From 1920’s Haunted Spooks to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the genre of horror-comedy has never really, you should excuse the expression, died.
Yet humor and horror seem pretty different; one’s a pie in the face, the other’s an axe in the skull. It’s obvious why watching someone being torn asunder would be horrible but why is the endless suffering of the Three Stooges funny? Could there be any congruencies between funny and fear, snickers and screams, gore and gags, slapstick and slaughter?
This class proposes – carefully, while remaining alert and well-armed – that the two genres are not mortal enemies.
For one thing, people in pain are a perennial part of every art; to be fascinated with human suffering is to be human. Both comedy and horror can show us how to live (and, of course, die); from Psycho we learn that Death can come to anyone at any time. Also, to always shower with a friend.
The class will examine horror’s relationship with philosophers’ explanations of comedy: Immanuel “Carrot Top” Kant’s Incongruity Theory (it’s funny when two things that don’t go together go together); Sigmund “Shecky” Freud’s Relief Theory (comedy is a rapid expulsion of tension); Thomas “Nutso” Hobbes’s Superiority Theory (“You’re in pain and I’m not – ha!”); Henri “Giggles” Bergson (comedy requires “a momentary anesthesia of the heart”); and Mel Brooks (“Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die”).
We’ll explore the mechanics of both using video clips and examples ranging from Frankenstein and Dracula to Abbott & Costello, and try to figure out what makes us laugh and/or scream.
We’ll see that both genres love loss of control, anarchy, the breakdown of rules and conventions – the beast within us set free. And both exploit our paradoxical feelings about helplessness: seeing someone out of control can be hilarious (a clumsy person falling) or horrifying (a clumsy person falling into a snake-pit suspended over a shark-pit next to a zombie zoo).
Both humor and horror also share a mordant view of our relationship to pain; an obsession with the human body and its multifarious fluids; and a subtext of death and transcendence underlying the eviscerated flesh and fart jokes. What could be more blood-curdlingly fun?