It’s 1959, and an up-and-coming writer named William Blatty is a guest on The Tonight Show starring Jack Paar. Paar, who’s a bit less politically correct than some of his successors, ribs his guest by asking, “Your parents are Arabs, right? So where did you get those blue eyes?”
Blatty waits a long moment. Then he declares “The Crusades!”
It was funny, and those days Blatty was quite good at that. He’d just written a humorous memoir called WHICH WAY TO MECCA, JACK?, as well as several comedic articles for The Saturday Evening Post. Five years later he would co-write one a Pink Panther movie (possibly the best one of the original series), and Martin Levin in the New York Times would say, “Nobody can write funnier lines than William Peter Blatty.”
Then he became legendary for writing The Exorcist.
Many people probably think that’s a very abrupt transition – from writing comedy to writing horror. One is about writing things that are funny, the other about writing things that are well… disturbing.
The interesting thing is Blatty is only one of many writers who’ve excelled in both comedy and horror. Richard Matheson wrote the seminal vampire novel I Am Legend and several comedy scripts with his son, Richard Christian Matheson, who still works in both fields. Roald Dahl wrote funny children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and also macabre short stories for adults – some of which were adapted for the TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Frank Peretti’s written supernatural horror novels like This Present Darkness and moonlighted as a silly, eccentric inventor in “Mr. Henry’s Wild & Wacky Bible Stories.”
It turns out, horror and comedy actually have strong connections to each other. Richard Christian Matheson noted in an essay that horror and comedy are unique because unlike other genres, they aren’t just about telling a good story. The story is important, but a good comedy and a good horror narrative have to go beyond that, they need to have scenes which trigger a response at just the right moments. “If the joke, the funny line, or the big scare is shoving from behind at just the right moment of tension,” Matheson explains, “the moment bursts through the wall” (122).
That’s what makes the audience laugh or scream.
So while dramatic storytelling simply tells a tale like it is, comedy and horror have to be engineered to get certain responses out of readers.
With comedy, writers create stories that play on things we find funny. Even if you’re watching the kind of comedy movie where it’s just a comedian or two improvising, you still have lots of scenes that are designed to make you laugh – Mr. Bean taking the steering wheel out of his car instead of the keys, Robin Williams talking to his ex-wife in funny voices in Mrs. Doubtfire, the moments where the laugh track comes on in sitcoms.
For horror, writers play on the things that disturb us, they engineer scenes that play on those fears – the monster swimming after the girl in Creature From The Black Lagoon, the typewriter scene in The Shining, every time the killer pounces in a slasher movie.
The writer has to dig in different places to get the reactions for comedy or for horror – comedy focuses on things we find ridiculous (silly mistakes, quirky conditions, odd but just barely possible events), horror on the things that disturb or worry us (mortality, the supernatural, human depravity). But they both love to make us react, to feel a jolt. What kind of jolt is up to them.
Andrew Maunder, The Facts on File Companion to the British Short Story, pg. 96. Infobase Publishing, Jan 1, 2007. Ebook.
Richard Christian Matheson, “They Laughed When I Howled At the Moon,” Chapter 20 of How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, & Science Fiction (edited by J.N. Williamson). Writers Digest Books, 1991. Print.