Laughter – the antidote to horror?

I was sitting down to eat an evening meal of Salmon and baked potato when the call came. I was half expecting it, but nonetheless it placed a stone in my stomach and drained the colour from my face. I pushed my plate aside and said to my wife, “That was the nursing home. They’ve called me in. Mum’s on her way out.”

It was a moment of horror and, to be honest, worse than the actual experience of holding my mother’s hand and gradually watching her slip away as her vital signs reduced. Something that helped sustain my brother and I through this ordeal was reminiscing about humorous events from our family’s past. My mother was unconscious, but we felt that, if she could still somehow hear us, then these anecdotes might bring some comfort to her.

I knew I needed to write a blog today as I have a newsletter to put out. But what to write? I’m conscious that many people vocalise little cries for help on social media, bemoaning their latest crisis, garnering sympathy — and I didn’t want to be that guy. On the other hand, a writer — particularly a horror writer — has to be authentic and lay the words onto paper that want to come out. As I write, it’s less than a week since I buried my mother, my body is wracked with pain from the ongoing effects of fibromyalgia and I feel that my worth is measured in grains of sand. Yet I want to inject a measure of hope and refer to an aspect that helps sustain me through tormented times, namely dark comedic horror.

You might imagine that reading a book by Clive Barker or listening to a horror audio book such as Adam Cesare’s Clown in a Cornfield might be the exact opposite of what I need right now. Yet it is these portals of escape that actually help me confront reality, and some of the best horror combines dread with comedy. The very idea of mixing a circus performer dressed up in ludicrous make-up with a monster that cuts your throat with a serrated blade slams together two concepts that seem at opposite ends of the spectrum. But are they? Why do people often laugh during horror films? Why is there such a thing as nervous laughter? Why, at the moment of tipping into an abyss of Lovecraftian madness, does a protagonist break into uncontrollable maniacal tittering?

The ‘jump scare’ is at the very heart of a punchline’s delivery. The end of a joke, particularly a one-liner, cuts across our expectations, surprises us — if you will. Take Milton Jones’ example: “I use to think sticks and stones could break my bones but words can never hurt me…until I fell into a printing press.”

According to some theories, the laughter reflex is an expression of release from stressful situations. The psychologist, Alex Lickerman, stated that, “being able to laugh at a trauma at the moment it occurs, or soon after, signals both to ourselves and others that we believe in our ability to endure it.” A subtly different interpretation says that laughter conveys a message to the people around us in such situations. Studies of macaques revealed that they laughed or smiled when feeling threatened by a dominant male—their laughter was accompanied by evasive or submissive body movements. The laughter is used to admit fear and communicate a desire to avoid conflict, so the theory goes.

Another psychologist, Alex Lickerman , believes that fearful laughter actually represents a denial of fear. He states, “being able to laugh at a trauma at the moment it occurs, or soon after, signals both to ourselves and others that we believe in our ability to endure it.”

In the case of horror movies, it is said that horror and humour share two common threads: incongruity and transgression. We laugh when something is incongruous, when it goes against our expectations, or breaks a social law. I guess it is this kind of humour that appeals to me most. In fact, it’s my love of comedians such as Frankie Boyle and Sarah Silverman that prompted me to write the suspense story, Gallows Girls (which appears in my collection, Wandering in the Witchwood.) This features a trio of three comediennes renowned for their gallows humour and allowed me to explore this connection more deeply.

My fellow writer, Ralph Robert Moore, covers similar territory in his Black Static column, ‘Into the Woods’ this month. In it, he looks at the nature of humour and tragedy. For example, why do we laugh when people slip on a banana skin? (It only tends to happen in cartoons or Laurel and Hardy films, mind you.) Such an event would actually cause the person involved significant injury — yet we find it funny.

So maybe comedy and horror aren’t opposites, but rather strange bedfellows. One thing’s for sure, when I’m going through one of my regular insomniac bouts, I can usually rely on favourite comedic sketches to distract me enough to weather the fearful dark hours of the night. Here’s a few examples that I regularly turn to (caution, this stuff is brutal and often subverts your expectations):

Louis CK

Frankie Boyle

Stewart Lee

Nikki Glaser

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