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I got into trouble last year for submitting an assignment (Masters in Creative Writing) that included a story that sprinkled elements of humour (think Despicable Me) into a gritty and frankly disturbing tale of a homeless man swapping bodies/minds with a teenage girl (think Freaky Friday spiked with A Clockwork Orange).

The dismissal of my experiment still rankles; I think mostly because I didn't get an explanation I could use to progress my writing.

Under what circumstances would it be acceptable to mix humour with something approaching horror? If possible, can you give examples of novels/screenplays in which this has worked?


PS I looked at Is blending genres well received by readers? and found some good general advice about blending genres, but nothing that addresses the specific bleed style I am looking at. Similarly, Writing Across Multiple Genres is more about authors crossing genres rather than mixing them, as is Writing different genres.

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    There are basically two ways of mixing horror and humor - gallows humor (thanks Galastel) and parody (thanks Chris). Outside of those two, humor should be used sparingly. For more cheerful genres like romance, there's probably no limit on use of humor. – Alexander May 30 '18 at 17:10
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    The Laundry Files by Charles Stross do an excellent job of mixing comedy and horror. (Think Call of Cthulhu meets The Office) – Arcanist Lupus May 31 '18 at 6:10
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    Terry Pratchett excellently mixes humour with high tension (even, occasionally, horror). – TRiG May 31 '18 at 10:58
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    I really wouldn't call Scary Movie a horror movie with comedy. It's more like a comedy movie which is a parody of horror movies (without any actual "horror"). – forest May 31 '18 at 23:46
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    Good examples all, but does anyone remember a series called "Buffy the Vampire Slayer?" Did it rather well, week after week. – docwebhead Jun 1 '18 at 2:45

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Horror works on building tension. Humour breaks it. On the face of it, you've got two cardinally opposed directions here. How do you mix the two?

First, there's gallows humour. Gallows humour doesn't undermine the dark tone of the situation. If anything - it drives it home. At the same time, there's strength in being able to laugh at a hard situation, which is why people resort to it.

You can use the notion of gallows humour, and take it one step further, turning your whole story into dark comedy. Such a work, I think, would be at least a little surreal - the sharp juxtaposition of funny and horrifying becoming the reality in which you write.

As a final, brilliant example, I would point you towards Roberto Benigni's film La Vita è Bella. It is a comedy. About a Jewish family in a concentration camp. It is funny and chilling at the same time, and there's more heart in it than in any Holocaust movie I can think of. Where Schindler's List and The Pianist leave me somewhat overloaded, La Vita è Bella invariably makes me cry - it's softer tome penetrates deeper.
How does Benigni do it? Gallows humour is self-aware: both the person telling the joke, and the person hearing it are aware of the horror. As such, it is usually cynical. Benigni avoids this cynicism entirely, instead presenting us with a father who tries to hide the meaning of what's going on from his child. The tension, the danger - it's always there. And in the face of it, there's the father being a clown. And each time you laugh, you also know he's just put himself and the child in that much more danger - you don't get to laugh at the Nazis. So, you have the humorous situation building tension, instead of breaking it like it usually does.

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    There are some dark humor moments in some horror movies. The first couple evil dead movies are pretty much horror but also comedy. – Mark Rogers May 30 '18 at 21:18
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    You start with First, there's gallows humour which implies there is also another kind (quite possibly parody, as Alexander comments to the OP) but you never follow this description with any other types of humour. – flith May 31 '18 at 10:29
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There's nothing fundamentally wrong with mixing genres. But like many things in writing, the issue is, do you do it well or poorly.

Of course I haven't read the story you wrote for your creative writing class. I have no way of knowing if you did it well and it was a brilliant story and your teacher is a stick in the mud, or if you did it poorly and the teacher's objection was not that you mixed genres, but that you did so ineffectively.

It's not at all uncommon to mix some humor into an otherwise very serious story. Shakespeare's Hamlet, for example, mixes a creepy ghost story with a political thriller, and inserts moments of humor to break the tension.

Almost every genre gets mixed with romance at one point or another. People add a romantic subplot to almost any kind of story.

I've seen horror stories that have early scenes where they build it up like some terrible thing is about to happen, the axe murderer is about to jump out and kill someone or whatever ... and then suddenly it turns out no, it's little brother pulling a prank. And the audience laughs. And it accomplishes a very useful thing: It means that the next time they build up to a horror scene, the audience isn't quite sure if this one will turn out to be another false alarm or if it will be real. If done well, it increases the tension because, like in real life, the audience doesn't KNOW that there is a crazed axe murderer.

