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our attention is inexorably drawn to those features of the object of the emotion
that are apposite to the emotional state we are in, (3) we are encouraged to search
the situation for more features of the sort that will support and sustain the prevail-
ing emotional state, and (4) we are prompted to anticipate further details of the
evolving story that are subsumable under the categories of the presiding emotion.
Emotions are a central device that authors have for managing the attention of
readers, listeners, and viewers. Not only do authors use our already existing emo-
tional constitution to direct our attention and to fill in the story in a way that
makes it intelligible; our emotions keep us locked on the text on a moment-to-
moment basis.




HORROR HUMOR
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During the last decade or so, the subgenre of the horror-comedy has gained
increasing prominence. Movies such as Beetlejuice, a triumph of this tendency,
are predicated on either getting us to laugh where we might ordinarily scream,
or to scream where we might typically laugh, or to alternate between laughing
and screaming throughout the duration of the film. One aim of this genre it


From: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 57,2 (Spring 1999), 145“60.
236 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
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would appear, is to shift moods rapidly “ to turn from horror to humor, or vice
versa, on a dime. Gremlins (both versions), Ghostbusters (both versions), Arachno-
phobia,The Addams Family (both versions), possibly Death Becomes Her, and cer-
tainly Mars Attacks and Men in Black are highly visible, “blockbuster” examples
of what I have in mind, but the fusion of horror and comedy also flourishes in
the domain of low-budget production, in films like Dead/Alive as well as in the
outr© work of Frank Henenlotter, Stuart Gordon, and Sam Rami.
Nor is the taste for blending horror and humor restricted to film.The recently
discontinued daily comic strip by Gary Larson, The Far Side, consistently recycled
horror for laughs, as do the television programs Tales from the Crypt and Buffy the
Vampire Slayer. And even the usually dour, intentionally deadpan television series
The X-Files makes room for comedy in episodes like “Humbug.”
Likewise, Tom Disch™s recent novel The Businessman generates humor by sar-
donically inverting one of the fundamental conventions of the horror genre “ rep-
resenting a ghost who is stricken with disgust by the human she is supposed to
haunt, rather than the other way around. And Dean Koontz™s best-selling novel “
TickTock “ moves easily between horror and screwball comedy, while James
Hynes™s Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror restages classic horror
motifs and stories for the purpose of academic satire.
Of course, not every recent attempt to fuse horror and humor is effective.
Lavish film productions like The Golden Child and Scrooged earned far less than
anticipated. But what is more perplexing from a theoretical point of view is
not that some fusions of horror and humor fail, but that any at all succeed. For,
at least at first glance, horror and humor seem like opposite mental states. Being
horrified seems as though it should preclude amusement. And what causes us
to laugh does not appear as though it should also be capable of making us
scream. The psychological feelings typically associated with humor include a
sense of release and sensations of lightness and expansion;1 those associated
with horror, on the other hand, are feelings of pressure, heaviness, and claustro-
phobia. Thus, it may appear initially implausible that such broadly opposite
affects can attach to the same stimulus.
And yet, the evidence from contemporary films, television shows, comic strips,
and novels indicates that they can. Moreover, though my examples so far are all of
recent vintage, the phenomenon is long-standing. From earlier movie cycles, one
recalls Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and before that there was the naughty
humor of James Whale™s Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, and, even
more hilariously, his Old Dark House.
Furthermore, in literature, there has been a strong correlation between horror
and comedy since the emergence of the horror genre. Perhaps Walpole™s Castle of
Otranto is already a horror-comedy.2 But, in any case, soon after the publication of
Mary Shelley™s classic, stage parodies with titles such as Frank-in-Steam and
Frankenstitch, the Needle Prometheus “ in which the mad scientist, appropriately
enough, is a tailor “ appeared.3 Throughout the nineteenth century, stories by
Sheridan LeFanu, M. R. James, and others were laced with mordant humor, while
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Saki™s “The Open Window” and Oscar Wilde™s “The Canterbury Ghost” are side-
splitting masterpieces of the collision of laughter and terror.
Given the striking coincidence of horror and humor, it is not surprising that
the correlation has been remarked upon. For example, Stuart Gordon, the director
of Re-Animator and From the Beyond, states:
When Hitchcock referred to Psycho, he always referred to it as a comedy.
It took seeing it three or four times before I started picking up on it as a
comedy. He said that there was a very fine line between getting someone
to laugh and getting someone to scream. One thing I™ve learned is that
laughter is the antidote. When you don™t think you have to laugh, then
you are basically blowing away the intensity.You have to be careful when
you do that, you don™t want to be laughing at the expense of the fright.
It™s best if you can alternate between the two, build up the tension and
then release it with a laugh. It is a double degree of challenge. You™re
walking a tightrope, and if something becomes inadvertently funny, the
whole thing is over.
The thing I have found is that you™ll never find an audience that wants
