Four Reasons Why The Horror Genre Contains So Much Dark Comedy

2015 Artwork Horror and Dark Comedy article sketch

For a genre that is supposed to frighten people – the horror genre can often be, well, hilariously funny.

Whether it’s a cheesy zombie movie, whether it’s something from a Clive Barker novel, whether it’s Freddy Krueger, whether it’s the sarcastic dialogue in a TV show like “Supernatural” (yes, I’m still watching it) or whether it’s one of Ellis’ Keith stories from “Left 4 Dead 2”– horror and dark comedy are often firmly intertwined with each other.

At first glance, this might seem like a strange thing. After all, the horror genre is supposed to be dark and depressing, it’s supposed to fill you with feelings of bleakness and terror. It’s supposed to be a serious and dramatic genre.

And, yet, many things in the horror genre also include a lot of dark humour – why is this?

Well, I can think of at least four reasons….

1) The obvious reason: When we watch a movie, play a computer game or read a novel – we want to be entertained. We want something that makes life more interesting for us for a couple of hours. We want to be frightened, but we don’t want to be miserable.

So, adding dark comedy to a horror story is a way to make sure that, although your story might frighten your audience, it won’t make them feel depressed. It’ll give them at least a short break from the horrifyingly bleak events of your story.

Plus, this also applies to writers too. Although it’s been a long time since I last wrote any proper horror fiction, I’d often find that I was either too frightened or too miserable to write any more after spending a while writing “serious” horror fiction. So, adding some comedy can be a way to keep writing when your own story starts to scare or depress you.

2) Similarities: Structurally speaking, the horror and comedy genres are a lot more similar than you might think. Both genres rely on clever pacing, expert timing, exaggerations, detailed narration, clever dialogue and absurdly strange situations in order to elicit an emotional response in the audience. In comedies, this response is laughter. In horror stories, this response is terror.

In other words, many of the techniques that you can use to make people laugh are very similar to the techniques you can use to terrify people. So, if you’re using these techniques anyway, then it isn’t too difficult to use them in a different way every once in a while.

3) Scottish showers: Back in 2009, I was lucky enough to see a re-creation of a 19th century/ early 20th century grand guignol performance (at the Abertoir festival).

In case you haven’t heard of it before, grand guignol plays were basically the theatrical equivalent of horror movies. Anyway, they would often use a very clever technique called “The Scottish Shower” in order to make their plays more frightening.

Basically, a grand guignol performance would consist of several short plays (the one I saw had three) and these plays would alternate between horror and comedy. If I remember rightly, the first play was about an evil doctor who experiments on his patients, the second play was a bawdy comedy about men with stiff… legs and the third play was about a vengeful wronged lover.

Switching between horror and comedy on a regular basis meant that the horror plays were even more frightening by comparison. So, dark comedy can add emotional contrast to your story – which will also make the frightening parts of your story seem even more frightening.

4) You: If you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance that you either are a horror writer, have been a horror writer or want to be a horror writer. In other words, you probably possess the kind of morbidly inventive and unremittingly cynical imagination that you need in order to write good horror fiction.

The fact is that working in the horror genre requires a lot more imagination than most people think. After all, you’ve got to come up with ways to shock, disturb and frighten even the most jaded fans of the genre. In fact, you probably are one of those jaded fans.

And, well, the kind of highly inventive creative thought that goes into writing good horror fiction isn’t too different from the kind of highly inventive creative thought that goes into writing good comedy.

This is about the best way I can describe it, but the state of mind you need to be in to write good horror is very similar to the state of mind you need to be in to write good comedy.

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Anyway, I hope this was interesting 🙂

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