Of course if overdone, if we never get to the real horror, the audience is going to feel disappointed and cheated. If every scene of horror is followed by cheap laughs, it breaks the mood.

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There's a difference between what might be acceptable in an academic program, to the specific requirements of the teacher, and what might do well on the open market. The plain fact is that the comedy-inflected horror series Scream, and its accompanying parody series Scary Movie (horror-themed comedy) both did extremely well at the box-office. The Addams Family, in all its variations, iterations and imitations, was also a huge fan favorite, as are the works of Edward Gorey. Stephen King is known as the master of the terrifying, but his works tend to be salted with a fair amount of humor.

But horror is not to everyone's tastes --personally, I can neither read it nor watch it. And comedy horror can be particularly stomach-churning if it seems to make light of the truly horrific. It may be that your former professor just found your work too distasteful (from his or her own perspective) to even react to.My recommendation is that you deploy your humor strategically, with just a little bit of it to lighten the mood between horrors. A full-on blend of the two is just going to come across as psychopathic, and while there's actually an audience for that, it's a niche one, and not necessarily one you want. (Or maybe you do.)

It's also worth noting that the more challenging your subject matter, the better a writer you have to be to make readers inclined to go on the journey. People may not like a ham-fisted, poorly written sentimental romance, but they'll treat in a little more kindly than a ham-fisted, poorly written piece about a serial killer. The more distressing the material, the better the writing needs to be to make up for it. It may be that your teacher made a snap judgement that your piece wasn't going to qualify, and wasn't willing to go any further with it.

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    Would Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho be an example which works? It's definitely not niche. But not exactly horror. – Nigel Touch May 30 '18 at 19:24
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    @NigelTouch I'm not sure why you don't consider it a niche book/film. It was successful and influential, but it was also dropped by its original publisher, banned in several countries, and considered critically polarizing. It definitely wasn't a "mainstream" hit. It's also worth noting that it's more "thriller" than "horror." – Chris Sunami supports Monica May 30 '18 at 21:47
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    What do you think of the professor giving a poor grade just because theyou don't personally care for the story? Shouldn't a teacher strive for a more objective method of grading? I admit that there's some natural subjectivity in writing, but they should provide constructive criticism. – Barmar Jun 1 '18 at 0:59
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    @Barmar Eh, if I read a few paragraphs and found my stomach churning, I might do the same thing. I've definitely read things so distasteful I wasn't inclined to give them a fair shake, – Chris Sunami supports Monica Jun 1 '18 at 2:44
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The Novel is the author's world and only the author's

Personally I don't see a problem in mixing genres like that. I think, that most genres could handle a bit of mixing with other genres. What is so wrong about humor in a horror novel?

If I recall right, the "Discworld" Series from Terry Pratchett mixed several genres and it is a pretty awesome series (in my opinion).

Too many people stiffen on the facts "A xy novel should only contain xy elements". This is the opinion that makes most of the novels pretty boring after a while.

It is the author's decision what to write and how to write it. It is the author's world and not that of others.

It all depends on the acceptance of the readers, if mixing genres is okay or not. And that is everything about try and error. There is no general rule, cause taste is something, that is different from reader to reader and even the same genre could create different reactions, even if the reader likes it.

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I would start with the same premise that Galastel mentions in a previous answer - that horror and humor are both about tension. However, I don't think they are opposed. In fact, both horror and humor rely on building and releasing tension. Humor releases tension with a laugh, horror releases tension with a scare. Both can also work with setting up an expectation and then subverting it. And both can also involve juxtaposing the everyday with something else: the terrifying, the absurd, or both.

The laughs and scares can be more of a relief or more shocking in horror/humor combinations, because the reader can notice the build of tension, and will expect a release, but they don't know the direction of the release. It could be a laugh or a scare, so they are kept on their toes and whichever happens, the impact can be much stronger.

I remember reading a book of Boris Vian's short stories a few years ago and really feeling like I was emotionally gut punched by a few of the stories because the silly, whimsical style of his writing contrasted so hard with the grotesque situations he was writing about. ("Blues for a Black Cat" was the anthology, if you're interested.) My reaction to the horror of these stories would not have been so strong and memorable if I hadn't been laughing at the wordplay on the previous page.

If you want a recommendation, go find and watch as many episodes of "Inside No. 9" as you can. (Hopefully you live in the UK or have access to a region 2 DVD player.) In my opinion, Reese Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton are masters of the horror/humor combo, and while this series is a bit niche, it's also incredibly highly rated by reviewers, so clearly they're doing something right. It's an anthology series so some episodes are almost all horror and some almost all humor, but there are a lot that mix the two in more equal measure.

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There should be no problem with mixing genres. Genres are merely a publishing convention. That being said, some readers will dislike it, especially horror and humor.

