humor in horror

In the delightful 1995 film The Prophecy, Christopher Walken plays the very pissed off Angel Gabriel.

Gabriel had been God’s hit man, The Lord’s go-to angel when he needed cities laid waste or wanted all the first-born of an entire society to die in their mothers’ arms. For a long time, Gabriel was willing to take on faith the notion that God had very good reasons for making him do all these terrible things. No longer.

But when your resume includes a stint as The Angel of Death, and you aren’t happy in your work, you will have developed coping mechanisms to deal with stress. For Gabriel, it’s humor. Really, really dark humor.

Gabriel, like all good villains, dominates every scene in which he appears. What makes the character work so well is that he is a monster with a sense of humor.

There are some wonderful comic bits in this horror film. My favorite is the one where Gabriel is sitting in a cheap diner with a weepy woman dressed only in a skimpy hospital gown.

She is dressed like that because he reanimated her just after she died in intensive care. Gabriel needed a chauffeur because he never learned to drive. He has obviously been shot in the chest several times, but takes no notice. In the scene, he is trying to get directions from the waitress, who clearly thinks he and his slowly-decaying companion are just a bit over-the-top even by the standards of customers in cheap diners.

One wonders if he tipped.

There is a link between horror and humor that some horror writers don’t notice. Good horror writers, if they are able to write humor as well as horror – not everyone can – do notice and employ it.

The characters in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House try to cope with the sheer creepiness of the place by making jokes to show they don’t take the house seriously. Eleanor and Theodora mock the creepy housekeeper Mrs. Dudley because her set-piece warning of no one coming to help them in the dark, in the night,  scares them more than they will admit. The residents of Hill House, the ones with pulses anyway, try to be witty and entertaining. In the end, it doesn’t help them much, but it makes the characters much more interesting.

In the Hitchcock film, The Birds, (let’s face it, oh fans of Hitch, it’s a horror film!) accurate prophecies of the end of the world are made in yet another diner, but treated for comic effect by having them uttered by a cheerful drunk.

What rings true about this is that if things get really, really bad, we often begin to laugh at the damnedest things. Some people break into gut-busting laughter at funerals or when a parent is dying. They can’t help themselves. This reaction is a basic feature of human psychology. Horror writers should pay more attention to it.


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