The thin line between scary and hilarious

There is a knife edge difference at the border between scary and hilarious. Understanding this difference – and the fact that comedy and horror are essentially the same skills – will make you a better writer.

If the theory of writing is something that interests you, I write about it quite a lot. Just not here. Normally I’d post writing theory to the Thanet Creative Writers blog. However, I have been thinking a lot lately about comedy and horror mostly due to the launch of a new collection of short stories – “Anthology of Madness“. I talk more about the anthology in the post “Short Scary Stories“.

Basics of comedy and horror.

I boldly claimed that comedy and horror are essentially the same which is probably something I should justify before we continue.

Both comedy and horror work on roughly similar principles but for wildly different outcomes. Take something familiar and then present it in an unexpected way. Really that’s it. For comedy, the surprise factor (dissonance) delights and produces laughter or at least amusement. For horror, that is for scary stories, the dissonance unnerves instead of delights.

The difference between the two is where the dissonance takes place and can boil down to simply the way you present the story.

Differences between scary and hilarious.

For me, when coming up with a scary story I look for something safe and “nice” and find a way to make it uncanny.

The uncanny is when things are familiar and yet not quite right. This is at the heart of a lot of scary and a lot of funny scenes. The concept of the uncanny was first fixed by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay Das Unheimliche but we have been using it to scare and delight since we first started telling stories. We just have a name for it now.

This idea of the uncanny is why zombies, clowns, and demonic puppets are scary. They occupy a space on the scale from healthy human to unrecognisable known as the uncanny valley.

Mori Uncanny Valley.svgImage by Smurrayinchester – self-made, based on image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman at http://www.androidscience.com/theuncannyvalley/proceedings2005/uncannyvalley.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The best way to explore this difference may be with examples. So I am going to give you some examples.

Example one: An intimate moment.

Take, for our first example, the moment where a young couple are about to make love for the first time. He’s looking forward to finally getting naked and doing the deed but she’s got a secret. What that secret is is the difference between horror and comedy.

As they undress it turns out that the girl is actually a dude – that’s got a lot of potential to be really funny (although maybe not for the character). Although you could take things to a pretty dark place and you are back to scary.

As they undress and she climbs on top of him, the glamour fades and he can see that she is a rotting member of the undead. That’s straight up body horror right there. That said, a skilled writer could probably make that hilarious. This second example is from a short story I wrote a few years ago. I didn’t think it good enough to send out and it is just gathering dust. Maybe I’ll post it here some day.

Example two: Scary and hilarious animals.

Consider animals that we consider safe or at least harmless. By playing with our expectations we set up a situation that is funny because it is ridiculous or scary because it undermines our sense of the world (the dissonance of the uncanny).

The Monty Python team used this to great effect with the Killer Bunny.

The setup is right for horror but the dissonance is between the size and deadliness of the bunny resulting in comedy.

A very similar set up is found at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” only the payoff, mostly due to context and presentation, takes something that should be non-threatening and makes it disturbingly dangerous.

In both cases, the creators set out to deliberately create an effort and, being masters of their respective fields, created something of a masterpiece. But it is a thing between scary and hilarious and could, in the hands of lesser storytellers, have been unintentionally funny (or disturbing).

Example three: Scary and hilarious pregnancy.

A young couple expecting a baby. What could be more natural and non-threatening than that? And yet on a small difference, this could be comedy or horror and the difference is tiny.

Let’s imagine that the couple already has five boys. The mother says that this pregnancy “feels different”. Surely it is a girl this time.

When the birth takes place, sure, this one was different – twin boys. That’s the set up for comedy or at least a joke (depending on how you tell it).

When the birth takes place, they learn that this child is a being of pure evil destined to destroy the world (or at least try). That’s the set up for horror. You can probably name the movie that uses a similar setup.

Walking the line between scary and hilarious.

When writing horror (or anything designed to be the least bit scary) be scary deliberately. The same goes for comedy. Nothing kills the tension of a scene faster than unintentional comedy (or horror). TV Tropes has an entire page dedicated to literature with unintentional comedy (and another for Movies, and another for TV).

The lesson here may be that it is possible to use subtle changes to create a classic genre defining moments in horror or comedy but at all times you are inches away from failure. The most successful examples I have found of both comedy and horror skate precariously close to the dividing line between scary and hilarious. Always though, they are aware of the line and never actually cross it.

There is a fine line between scary and hilarious. Walk it well.

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