However, one of my favorite series is Charles Stross' "Laundry Files." This is horror with dark humor. It mixes world-ending horror with spies with the bureaucracy of the civil service with computer geeks and parody/pastiche (the second book is one of the best James Bond pastiche's I've ever read). The premise of the series is that magic is a computational function and that by running the wrong program you can summon really nasty things from other dimensions. Everybody who discovers that magic exists is given a job that they can't refuse. Sometimes if they are safe, they will be allowed to go free, under a really strong geas.

But it's the humor of the series that really gets me. The hero is a computer geek (well, at the start, over the many books his character evolves) is an everyman compute geek. After being given a job at the Laundry he lives in a flat in London with two even geekier workmates, Pinky and the Brain. In one book, there is a hilarious chase scene with the main characters rushing about in a recently restored WWII Kettenkrad. His wife is the wielder of the White Violin, a very powerful occult weapon; its case has the sticker: "This Machine Kills Demons." Because of the anti-discrimination laws of England, a committee gives the acronym "PHANG" (Photogolic Hemophagic Anagathic Neurotropic and the "G" was stuck on there) to their vampire employees. In one book a young woman is killed and imitated by an extra-dimensional being, and would be horrifying if it weren't so cute!

These are just the short jokes I remember. There are other longer ones. I also love the code names they give to things. If you read it, start at the beginning and go forward. The books were published in chronological order.

I will say, however, that very few series have kept this sort of thing up. I've seen it more in short stories.

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The problem is that you are mixing two fundamentally different genres. If I want to read a funny story I am not in the mood for horror - I want jokes and the problem of not laughing out while on the bus. If I am reading horror I don't want all the suspense to be resolved by some joke that leaves me hanging in regards to finding out who the murderer/monster/... is.

I can give some advice from a gaming perspective. When playing an RPG in a horror setting you have to be careful about not having only horror. It becomes dull and less interesting very fast. You know there will be a blood bath around the next corner. You know there will be someone or something munching on someone. You know there will be another murder victim when the telephone rings. That's why you are trying to lossening the tension by using a few jokes every now and then. The horror becomes more horrific when you can contrast it with the normality and safety of an environment that allows jokes and funny scenes.

It's the same as if you are portraying your charcters as having a good life before "the incident" or something similar. The higher they are in the beginning, the deeper they can fall.

And by making it look like they can make it back to the top again you are giving them hope - only to crush it again in a horrific way. It's not a constant way down. It's the ups and downs that are interesting.

But you are doing this in relatively safe circumstances for the characters. When the group is at home during the day for example. Everything's bright, there is no time pressure, they have some room to breath. Now is the time for someone to lighten up the mood a bit with a joke here and there.

But when night comes around and your characters are being chased by the crazy psychopaths you need concentration and attention - something funny distracts, doesn't fit the current situation and is overall more of nuisance than a welcome diversion.

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The problem with combining comedy with horror is that it is very difficult to combine both elements in the same entity. Fear and laughter are emotions which cancel each other out. When you make something funny, it's no longer scary. When you make someting scary, it's no longer funny.

So if you want to combine both horror and comedy in the same work, you need to compartmentalize. Whenever you introduce a new character, setting or prop, decide if it goes into the "scary" or the "funny" category.

You might be able to switch something from one category to the other once by "revealing its true nature" (the scary element turns out to be harmless comedy relief, the funny element suddenly turns out to be dangerous). But if you do it more than once with the same entity, it loses impact.

When you write a scene, decide if it's a scary scene or a funny scene, and then commit to that. You can alternate between scary and funny scenes. This is called Mood Whiplash and can be a great tool to make both feel more intense. But do not try to have both at the same time.

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Humor is thought to be a coping mechanism by behaviors studies experts (ironically those who study humor tend to be very unfunny. The observation is that scientifically studying humor tends to operate like disecting a frog: It's certainly possible and frequently done, but the subject of the study (humor or the Frog) tends to be destroyed in the process.

That said, many a non-comedy offer a plethora of humerous moments, be they dark or just wacky. Ask a Lawyer what the best Legal film is, and you'll get "My Cousin Vinny" which is a comedy about a lawyer who is defending two clients in a capital murder case (you might ask, where's the funny in that? But the central gag is that it's mocking a culture clash between Vinny, a man so full of Brooklyn Italian American Rage, he could only be played by Joe Peshi, and the jurisdiction the case is in, rural Alabama. The legal humor is more from Vinny's lack of court room decorum but over abundance in skill. He doesn't look the part of a competent defense attorney, but he can find the whole in any story like the best of them).

