In This Article Horror-Comedy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Introductions
  • Encyclopedias and Guides
  • Filmographies
  • Anthologies
  • Genre Criticism
  • Industrial Histories
  • Theory and Criticism
  • Silent-Era Horror-Comedy and the “Spooky House” Subgenre
  • Classical-Era Horror-Comedy
  • Postmodern and Contemporary Horror-Comedy
  • Underground Cinema, Cult Cinema, and Horror-Comedy
  • Television and Other Media

Cinema and Media Studies Horror-Comedy
by
Rebecca Gordon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0077

Introduction

Horror-comedy is a generic hybrid that deliberately provokes an emotional shift from terror, suspense, or dread to hilarity. In comedy-horror—its relative—a playful tone predominates, but it is undercut by horrific or startling events or effects. Horror-comedy traces its literary antecedents to the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage at least, as well as to gothic fiction and the Grand Guignol, but the particular type or flavor of humor employed by horror-comedy film can range from mordant wit to slapstick or, in the case of splatter-horror-comedy, “splatstick.” The particular type of comedy in horror-comedy tends to emerge cyclically, often following then parodying horror film cycles as they appear, become popular, and wane. For example, old “spooky house” films of the silent and early sound eras parodied melodramas originally written for the stage; monster films from the 1930s were later parodied in the 1940s and 1950s; slasher films and splatter horror in the 1970s and 1980s quickly gave way to gross-out humor in the later 1980s and 1990s. The cycles have accelerated so rapidly that “serious” slasher films and torture-porn horror films of the late 1990s and early 21st century are themselves marked by self-reflexive in-jokes and intertextual allusions—for example, the Scream franchise and Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods (2012). Rarely addressed in film scholarship as a genre unto itself, horror-comedy is often placed within the broader categories of horror film, cult film, exploitation, “trash” film, or, less often, comedy. This range is reflected in the sources listed in this article: while some sources will be devoted solely to horror-comedy as a generic hybrid, a subgenre, or an aesthetic mode, many may discuss horror-comedy only in a brief section of a larger argument, or in terms of a specific filmmaker or film. This entry is organized as it is in order to underscore the affective richness of horror-comedy and the long history both of horror and comedy as aesthetic modes, while avoiding conflation with categories already well represented in other articles (see in particular Ernest Mathijs’s Exploitation Film). Despite often being ignored by scholars in favor of one of its two constituent genres, horror-comedy is not an uncontested field. Critics have, for instance, sharply debated the cultural value of horror-comedy films that invoke literary and aesthetic antecedents to play with the thin line between horror and laughter, versus horror-comedy that trades in broad humor or exploitative gore. The majority of horror-comedy scholarship in English focuses on Anglo-American examples, which is reflected in this article. However, the International Horror-Comedy section reflects the global popularity of horror film and suggests that the increasing globalization of the film industry is making possible greater transcultural communication even in such difficult-to-translate modes as horror-comedy.

General Overviews and Introductions

Minimal scholarship and few trade publications are dedicated to horror-comedy alone. This heading, then, collects writings that primarily discuss horror as a film and literary genre but attempt to locate the precise limits of horror and comedy when both elements exist in a given work, or that note the particular flavors or types of comedy that emerge in specific horror cycles. Paul 1994 is the exception; in one of the few volumes devoted to horror-comedy, this cultural history explores the emergence in the 1970s and 1980s of “gross-out” horror and comedy and offers a careful explanation of how and why “gross-out” is a powerful mode in both genres. Both Clarens 1997 and Pirie 2008 update landmark scholarship on horror film; Clarens provides an illustrated history, primarily of classic Hollywood horror films, while Pirie traces the roots of British horror film themes and preoccupations to the English literary gothic. King 2012, an update of an earlier collection of observations on the horror film genre, explores its various pleasures. Both Skal 1993 and Tudor 1989 offer cultural histories of horror film; Skal’s work is more popular and focused on decade-by-decade trends in American horror, while Tudor’s study focuses more on the way familiar horror film villains change over time.

  • Clarens, Carlos. An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films. New York: Da Capo, 1997.

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    A newer printing of Clarens’s excellent 1967 overview (An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, New York: Putnam). One of the earliest scholarly books on horror cinema, this covers the genre’s history from the beginning of film to 1967. In films where humor features, Clarens defines its particular type and effectiveness.

  • King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. London: Hodder, 2012.

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    New edition of original 1981 publication (New York: Everest House). Collection of essays and observations by the master writer of horror-fiction. Makes frequent note of the long imbrication of horror and humor.

  • Paul, William. Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy. Film and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

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    Asserts that the ascendancy of gross-out comedy and horror in the 1970s–1980s indicates an inversion in popular taste, when “higher” forms of humor such as satire and irony gave way to farce, ribaldry, and vulgarity. Connects the rise of gross-out to upheavals in American society.

  • Pirie, David. A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema. New ed. London: I. B. Tauris, 2008.

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    Updated and expanded edition of the original 1973 publication, a landmark volume. Pirie argues that Gothic is the only cinematic myth invented by Britain. Pirie also makes special note of comedy-horror, defining it as a specific subgenre.

  • Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

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    Anecdotal survey of American horror film that insightfully relates the horror genre to cultural trends in America from the 1890s to the 1990s. Notes the rise of “sick humor” in the 1950s and 1960s as influencing filmic themes of bizarre birth and monstrous children.

  • Tudor, Andrew. Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

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    Essential, sociologically inflected history of the horror movie genre, focused on traditional horror film characters based on mad scientists, supernatural monsters, and psychotic killers. In his chapter “Genre History II: 1961–1984,” Tudor notes the marked emergence of camp and humorous aspects of many horror films as new uses of genre conventions.

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