The Humor of Horror


The Germans, in their typically bulky, Teutonic way, have a fantastic word: schadenfreude.  It describes the sensation of deriving joy and pleasure from another’s suffering.

Originating deep in the language’s adolescence, the word predates mass media. Though applicable to, say, the brief flash of inner satisfaction one gets when that useless tool on the Real House Husbands of Bergen County gets beaten to within an inch of death with a three-week-old baguette, schadenfreude is a universal concept speaking to a world of perverse pleasures enjoyed by humans of all ages.

Given our species-wide penchant, nay—birthright, for savoring the pain endured by others, I feel less bad for what I’m about to say: It’s healthy to laugh at horror films.

Cinematic theorists, experimental kinesiologists, evolutionary culturists and ivory tower types of all stripes who have somehow managed to attain tenure via a careful, if whimsical, study of Hollywood B-movies would like you to know that horror films serve a purpose.

Modern humans are rich in their awareness of maladies. Ours is the age of Zika babies, dirty needles secreted in movie theater cushions accompanied by notes welcoming us to the world of AIDS, shopping mall mass murders, secret kill rooms in the basements of otherwise banal backwater churches, international terror plots unfolding in the halal shop down the street, widespread industrial waste creating gruesome mutations and the omnipresent threat of a reptilian master race gobbling up earth’s dwindling gold reserves.

Few have actually witnessed such atrocities. That matters little. What’s important is that we, the children of the communication revolution, are keenly attuned to the possibility that all of these horrors are plausible. After all, everyone knows someone whose significant other’s friend from college heard this happened to a work acquaintance in Phoenix via a Facebook post.

This symbolic dread is a symptom of being a fragile human being in a tenuous industrial world. The horror film genre helps to burp off a little of the excess tension in white-knuckle, ninety-minute chunks where people with worse luck and dumber instincts than yourself fend off the whims of zombies, non-sexy vampires, mysteriously capable chainsaw murderers, poltergeists, grays and centuries-old demons.

'Paranormal Activity' (2007)
‘Paranormal Activity’ (2007)

We thrive on the shock and awe of Paranormal Activity, Final Destination, and Saw. Worldwide, the latter series has grossed over $800 million worldwide since 2004. If nearly a billion dollars isn’t sufficient testimony to a people’s lust to have their thrill button pushed without experiencing any actual consequences, I don’t know what is.

Weirdly, horror films are sacrosanct in some circles. The proverbial cinema cash cow demands to be taken seriously. Genre becomes a rallying cry for filmmakers desperate to gain legitimacy. Yet, I maintain that the greatest worth of a solid screamer is the laugh factor.

A good slasher flick, a haunted melodrama, alien autopsies, dick-tucking mass murderers? Sign me up. Because filmmakers can decide what the intended tone of their project is, but it is the exclusive purview of each and every audience member to decide how to interpret that sequence of flickering images and sounds. I choose to laugh.

Internet quizzes and SEO factoids tell me that this trait places me on a spectrum somewhere between sociopathy and psychopathy. Then again, the internet has also previously convinced me that I had Lupus and Lyme disease. So I’m going to take all these diagnoses with a grain of salt.

I am in the uncomfortable position of being a child of the 1980s who grew up in the aforementioned milieu of hyper media-sensitization. I watched my first televised war at age 3. I followed with great interest the national fervor over OJ. I attended public school in the days of Columbine. I lived through 9/11, the anthrax scare, and the DC sniper. Now I live a block from Skid Row and a quick browser search away from any worldly horror I might want to gaze upon via LiveLeak.

I don’t need to go a movie theater to feel scared. I do not require some carefully scripted, well-edited hypothetical scenario to trigger my innermost fears. This is my life.

What I do have a thirst for are bombastic psychos giving to idiotic college kids exactly what they deserve.

Patrick Bateman in 'American Psycho' (2000)
Patrick Bateman in ‘American Psycho’ (2000)

I derive immense satisfaction from seeing Patrick Bateman, with that fine suit and remarkable hair cut and pristine Manhattan apartment and translucent raincoat, cleaving open Jared Leto’s skull while Huey Lewis and the News bumps in the background.

I am titillated to watch Ted Levine taunt a senator’s daughter from atop the pit in his basement—instructing her in a routine of skin lubrication while playing with an effete dog and matching gemstone nipple ring. That nigh-on geriatric noise Buffalo Bill makes to mock his victim elicits chortles and guffaws of delight almost as much as when he leans his face against the door jamb and asks Clarice with a straight face, “oh wait…was she a great big, fat person?”

Other such things I enjoy:

An innocent girl with a demonic possession tells a well-meaning priest exactly what his mother’s doing with those fine matriarchal lips down in hell.

A man bitten by a werewolf imagines himself in his bucolic home when a band of nazi mutants breaks down the door to sensationally murder his family and slit his throat.

John Hurt enjoys a succulent meal with his fellow space-travelling colleagues until onset appendicitis turns into an intergalactic beast with an overbite popping out of his chest.

John Hurt in ‘Spaceballs’ (1987)

This is the sort of deeply satisfying comedy I will never see on network television. This is black comedy, the most reviled, controversial, and rude form of laughter. It is improper and savage. Yet, so many people get their kicks from unintentional black comedy because it meets a need.

Let me elucidate what you may already know instinctively. It is good to laugh at suffering. It is well to mock death. Schadenfreude is one of the most important tools in the bag of tricks utilized by functioning human beings today. We are beleaguered by the things that may destroy us at any given moment up until the moment we learn to laugh at tragedy.

To laugh at something horrific is to deprive it of spiritual weight. When our days are spent bearing the memory of past traumas like millstones around our necks, what better relief than an ultra-serious venue in which we’re allowed to look the brutal, carnal, inhuman depths of depravity in the eye and stoutly refuse to let it terrorize us?

Maybe you know what I mean. Maybe you think I’m a monster. Hey, give it a try.  

You may just find there’s something sublime about turning horror into humor.  

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