Enjoy an exclusive guest post from Madison Estes, author of “The Time Loop Loophole,” featured in our upcoming anthology ON TIME.
People disagree about what constitutes horror comedy. It’s rare for a story to have an equal balance of humor and horror. A few stories that fall into this category are John Dies at the End, Happy Death Day, Scream and Evil Dead 2.
Both chapters of the IT remake had lots of jokes, from the popular “they’re gazebos” line to the Pomeranian behind the “Not Scary at All” door, yet most people would not call these films horror comedy. These films are horror centric.
On the other hand, there are horror stories that focus on humor. The horror is an afterthought, such as films like Army of Darkness and Shaun of the Dead. For some people, horror comedy means comedy to the point of ridiculousness, like the Scary Movie series. Some people think all horror stories should have a serious tone throughout unless they are meant to be horror comedies. Regardless of how much humor one desires in their horror story, comedy has long been a part of horror.
My short story, “The Time Loop Loophole” leans more toward comedy than horror. Issac is a socially awkward gamer who gets stuck in a time loop. When he and Vincent go to a party, his friend dies. Immediately after Vincent dies, the time loop restarts. Issac begins to wonder if he can escape the time loop by murdering Vincent, which is where the horror comes in. Just how far would one go to escape a time loop? However, despite the dark subject matter, the story is bursting with pop culture jokes, sarcasm, and moments of sheer ridiculousness. (At one point he tries to save Vincent by tying him up with PlayStation controller cords).
Comedy can be used to create an emotional release. It makes us feel safe before building up the next scare. Stories that have these moments of release aren’t necessarily horror comedies. What qualifies a story as being a horror comedy versus a horror story with some jokes thrown in will vary from person to person. In general, the more you mitigate the tension in the story with comedy, the more likely your story will be labelled horror comedy.
Parodies and spoofs are a part of the horror comedy subgenre. A parody makes fun of a specific work or works, i.e. Eat Slay Love parodying Eat Pray Love. A spoof makes fun of specific genre conventions by exaggerating them, the way Zombieland is a spoof of the zombie subgenre. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably because there is often overlap. Scary Movie is both a parody of Scream and a spoof of common horror conventions. In the opening scene, when the killer asks a character what her favorite scary movie is, that scene directly references the movie Scream. That is parody. When the girl grabs the banana instead of a weapon to defend herself, that’s a spoof of how characters often make stupid decisions in horror movies.
Satire is another version of horror comedy. It resembles spoof in that it uses exaggeration for comedic effect. However, satire either exposes a social truth or criticizes the ignorance and evils of people, organizations, or society itself. For instance, in Ready or Not, a bride is hunted by her rich in-laws in a ritual because they believe it is the only way for the family to retain their wealth. It’s a satire on class warfare. Get Out is about a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. It turns out that his relationship was a ruse so that her family could steal his body. The film satirizes racial tension and focuses heavily on microaggressions.
In humor, the pay-off is the punchline. Even visual gags can have a punchline, such as the scene in Scary Movie 2 when three of the characters dramatically pose like Charlie’s Angels, and then the water fountain goes off behind them making them look like they’re urinating.
In horror, the pay-off is the scare. Often, it’s a jump scare. The character opens a closet, then something leaps out at them. They turn around and a ghost is behind them. But the pay-off doesn’t have to be a jump scare. For instance, in Saw, the moment when Dr. Gordon finally saws off his foot is incredibly horrifying. The scene builds suspense with the time limit running out and the dramatic phone call with his wife and her kidnapper. The amputation is the pay-off.
Horror comedy is a balancing act. If the story is mostly comedy, it can be hard to create tension and scary moments. If it’s mostly horror, the comedic moments can kill the mood. Jokes can interrupt the story. Despite disagreement over how much comedy and horror should be in a story, the popularity of horror comedy is stronger than ever. One might speculate the increase in horror satire is due to an increased focus regarding social issues and politics in our daily lives. Perhaps this has also increased our need for laughter, even in a genre that has traditionally been seen as serious. Regardless of the cause, it seems horror comedy will remain trendy, even if the interpretation of the genre continues to vary among individuals.
Madison Estes has had work featured in anthologies by HellBound Books, Twisted Wing Productions, Transmundane Press, Soteira Press, TANSTAAFL Press, and Abomination Media. She is a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America Helen McCloy scholarship. She received an Honorable Mention from the Ron L. Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. Her work is forthcoming in Unexpected Heroines (Grimbold Books) and Tales From Gehenna (Gehenna and Hinnom). She is currently working with six other writers on The Complete Guide to Writing Horror Vol 1. commissioned by Dragon Moon Press.
She lives in southeast Texas and has three dogs. She enjoys reading, drawing, painting, and swimming in her spare time.
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