As a reader, and as a writer, I prefer fiction that leans toward the darker side of the imagination. Monsters, terror, horrors, and things that lurk in the shadows are my favorite subject matter. Unfortunately, the genre of horror is difficult to master, and one must avoid the heavily cliched writing and the tropes that come across more as comical than horrific. But, therein lies a cure. Humor.
That’s right, humor.
“What does humor have to do with being scary?”
Glad you asked. Horror and humor often form an unlikely friendship, sort of like peanut butter and pickles, or twinkly vampires and sunlight…Think about some of your favorite horror movies, or any movie at all. Unless it is one of those tedious Oscar attempts, aimed squarely at the elitist judges of such institutions, they probably have moments of absolute levity.
For example, the movie Aliens. True, this is more of an Action/Horror, but it illustrates my point effectively. The movie has many great moments of humor, most of them because of the character Hudson. Most of the movie has a pretty heavy atmosphere of tension and anxiety, so the Hudson serves as a relief valve. Not only does Bill Paxton deliver his character’s lines with a wonderful mix of hippy and jarhead, but the remarks themselves are hilarious.
This scene has all the timing and setup of a great comedy film. Despite the heavy anxiety level of the scene, this serves to reveal more about Hudson’s character, as well as providing comic relief. The comic relief does two things for the reader. It will endear them to the character providing this relief, and they will be allowed a small break from the dramatic tension created by the story.
Why is this important? In his article in Writers Workshop of Horror, Jeff Strand says, “…say I’m being mugged, and the mugger holds a gun to my head. I’m going to be pretty tense. But let’s say he stands there and keeps that gun to my head for ten minutes. In the ninth minute, am i going to be as tense as I was in the first? Probably not. I’ll have gotten used to the tension level.” If your story is one tense and horrific scene after another, the reader will become mentally and emotionally fatigued. Giving them break, though momentary, serves to relieve the pressure, but not eliminate it. If you were to switch to a completely different scene, away from the action, you may accidentally dissipate the tension completely, ruining the effect of your story.
This is even more true in a novel. Moments of levity will endear your readers to your humorous characters, provide relief, and help with the flow of the story. On a side note, in horror, it is typically the funny or likable characters who wind up getting killed to create the most impact on the reader. Think of Wash in the movie, Serenity, or Lennie in Of Mice and Men.
Now, this doesn’t mean you should overdo it. If you do, you’ll wind up with a slapstick movie in the vein of Killer Klowns from Outerspace. If that’s what you’re going for, great (not really, but whatever). But, if you want to create a serious horror tale, keep it at a minimum. On the other hand, if you leave out the humor altogether, you will end up with a story that takes itself way too seriously, causing it to fall short with readers. Unless you are a master of literary genre fiction, taking the horror too seriously will cause it to be melodramatic, and be just as much of a failure as a campy horror tale.
Also, this really applies to any story. A little bit of humor will inject a bit of relief, empathy, and some reality. We all have friends who are hilarious, who seem to be “on” all the time and make us laugh till we need to change our pants. So it is in life, so it should be in fiction.
So, look for moments in your story where a little bit of humor could pick up a sagging pace, or fix an overdose of genre heaviness, or just plain make it more fun. Humor takes practice to get it right, so look for inspiration wherever you can. Life tends to have a dark sense of humor.
All pictures and dialog from “Aliens” are the sole property of 20th Century Fox, and are used here as Fair Use for educational purposes.