On the surface, no two genres appear more diametrically opposed than horror and comedy: One is meant to delight and the other to fuel nightmares.
Yet over the past decade, the horror-comedy gained such unprecedented popularity and social resonance that it’s now a thriving mainstream genre with no indication of slowing down. That transformation is even more baffling when you consider all the genre had going against it.
For a long time, it was considered something of an ugly stepsister to both genres, earning at most niche critical praise and little widespread industry respect. Horror-comedies were historically bad business, too, in part due to big studios failing to market them correctly for fear of alienating the two different audiences.
There are many exceptions to that rule, of course. Earlier entries into the genre went on to become beloved classics, from Young Frankenstein to Shaun of the Dead. An ’80s boom saw masterpieces like the Evil Dead trilogy, An American Werewolf in London, and Return of the Living Dead.
But ever since 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein popularized the genre, the horror-comedy has for the most part been relegated to the role of kitschy crossover schtick a la Gremlins, Child’s Play, Leprechaun, and then eventually spoofs like Scary Movie.
In spite of everything, however, the horror-comedy has undergone a true renaissance over the past 10 years, solidifying into one of the most innovative and artistically fruitful genres of modern film. Which actually makes a lot of sense when you consider how the genre’s core elements counteract many of the worst aspects of life in the 2010s.
Throughout the decade, horror-comedy enjoyed an unprecedented rise in critical acclaim and commercial success.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out definitively declared the genre’s cultural relevance on a global scale, earning one of the horror genre’s only Best Picture Oscar nominations in 2018. In addition, it and Peele’s follow up Us each made an estimated $255 million worldwide.
Ari Aster’s comedy-infused Midsommar received near unanimous critical praise earlier this year and is even enjoying some Oscar buzz at the moment. 2009’s Zombieland was such a box office and critical hit that it got a sequel with double the budget, 10 years later. 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows gained a large enough cult following that it was adapted into one of the best-reviewed new shows of 2019. The new icons of horror-comedy are so mainstream that Midsommar and Us were two of the most popular Halloween costumes of 2019.
Clearly, this crossover-genre-that-could has tapped into something deep within our zeitgeist, and the reason for that is two-fold.
For one, films like Us, Midsommar, Ready or Not, Cabin in the Woods, You’re Next, and Prevenge show how the horror-comedy is uniquely equipped to explore the comedic tragedy of living with everything from racism, sexism, classism, stereotypes, prejudice, familial abuse, and even gaslighting toxic relationships. The genre perfectly captures our collective experience of IRL realities so terrifying and absurd that we don’t know whether to laugh or scream.
For another, the horror-comedy is an antidote to the individualistic detachment of the digital age (especially when it comes to moviegoing), blending two visceral genres best experienced communally in a theater.
The groundwork for the genre’s recent renaissance can be traced back to the turn of the decade.
The horror-comedy perfectly captures our collective experience of IRL realities so terrifying and absurd we don’t know whether to laugh or scream.
2009’s Drag Me to Hell marked Sam Raimi’s return to the horror-comedy with an apparent metaphor for the protagonist’s struggle with an eating disorder. Jennifer’s Body (which only recently gained mainstream appreciation) used the offscreen sexist bullshit happening to Megan Fox as a backdrop against which to challenge heteronormative gender roles and with our pitiful portrayals of women in film — all before #MeToo turned that into a global conversation. Meanwhile, Zombieland used overt Native American symbolism alongside character names (Columbus, Little Rock) and a plotline (a westward trip destroying everything in its path) that pointedly invokes manifest destiny.
In 2010, Tucker and Dale vs Evil proved to be an eerily prescient satire of what would become one of the most hot-button issues of our day. The premise finds a bunch of city kids so terrified by their own prejudiced perceptions of two well-meaning hillbillies that they accidentally murder each other while attempting to “escape” them. While it’s also just a lot of stupid fun, the cult classic reads almost like a warning now about the ever-widening divide between rural and coastal America. An indictment of Hollywood’s dehumanizing stereotypes of rural, low-income people, it’s a comically exaggerated prediction of the dire consequences that come from our failure to communicate across this divide to see each other as people.
This current continued throughout the decade. In addition to Get Out‘s obvious racial commentary, films like 2011’s You’re Next and this year’s Us and Ready or Not all tapped into the “eat the rich” mentality that’s been bubbling to the surface ever since Occupy Wall Street made income inequality a hot topic in 2011. Meanwhile, 2016’s Prevenge, about a pregnant widow who murders people at the behest of her unborn fetus, captured the awful misogyny embedded into women’s experience of child-rearing.
The horror-comedy essentially became a place for us to purge our collective guilty conscience over a swath of social issues left unaddressed for far too long.
But the more fundamental question of the crossover genre remains: Why? Or rather, how? What makes these two polar opposites work so well in tandem together, and why is it speaking to us right now?
Echoing many other directors and thinkers on the relationship between humor and horror, Get Out‘s Jordan Peele told Cinema Blend that, “They’re two sides of the same coin,” because “both (are) about building the tension and releasing.”
The humor lulls audiences into confronting horrors that would otherwise feel too threatening or close to home.
Structurally, the set up for a scare and a laugh are almost identical. First, there’s a set up: a protagonist alone in a house investigating a suspicious noise — or the question of “knock knock?” Then there’s the release: the revelation of a serial killer in the house — or a punchline answering the joke’s premise.
Ideally, both result in primal responses from the audience. These different reactions can even bleed into each other, with jokes so funny you start scream-laughing or scares so severe you’re left nervously giggling.
But the difference between comedy and horror matter just as much to the genre’s recent resonance as their similarities.
While humor comforts, horror confronts. True masters of the horror-comedy balance these contradictory tones so the humor lulls audiences into confronting horrors that would otherwise feel too threatening or too close to home for comfort.
On an emotional level, our experiences of tragedy and comedy are far more intertwined than distinct genre restrictions might have us believe. After all, the phrase “laugh to keep from crying” is an overused cliché for a reason.
At a time when the world feels like a dumpster fire of increasingly ridiculous fuckery beyond our control, there’s a true-to-life honesty in the horror-comedy. It’s a genre that understands our struggle to keep from laughing until we scream whenever we get a news alert on our phones. When dealing with the horrific comedy of our real world becomes too painful, we turn to the catharsis of watching it play out from the comfortable distance of fiction on a screen, which unleashes all the bottled up feelings we must suppress during our day-to-day.
Dealing with the horrific comedy of our real world has become too painful.
Moreover, in an era of smartphones, streaming services, and the widespread disconnect and loneliness that can result, there’s appeal in a genre that delivers primal, gut-level, shared reactions. More analytically oriented genres like drama will always have their place, but there’s something uniquely communal about horror and comedy that makes getting off our couches and into theaters together feel worthwhile.
Both can create an unspoken bond between the complete strangers of an audience like few other film genres. Laughter is infectious, with comedy often relying on establishing a certain amount of common ground. Similarly, panic spreads through a crowd like a virus, the monsters of horror movies always born from a collective unconscious of universal fears buried in all our psychologies.
In a world utterly divided, in a cultural moment defined by polarity, disconnect, and real-life fears we need to laugh at for fear of crying, the horror-comedy is a haven for our contradictory but mutual experiences. It finds harmony among differences, a balance among extremes.
And really isn’t that all we ask for at the end of this exhausting decade?