"Jim RRR Hardison, is a master at juxtaposing the fantastic with the ordinary in such a brilliant way as to make you just sit back and grin in appreciation. [...] A perfect book to read aloud to your kids on a dark and stormy night. I cannot wait for the next adventure. " - Mango, Goodreads
Published: October 3rd, 2017
It’s the night before the SAT test. The forces of darkness are stirring.
Twin brothers, Bing and Ron Slaughter, know they’ve got to cram like their lives depend on it because their college plans sure do. If they don’t ace the test, they’ll be doomed to spend the rest of their days flipping burgers at the McDonald’s their parents run. That’s why they hatch a plan to meet up with the members of their punk band, the Ephits, spend the night studying at a secluded cabin in the woods, and maybe squeeze in a little jamming. What could go wrong with a brilliant plan like that?
Ancient evil. That’s what.
As a cataclysmic lightning storm rolls in, Bing, Ron and the rest of the Ephits find themselves tangled in a sinister plot to summon a demon. Yes, demons are real. To survive the night, the band must find a malevolent artifact, battle bloodthirsty monsters and stand against the most dangerous and powerful foe humanity has ever faced…the Golfer’s Association.
Humor and Horror—A Volatile Mix
Humor and horror go together like Mentos and soda. Both are enjoyable on their own, but if you combine them right, they explode in a fountain of supercharged soda that blasts twenty feet in the air and delights everyone who sees it. So, how does the combination work, and why? Well, the Mentos and soda thing has been definitively figured out and has to do with a process called nucleation—go ahead, Google it. I’ll wait…
Cool. Now that that’s out of the way, the comedy/horror thing is much more complicated and more fiercely debated. People have been arguing about it ever since arguing was invented. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here are a few thoughts.
Suspense is a critical part of horror. Anticipating that something terrible is going to happen ratchets up our nervous tension until we can no longer bear it and we have to scream. We know the monster must be lurking just below the water in the flooded corridor that the heroine has to wade through. As the hero heads down the creaking staircase into the darkness, we already know that the chains binding the undead grandmother in the cellar are broken. We realize, way before the kid does, that the liquid dripping onto her shoe isn’t water, it must be evil clown saliva. Suspense, in horror, is about building tension that we have to release.
Tension plays a huge role in comedy as well. The relief theory of humor proposes that laughter is a mechanism we use to cope with tension and release pent up discomfort or fear. We consequently tell jokes and want to laugh about things that worry us, frighten us, or make us feel awkward. It doesn’t take long after a disaster before people are cracking jokes about it as a way of releasing the tension they feel. And we tend to find it hilarious when we see a social faux pas or misstep. It’s not that we’re bad people, or mean spirited, we just have tension that needs to be released, and laughter is one of the more benign ways to let it out.
Surprise is also a huge factor in horror. Without warning, the mangled corpse falls from the rafters onto the teenage babysitter. Out of nowhere, the mining engineer whose name we never learned gets snatched into the mysterious hole in the tunnel wall. From the clear blue sky swoops the pterodactyl, decapitating the hapless park guest. In horror, surprise sneaks up on us, yanks the rug out from under our feet, and triggers our instinctive startle mechanism. We scream as a reflex, to scare off the threat or warn those around us.
Surprise is also central to comedy. The incongruity theory of humor suggests that we find things funny when they cause a sudden shift in our perspective or frame of reference, or when they surprise us by departing sharply from our expectations. So, a joke like this…
Q: What’s green and would kill you if it fell out of a tree onto you?
A: A green school bus
…makes us giggle (ok, it makes most of us groan) because the question suggests a perspective—something green, coupled with a tree means the answer is going to be an object from nature—that the answer completely reverses in favor of something incongruous but obvious.
Taking this into account, I think that effective horror and good comedy mix so explosively because they are both built on the same key mechanisms, tension and surprise and together, they amplify our reactions. With a little twist, the same tension that can make us want to scream in terror can make us laugh uncontrollably, and vice versa.
Tension and surprise are exceptional tools when crafting funny horror or horrifying humor. To drag terror into humor, don’t just ratchet up the tension, take it totally over the top. That’s a key technique employed in many funny but terrifying horror films and novels. Think about Evil Dead 2 and its sequels. The Evil Dead franchise takes the standard tension tools of horror and turns them up to 11. Instead of buckets of blood and gore, Evil Dead nearly drowns you in bathtubs and Olympic-sized swimming pools full of the stuff. It’s not just that evil is lurking around the corner, evil literally races toward the characters, picking up speed and howling with insane fury as it goes. The John Dies at the End trilogy by David Wong takes a similar approach in book form. It’s not just gruesome, it’s absurdly gruesome—like the scene in which the characters have to battle a monster assembled entirely from various cuts of meat. It takes dread and amps it up so far that we have to laugh, or scream, or both.
Surprise is similarly useful—but instead of just yanking the rug out from under our audience, we can create laughs by yanking the rug out from under the conventions of the genre as well. This is a technique that films like Shaun of the Dead and Tucker and Dale Versus Evil, as well as books like the Bloodsucking Fiends trilogy by Christopher Moore and Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix have used to excellent effect. They take the well-worn tropes of horror and disrupt them, either by interjecting notes of absurdly mundane reality into classic horror situations or by flying in the face of our expectations in terms of how things are supposed to unfold or conclude.
It can, of course, be easy to ruin the mix. If you take things too far over the top, you risk disgusting or boring your audience. Too much tension can numb us to the point where we don’t really care anymore. And, if you simply mock the conventions of horror, you can easily wind up with a shallow parody that may be funny, but is no longer scary. The best horror/comedy is just the right mix of scares and laughs, of Mentos and soda, so that we, like the contents of a Diet Coke bottle, explode in a fountain of uncontrolled anxiety and delight.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Ron interrupted. “The Golfers Association? Don’t you mean insane cultists or Satan worshipers or evil wizards or something?”
“Insane cultists, Satan worshipers and evil wizards are like elderly nuns compared to the Golfers’ Association,” their prisoner responded. “You’d be much better off if it were something that simple. These guys are demon freaks.”
“Demon freaks,” Bing repeated in a whisper. “That sounds…bad.”
“Oh, it’s bad alright,” the prisoner shuddered. “You have no idea.”
About the author:
Fish Wielder is J.R.R.R. (Jim) Hardison's first novel novel (He wrote a graphic novel, The Helm, for Dark Horse Comics). Jim has worked as a writer, screen writer, animator and film director. He started his professional career by producing a low-budget direct-to-video feature film, The Creature From Lake Michigan. Making a bad movie can be a crash course in the essential elements of good character and story, and The Creature From Lake Michigan was a tremendously bad movie. Shifting his focus entirely to animation, Jim joined Will Vinton Studios where he directed animated commercials for M&M’s and on the stop-motion TV series Gary and Mike. While working at Vinton, he also co-wrote the television special Popeye's Voyage: The Quest for Pappy with actor Paul Reiser.
Jim has appeared on NBC's The Apprentice as an expert advisor on brand characters, developed characters and wrote the pilot episode for the PBS children's television series SeeMore's Playhouse and authored the previously mentioned graphic novel, The Helm, named one of 2010's top ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens by YALSA, a branch of the American Library Association. These days, Jim is the creative director and co-owner of Character LLC, a company that does story-analysis for brands and entertainment properties. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his lovely wife, two amazing kids, one smart dog and one stupid dog.
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