to laugh more than a horror audience.4
If Gordon™s revealing comments about the nexus of horror and humor are some-
what meandering, Robert Bloch, the dean of American horror writers and the
author of the novel Psycho, is more precise. He writes:
Comedy and horror are opposite sides of the same coin. ¦ Both deal in
the grotesque and the unexpected, but in such a fashion as to provoke two
entirely different physical reactions. Physical comedy is usually fantasy; it™s
exaggeration, as when W. C. Fields comes out of a small town pet shop
with a live ostrich. There™s a willing suspension of disbelief but we don™t
generally regard it as fantasy because it™s designed to promote laughter
rather than tension or fear.5
Indeed, even Edgar Allan Poe may have had an intimation of a deep connec-
tion between horror and humor, for in his discussion of fantasy “ a category that
would appear to subsume what we call horror “ he notes that it is on a continuum
with humor. In his Broadway Journal of January 18, 1845, Poe observes:
Fancy is at length found impinging upon the province of Fantasy. The
votaries of this latter delight not only in novelty and unexpectedness of
combination, but in the avoidance of proportions. The result is therefore
abnormal and to a healthy mind affords less of pleasure through its novelty,
than pain through incoherence.When, proceeding a step farther, however,
Fantasy seeks not merely disproportionate but incongruous or antagonisti-
cal elements, the effect is rendered more pleasureable from its greater pos-
itiveness “ there is an effort of Truth to shake from her that which is no
property of hers “ and we laugh.6
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Indeed, there is also a perhaps perverse way in which our theoretical heritage
belies the confluence of horror and humor. Namely, we find that sometimes puta-
tive theories of comedy look as though they are equally serviceable as theories of
horror. Freud, for example, identifies the object of wit with what can be called the
jokework, which manifests repressed modes of unconscious thinking. But, at the
same time, in his celebrated essay “The ˜Uncanny™” “ which is as close as Freud
comes to a theory of horror “ the object of uncanny feelings is also the manifes-
tation of repressed, unconscious modes of thinking, such as the omnipotence of
thought.7 Thus, in Freud™s theory, the road to comic laughter and the road to feel-
ings of uncanniness are unaccountably the same.
Likewise, in Jentsch™s study of the uncanny, which Freud cites, the ideal object
for eliciting feelings of uncanniness is the automaton that closely approximates
animate or human life.8 But, as students of comic theory will immediately recog-
nize, this observation converges on Henri Bergson™s candidate for the object of
laughter, namely, humanity encrusted in the mechanical.9
The kind of evidence that I have already marshaled in favor of some connec-
tion between horror and humor can be amplified in many different ways. But the
conclusion is unavoidable.There is some intimate relation of affinity between hor-
ror and humor. I have spent a great deal of time motivating this conclusion, how-
ever, because, though it appears unavoidable, it nevertheless is paradoxical or at
least mysterious.
For, as noted previously, it appears that these two mental states “ being horri-
fied and being comically amused “ could not be more different. Horror, in some
sense, oppresses; comedy liberates. Horror turns the screw; comedy releases it.
Comedy elates; horror stimulates depression, paranoia, and dread.
Though these feelings, insofar as they are not propositions, are not contradictory
in the logician™s sense, they are at least so emotionally conflictive that we would not
predict that they could be provoked by what to all intents and purposes appear to be
the same stimuli.Yet that counterintuitive finding is where the data point us.
Perhaps what is so troubling about the data is that they reveal that what appears
to be exactly the same figure “ say the monster in House of Frankenstein and the
monster in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein “ can look and act in exactly the
same way; they can be perceptually indiscernible.10 Yet, one provokes horror and the
other provokes humor. How can the self-same stimulus give rise to such generically
different emotional responses? How can the figure in one film be an appropriate
object of horror and in another film be an appropriate object of comic amusement?
In order to answer these questions, we will have to develop a theory that explains
both how horror and humor are alike and how they are different.
Basically, then, we have two questions before us.The first concerns the apparently
facile transition, as in Beetlejuice, from horror to humor and vice versa.To explain this,
we need to show how horror and humor are alike. Indeed, they are so alike that
indiscernibly portrayed monsters can give rise to either horror or humor.11
But this phenomenon itself raises another question. For though the self-same
monster type that we find in House of Frankenstein can give rise to laughter “ as the
HORROR HUMOR 239
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case of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein shows “ typically, with respect to
House of Frankenstein, he does not. Standardly we do not laugh at our horrific
monsters. So there is some differentia between horror and humor “ a differentia
whose explanation is made philosophically urgent insofar as it appears that hor-
rific figures and humorous ones can, in principle, be perceptually indiscernible.
In order to answer these questions, I will want to say something about the
nature of horror and something about the nature of humor.Thus, in what follows,
I will proceed in two stages: stage one will sketch a theory of horror; and then
stage two will introduce a theoretical discussion of humor for the purpose of iso-
lating its pertinent similarities to and differences from horror.

