Horror makes us scared. Comedy makes us laugh. These two genres create opposite emotions. So mixing them isn't going to work, right?
If you've never seen a good mix of horror and comedy before, you would be surprised how well it can work. Perhaps it's because the two genres can cause the most raw reactions. The set-up for a scare is also the same as the set-up for a joke: the comic/scary tension is built up, then released, then built upon. Finally, both horror and comedy need breathing space, so that the audience isn't relentlessly being scared or worn out with laughter. So a horror comedy can work because the comedy provides respite from the horror, and the horror provides respite from the comedy.
Necessary TropesBroadly speaking, these are the tools for combining comedy with horror:
- Mood Dissonance of funny characters in a horror setting: This is one of the most common ways to mix horror and comedy. The laughs come from the interplay between the characters. The horror elements of the story are played straight. There is a clear contrast between things that are meant to be scary, and things that are meant to be funny.
- Subversion of Horror Tropes: This is where horror tropes are acknowledged, and then subverted in order to create a Parody. Breaking the Fourth Wall is optional. This creates laughs while maintaining the horror setting, so that scary scenes can also be included.
- Black Comedy: Comedy about dark subject matter, such as death, illness, discrimination, suffering and more.note Note that Black Comedy is rarely horrifying on its own, rather it is something that can supply laughs in a horror setting. Occasionally, something that Crosses the Line Twice can horrify certain viewers, even if others find it funny.
- Villains Out Shopping/Punch-Clock Villain: Villains doing mundane things. After all, the scary Big Bad has to do food shopping just like everyone else, right? Again, this is not a scary subject, but it can supply laughs in a horror setting.
- Bloody Hilarious: This approach, which only really works in visual media, is when gore is so exaggerated it borders on being funny. Some audiences will find it funny. Some will find in horrifying. The rest is a scare that is also a laugh.
These aren't the only forms of joke that fit well into a horror comedy. A horror comedy can have jokes about sex-related topics, for instance, but spending too much time on them shifts the tone too far from horror. The tropes listed above are ways to incorporate the comedy that won't shift the tone.
On top of that, there are regular Horror Tropes.
Choices, ChoicesThe first question, as noted above, is what approach is going to be taken to mix the horror and comedy.
The other question is how much the balance of horror and comedy will be mixed. In general, a horror comedy does not need to be a 50:50 balance of the two. It is acceptable to have one that leans more to the horror side (e.g. Scream) or more to the comedy side (e.g. Ghostbusters). In fact, it could be argued that any horror comedy work will lean to one more so than the other.
PitfallsComedy is one of the hardest genres to write for. Horror is also challenging. Mixing genres brings in a set of pitfalls as each own. Writing successful horror comedy is undoubtedly difficult.
- Do not skimp on the horror. It is tempting when writing the comedy parts to try to pack in as many gags as possible, which is great for a straight comedy. But there's a risk the film will get so jokey that the scares don't land.
- Likewise, make sure the comedy works as well.
- There is also a risk of going into Dude, Not Funny! territory if a joke about a dark topic comes across as being insensitive. The way to avoid this is to have a film that cares about its characters and understands the seriousness of its subject matter.
- Mood Whiplash is not always a bad thing. It can sometimes produce some spectacular laughs and scares. But if it's happening often in a way that feels jarring, or it feels like the writer had no idea what they were doing, then there is a problem.
- There is also the danger of having the story that feels like two separate stories that have been woven together. This happens if there has not been enough done to unite the horror and comedy scenes.
Potential SubversionsAs horror comedy is less of an established genre and more of an established mix of genres. Therefore, it's less important to think of how to subvert horror comedy, but how to subvert horror.
Suggested Themes and AesopsAny horror story needs a good concept to underpin it, and a great concept can speak to our deepest fears. A struggle with possession can represent a struggle with mental illness, or for finding our identity. A werewolf story can represent our struggles with anger or animal instincts. Slashers and zombies, despite being used frequently in derivative horror stories, can respectively still say something interesting about madness and blind obedience.
Parodying horror can also ask questions about what the genre means to us. Why do we read books or watch movies to get scared? Why do they entertain us? What do they mean to us?
When horror combines with comedy, it also makes us think about how we cope with fear and distress. Humour is a well-known coping mechanism in these situations. Anyone in the emergency services, military, health service or funeral industry will attest to this. How does it work? And is it ever wrong?
Suggested PlotsAs stated before, what is needed is a horror concept. Compared to straight horror, there is less pressure to have one that's surprising or original, especially in those that take the parody route. It's okay to use a premise that has been done loads of times before, as long as the way of mixing comedy and horror is inventive.
Another common element in a horror comedy is to use a the premise that is too ludicrous for straight horror, such as murders that are being carried out for a really banal reason. This helps cement the overall tone of the story.