to watch it, but my bedroom door was right off the living room, and I would stand at the crack of my open door where the TV sat directly in front of it on the opposite wall. It gave me nightmares so weeks. Same thing with Jaws. I was convinced the shark was going to eat my legs off… never mind the sea of carpet pretty much made such possibilities a moot point.

    • Candy

      To prevent nightmares, my parents forbade scary movies. That made them all the more enthralling and inviting! Oh, the times I watched the forbidden…

      The unsaid, or the merely whispered, is a powerful tool in terror! Mix it in with a funny moment and you have an off kilter reader ready to believe the unbelievable.

    • Candy

      It is definitely one of the best comedies ever made!
      Unfortunately, the Broadway musical was a snooze. As much as the film is impossible to forget, the musical was… I barely remember it.