I have become a bit obsessed with horror movies since finally getting to visit the EMP Museum horror film exhibit. Curator Jacob McMurray has done a fantastic job, and video interviews and commentary from iconic filmmakers Roger Corman, John Landis, and Eli Roth are a real treat for a film nut who loves listening to other film nuts geek out about films they love. (Eli Roth's tale of seeing The Exorcist for the first time at eight years old is hilarious; he became convinced he would be possessed. His parents told him, "We're Jewish. We don't believe in possession," to which he replied, "I do!") It's a very cool exhibit, and if you're in the Seattle area, I recommend you check it out. Though not with your little ones, or your sensitive older ones for that matter. If you wouldn't take your children to see a contemporary horror film, stay out of the basement of EMP. (I love that the exhibit is in the basement.)
I don't consider myself a horror fan. Psycho is one of my top five favorite movies, but I think of it more as a suspense film than a horror film. In any case, I find myself suddenly wanting to watch a million horror movies. Or at least the classics. However, I can't shake the sense that to do so while pregnant would be a terrible idea. Subjecting my psyche to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Suspiria seems like asking for trouble, especially when I've been having plenty of nightmares on my own.
So instead of talking about a specific film, I want to discuss horror as a genre, and its connection to another, seemingly very different genre.
While visiting the EMP exhibit, I watched a boy-girl couple watching a clip from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The scene was extremely gory without being gory (all of the actual gore was obscured by the film's framing), and as these two people watched, they were laughing. I was awestruck.
I have trouble imagining myself laughing at a horror movie; horror, to me, is the opposite of comedy. In fact, I'm surprised that the comedy-horror is as prevalent and popular as it is. In the car, I mentioned this to Rob, who I knew would have some interesting insight, as he is not only a comedy fan, but also writes funny stuff professionally.
"Well, comedy and horror work the same way," he began, and launched into a brilliant observation (that I wish I could give you verbatim) that comedy and horror both play with the audience's expectations. Both genres lead viewers in several directions at once, and when those paths cross, that's when the laugh (or the scream) happens. Both genres work with surprise appearances or disappearances; a person not being where he's supposed to be can be hilarious or terrifying, depending on the story.
I told him I still don't think horror—and gore in particular—can be funny. He argued that that was just an issue of aesthetics, which I can't deny. Rob also reminded me that horror-movie laughs may be an indication that things aren't funny at all: "Different people react to tension differently."
Nervous laughter aside, I'm interested that two genres can seem (to me) so opposite and incompatible while working on so many of the same principles. It makes me wonder whether horror and comedy serve a similar purpose for audiences. Neither genre is really interested in the status quo; in fact, both comedy and horror push against the status quo. The situations are often extreme and improbable. The bad guys and troublemakers aren't always punished at the end. (Sometimes we're even rooting for the troublemakers!)
Both horror and comedy films provide audiences with a safe space to experience and explore taboos. It stands to reason then that our reactions to these movies—whether we laugh, scream, or declare, "that's not okay!"—simply reveal to us our own moral-philosophical codes. (And, apparently, we really like this, because we keep going back to these genres!)
The question that remains for me centers on preference. I know many people who refuse to watch horror films, but I don't know a single person who doesn't like comedies. What does horror do that comedy doesn't? The thing that leaps immediately to mind for me is that in a horror film, death is a very real threat. When a character suffers in a comedy film, the suffering is usually temporary; a character suffering in a horror movie is probably in the process of dying. Perhaps death is the greatest taboo of all, and horror, as a genre, is just more willing to go there. Death is horror's livelihood.