Why do we instinctively laugh after a good scare?

Why are comedy and horror so tightly bound together?

From Army of Darkness to Cabin in the Woods to Wong’s John Dies series — no genre meshes as well with comedy as horror seems to. That’s strange, isn’t it? On the surface, they seem like totally different beasts. One is designed to make you laugh; the other, scream. One wants you to relax and have a good time; the other wants to jack up your nervous system and induce artificial anxiety. But comedic horror isn’t a new thing we’re doing to try to dissect the genre: Every Friday the 13th movie had a few jokes in it, hell – beyond the first one, Freddy Krueger was basically a terrible ’90s improv comic that murdered people in their sleep (much like Bob Sagat).

This comedy/horror connection has been on my mind lately, because I’m in the midst of writing another novel right now. It’s fairly hard to define: It definitely has a grounding in sci-fi, but there are some very heavy elements of horror as well. And because I don’t know how to be entirely serious anymore, in any situation – I’d probably fart in an ambulance just to get a cheap laugh before I die – there’s humor mixed in there, too. If I had to stomp its pleading face into the genre-hole, I guess this would be a ‘thriller’ book. Regardless, what I’m finding is that the best comedic sections come right along with, or immediately after the best horror sections. They’re using each other like a set-up and punchline. I think it’s because there’s a very fine line between the two ostensibly wildly different genres. A line comprised of terrible, unspeakable, heart-rending things. On on side of the line, there’s pure, bloody terror. But just a few inches away on the other side, there’s nothing but knee-slappin’ and chuckles.

Standing directly on that line, of course, are clowns.

No, seriously: That’s why clowns are so effectively scary. If you don’t get anywhere near the terror line with a clown, you end up with harmless Ronald McDonald types. Nobody is genuinely scared of Ronald McDonald (when the character is pulled off as intended, I mean — not counting those tweaked, intentionally scary cosplays you find on the internet). A totally normal clown isn’t scary to anybody without a severe phobia. When you go beyond the terror line, you wind up with characters like Pennywise, who’s an evil, child-murdering sewer-clown/spider.

Straddle the line just right, however, and you start preying on a kind of psychological glitch. Something you laugh at because it’s too terrifying. Too overwrought. The danger can’t be real. The best example of this is Rob Corddry on Children’s Hospital:

rob

He’s supposed to be a Patch Adams type character, so he’s always in clown make-up, for the kids. But he’s also a surgeon, and he just wipes his bloody hands on his scrubs — so in every single scene he’s dressed in clown make-up with two giant blood-stains on the front of his shirt. Every single other doctor is meticulously clean. And they’re standing in the room, interacting with a smiling, bloody clown. He’s so far beyond terrifying that it’s funny again.

Why is that? Why does circumnavigating the horror-world put us back in chuckle-town? Is it a threat matrix thing? Do we laugh because the threat is too overblown to be real, and we need a means to diffuse the fear? Do we laugh because the threat was obviously fake, and we’re embarrassed at the presence of the fear?

I don’t want to spoil anything for a book I’m not even done writing yet, but this is relevant to me because I’m adapting parts of it from stuff I’ve done in my columns. Little bits and pieces, odd passages and minor characters I’ve slipped into the column over the years. I’ve always had a plan for these things, and tried them out as comedy for practice while I sketched this larger idea out in my head. The weird part is, I’m not stealing any of the outright comedic aspects from my humor column: I’m pulling horror. I’ve just managed to lace a lot of disturbing passages into my articles over the years that were all masquerading as comedy. I always pushed them just a little too far. Defused the situation. Let the threat dissolve and leave only a fine residue of funny. Now I’m reworking them, pulling them back just a little bit, and finding that they are indeed fairly effective as horror.

We’re such delicate machines.

7 thoughts on “Why do we instinctively laugh after a good scare?

  1. SteveySteve

    I once read that the essence of a joke was effectively relief. The set up, the obstacle, the sudden realisation that it’s all okay. It’s been theorized that smiling is our earliest form of saying “everything’s okay.” Which makes a lot of sense socially, but also kind of explains why we laugh after horror. “That guy got impaled on a chainsaw! But it’s just a movie, and we’re all okay, so everything’s okay” as opposed to “That guy got impaled on a chainsaw- aiiiieeeeeeee!!!”

    Reply
  2. Adam

    You’re pulling material from your columns, are you sure that’s wise? The Mario Lopez is not known for It’s forgiveness.

    Reply
  3. Mr. P

    It’s true! Jokes and horror films use similar techniques of manipulating your expectations, and then going sideways somewhere to make you laugh/jump out of your seat.

    That’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to convey how entertaining horror movies are. You focus on the scary/horrifying parts, but the parts that make you laugh are what completes the package.

    Reply
  4. Vonotar

    What I find fascinating is the fact that I can have damn near the same response to both terror and levity. When I’m scared, my heartbeat increases, my muscles tense, my breathing gets shallow, I begin to sweat. When I’m laughing my ass off at a well-done joke or story, my heartbeat is galloping madly, my muscles are tense, I can’t breathe (If I’m not careful, my asthma kicks in and we quickly go into crisis mode) and I’m sweating like I just ran 2 miles. I think the brain processes both in the same way. Adrenaline comes into play both ways. It’s probably context. People get addicted to the rush either way.

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  5. Patrice

    I am asking / when I react by crying jumping up and down and shaking. Why does the person that startled me laugh? When asked to stop they continue to laugh.

    I have PTSD so I have a heightened startle effect. I am genuinely scared.

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Well, unless they’re probably not aware of your condition, in which case we often laugh because the outcome is unintended and unexpected. It’s a version of nervous laughter — laughing when you’re uncomfortable in an effort to defuse the situation. They’re not laughing at you and your suffering, they’re laughing because sometimes that’s how our brains respond when we don’t know how to deal with a scenario. Unless they are aware of your condition and did it anyway, in which case the answer is: They’re jerks. They’re doing it because they’re jerks and jerks do jerk things.

      Reply

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