I . S TAG E O N E : H O R RO R

Our concern with the relation of horror to humor is motivated by an aesthetic
problem “ the issue of how within popular genres it is possible to move from hor-
ror to comedy with such apparent though counterintuitive ease. Here it is impor-
tant to note that we are concerned with horror and comedy as they manifest
themselves in certain well-known genres.We are not concerned with what might
be called “real-life” horror “ the horror, say, that overcomes us when we read
about urban violence.“Horror,” for our purposes, pertains to the sort of emotion
that attends reading what are commonly called “horror novels” and the like, and
viewing horror movies.To be more accurate, we should speak of “art-horror” here
“ that is, the sort of horror associated with one particular genre of mass art. But for
convenience, I will simply refer to the phenomenon as horror (with the unstated
proviso that the relevant sense of horror under discussion is art-horror).
But what is the horror genre? What distinguishes the horror genre from other
popular genres like the Western or the detective thriller? Perhaps one useful way
to begin to answer this question is to take note of the fact that often genres are
identified, among other ways, in terms of the characters who inhabit them.West-
erns at the very least are fictions that have cowboys in them, while detection
thrillers must contain detectives “ either professionals (cops or private eyes) or
ordinary folk forced into that role (like the character Thornhill, played by Cary
Grant, in North by Northwest).
So, are there any characters who typically inhabit horror fictions “ characters
who may serve to mark off horror fictions in the way that cowboys, in part, mark off
Westerns? Here it seems that there is an obvious candidate “ namely, the monster.
Horror fictions have heroes and heroines just like other types of fiction, but they also
seem to contain a special character of their own, the monster: Dracula, the werewolf
(of London or Paris), the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Freddie Kruger, King
Kong, Godzilla, and the Living Dead. Moreover, as these examples indicate, fre-
quently horror fictions take their titles from the monster that haunts them.
However, if this putative insight is to be of any use, something needs to be said
about how we are to understand the notion of a monster. For my purposes, the
most effective way of characterizing such monsters is to say that they are beings
240 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
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whose existence science denies. Worms as long as freight trains, vampires, ghosts
and other revenants, bug-eyed creatures from other galaxies, haunted houses, and
wolfmen are all monsters on this construal. Similarly, though science acknowl-
edges that dinosaurs once existed, the dinosaurs in Michael Crichton™s Jurassic Park
are monsters in my sense, since the idea that such dinosaurs exist today “ or that
such creatures could be concocted in the way the novel suggests “ offends science.
Similarly, the squid in Peter Benchley™s The Beast, his most recent rewriting of
Jaws, is a monster because it appears to possess self-consciousness.
Monsters, then, are creatures “ fictionally confected out of either supernatural
lore or science fiction fancy “ whose existence contemporary science challenges.
And a horror fiction is in part standardly marked by its possession of one such
monster at minimum.
One objection to this initial approximation of the way to begin to demarcate
the horror genre is that it seems liable to one family of obvious counterexamples “
the psycho-killer or slasher, of whom Norman Bates is perhaps the most illustrious
example.The problem is this: many people, including the owners of video stores and
the compilers of television listings, are inclined to count Psycho as horror, but on the
view just propounded, it is not, because Norman Bates and his progeny are psy-
chotic “ a category that science countenances “ and, therefore, he is not a monster.
Consequently, Psycho and the like are not horror fictions. However, since the sub-
genre of the psycho-slasher strikes many as one of the most active arenas of horror
in the late 1970s and 1980s, such a conclusion appears unpalatable.
Now, in point of fact, the correlation of horror fictions with monsters does
not exclude as many psycho-slashers as one might anticipate. For, very frequently,
the psycho-slashers and other assorted berserkers of the recent horror cycle are
literally monsters according to the previous stipulation. Certainly, the most famous
slashers of the last decade or so are of supernatural provenance: Michael Meyers of
the Halloween cycle, Jason of the Friday the 13th cycle, Freddie from Nightmare on
Elm Street, and Chucky from Child™s Play.
On the other hand, Hannibal Lector is arguably only a psychotic “ albeit one
unprecedented in the annals of psychiatry “ rather than a monster. So, if you are
disposed to classify The Silence of the Lambs as a horror fiction, you may balk at the
correlation between horror and monsters. However, there is an easy way in which
to adjust the correlation so that it accommodates Hannibal Lector and his peers.12
It merely requires the recognition that the psycho-killers one encounters in the
relevant popular fictions are not really of the sort countenanced by contemporary
psychology, but are actually creatures of science fiction, though in these cases we
are dealing with science fictions of the mind, not the body.
Horror fictions may contain lizards larger than small towns, and, though sci-
ence countenances the existence of lizards, lizards larger than, say, Northfield,
Minnesota, are not creatures of science but of science fiction. Likewise, the rele-
vant psycho-slashers are not the kind of psychotics one finds catalogued in the
fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They are
either fanciful, fictional extrapolations thereof, or drawn from wholly mythologi-
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cal material. Hannibal Lector, for example, is merely our most recent version of
Mephistopheles “ erudite, omniscient, satanic “ out to seduce Starling™s soul with
the promise of knowledge. Thus, horrific psycho-slashers are science fictions of
the psyche, veritable monsters from the viewpoint of science proper, which serve,

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