15 Oct 2017

A History of Horror #8: Comedy


In the world of art and literature, comedy has been a key component of any work. It can be used as either a critical satire, or a simple escape from reality; the use of humour in fiction is global and due to its honest nature, it can be commonly seen in works of horror.

Comedy is as old as culture itself, but many believe the use of humour in art began in Ancient Greece. While some of the earliest works have been lost to time, a playwright by the name of Aristophanes (c. 446 – c. 386 BC) was a large contributor to the movement. With his political commentary that evoked overtly sexual innuendos and slapstick buffoonery, these works would stand the test of time and become ingrained in the genre today. Of his 40 comedies, only 11 survive.

It wasn't until 335 BC that Aristotle (384–322 BC) would provide a more focused answer to what the genre is. He posited that it originated as light treatment of the base and ugly used in Phallic processions (literally "penis parades", where a community of people would march down streets whilst displaying fetishised penises). Aristotle also taught that comedy was positive for society as it brought happiness and wealth. It did not need to include sexual humour and was instead about the arise of a sympathetic character. He placed it as one of the four genres of literature; alongside tragedy, lyric poetry and epic poetry.

In Elizabethan literature, comedy wasn't necessarily defined to mean humour, but was distinguished from tragedies as stories that explored the subject matter in a lighter way and had happy endings that culminated in the marriage between two characters. William Shakespeare was the most famous and prolific of this period, penning over a dozen comedies during his time as a playwright including Much Ado About Nothing (1598-99) and Twelfth Night (1601-02).


If anything, the genre has been in its most experimental form during the last century. Using the older definitions and tropes as baselines - as well as using 19th century influences like pantomimes and vaudeville - the advent of cinema was the primary method of delivering comedy. Here, the genre became more about making the audience laugh rather than presenting light-hearted takes on reality. Performers such as Peggy Pryde, Charlie Chaplin, and Laurel & Hardy began as music hall acts that transitioned to the screen once it became popular. Due to the obvious lack of sound during the silent movie era, slapstick and physical humour was a preferable form, and continued to be popular until gradually fading out during the 1960s. From here on out, many different types of comedy would be used in film and television.

Specifically within horror cinema, gallows humour - now known as black comedy - was the technique first used, where darker and more serious subjects were discussed in a silly or satirical manner, sometimes even to the point of absurdity. The Cat and the Canary (1927) is one of the earliest black comedy horrors in cinema, which revolves around a family that spend a night in a haunted mansion to read the will of a wealthy relative, only to be stalked by a mysterious figure. Many of the horror elements are played for laughs, and it is now considered a key product of German Expressionism (a movement of art that ignores convention and focuses on the smaller scale). Film historian Bernard F. Dick said it featured "lightened expressionist themes so they could enter American cinema without the baggage of a movement that had spiraled out of control." German Expressionism would become another popular influence for later films such as Young Frankenstein (1974), Re-Animator (1985) and American Psycho (2000).

One of the most popular forms of comedy horror is the parody - or spoof - which takes a known work, trope or author and imitates it in satirical or ironic way. Between 1948 and 1955, comic duo Abbott and Costello starred in a series of films known as Abbott and Costello Meet... which would use different characters and monsters within a more relaxed and humourous environment. Some of the characters they 'met' include Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, The Wolf Man, Captain Kidd, and The Mummy.


The popularity of the parody didn't go away. The British Carry On series parodied many current events and franchises over 31 low-budget comedy movies, and would use the Hammer horror films as the main inspiration for Carry On Screaming! (1966). Works such as Saturday the 14th (1981), The Man with Two Brains (1983) and Re-Animator (1985) parodied the Universal horror series that was produced in the 1930s and 40s. More recent films have had more material to use for parody, whether it be Scary Movie (2000) and slashers, The Cabin in the Woods (2012) and demonic possession, Shaun of the Dead (2004) and zombies, or Krampus (2015) and Christmas flicks.

For parodies and comedy horrors, nothing is off-limits. Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods got its main inspiration from 1981's The Evil Dead, itself somewhat of a humourous film. Its use of deconstructing and reusing horror tropes and characters is some of the most creatively unique work I've seen in cinema. Even those that aren't necessarily considered to be comedies have their share of comedic elements, such as Scream (1996) which acted as a revitalisation of the slasher genre that had faded since the 1980s. Even upcoming horror movies such as Jigsaw, Halloween and The Gathering look like they'll also be going down that route.

The comedy horror genre is only getting stronger with every passing year. Due to its subjective nature, it is clear why films of this type can be so diverse. Whether you find physical humour to be the best, or prefer a more witty, satirical approach, you can at least be comforted in knowing that the market is saturated enough that you'll always find something that suits you.

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