Other examples are Marvel Movies which are humerous. If first prompted for a genre, they're clearly Superhero-films. But Marvel doesn't approach them in that way. Marvel movies tend to be genre films first, featuring a superhero. Iron-Man is a Tech Thriller, Captain America is a Period War Film, and then a political action-spy thriller. Thor is an Urban Fantasy as seen from the point of view of a character more suited to a Sword and Sorcery Fantasy and elements of Planetary Romance (especially in Ragnarock). Guardians of the Galaxy is a Space Opera with a helping of Comedy because there is no other way to do a foul-mouthed Racoon and a tree who's native language comprises of four words yet is still understood (ala Chewbacca's grunts). Ant Man was sold by it's director as a heist film, Ms. Marvel was a 90s-action throw back (it's casting and alien menace made for plenty of homages to 90s hits). Dr. Strange is a more straight Urban Fantasy ala Harry Potter. Spider-man were homages of teen dramas and comedies (Home coming and Far From Home respectively). The second film also includes elements of a Road Trip film and mocks the Infinity War films, by showing some more down to earth repercussions to Thanos' snap (almost all played for humor). The Avengers Films are really the only straight superhero films, but they require humor because the characters are all out of genre. And Infinity War was a Superhero film from the Villain's Point of View (Thanos has more screen time then Iron Man and Captain America combined). Humor works it's way into all the films examples to mesh with unique premises. Iron Man's humor is built around Tony being anything but the humble Clark Kent dual identity. Either hero or civillian, Tony is always flashy. Captain America gets a lot of humor playing of the characters moralistic view of the world, where in the first one, he gets a lot of jokes at his expense in that he's used for propaganda but not actually fighting the good fight. The sequels play a lot on the fact that his black and white view of the world is naive for his genre. Endgame puts this front and center by showing a recently thawed Captain America fight one that has become a lot more jaded in a short decade... and who finds his past self annoying to boot. Guardians of the Galaxy draws much of its humor from a human from constantly pointing out that theses personalities are not what comes to mind when you think Guardians of the Galaxy and that they are more of a dysfunctional family then the best heroes of space (one of the enduring humorous elements of Fantastic Four was that they behaved like a nuclear family with misbehaved children and clueless parents then a team of heroes). Thor's humor is based on his High Fantasy hero bravado meeting an actual real world response. It helps that his constant villain is a trickster god.

Again, none of these are billed as comedy, but none of them are devoid of humor. In fact, Endgame was probably the least humorous marvel film to my reconning, and even then, it's entire second act is mocking it's previous works with glee.

And that goes in reverse too. Some comedy films are done in a "laugh with, not at" style that makes the humor based around the audience's familiar genre getting a loving prod of laughter. Ask any Star Trek fan what the best star Trek film of the 1990s was, and you won't search long until you find someone who earnestly shouts "Galaxy Quest" as his answer, which is a film that mocked Star Trek's well known cliches and back stage drama, but the conflict of the story centers around the show's disillusioned actors coming to realize that the show was loved, warts and all, because the premise of a bright future where people worked together despite cultural differences was something worth fighting for. A more modern Star Trek Spoof, "The Orville" takes the premise in that while Star Trek is at times too flawless, it's optamistic outlook and parable like stories allowed people to re-evaluate their views on the subject from a point of view removed from modern politics. Much of Orivill's humor is based on people of the future finding positive ideals from unlikely sources the audience is familiar with. For example, who's the Captain's role model from fiction, a humble leader who leads a motley crew of characters governed by their odd personality traits? Kermit the Frog. The humor is Kermit is not the first person called to mind when prompted to name such a character... but it's not wrong to describe him like that. In another episode, one alien character does a complete 180 after watching an inspiring film about an unlikely hero who defies discrimination and comes to a place of leadership in the very society that scorned his existence... Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (the claymation film). Another alien character, leads the oppressed women of her planet to demand equality by quoting a noted feminist poet from earth's diverse history of works, and dramatically recites the refraim to Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" before the Union of Planets' congress. Again, the gag works because Dolly Parton is not thought of as a feminist thought leader by the audience... but "9 to 5" is all about a working class woman who's boss fails to acknowledge her talents while, if I may be so blunt, only acknowledging her as a pair of tits. The humor is that Dolly Parton is quite well known for her assets, but that doesn't diminish that "9 to 5"'s message is not only profoundly motivating to someone who's similarly oppressed, but that the laugh relies on the audience taking the same attitude as the Boss of Dolly's work, judging her on the presentation of the message, not the message's strength. Like Kremit and Rudolph, the joke is written to put the message in mind. The Captain of The Orvill is not a brave hero in the fleet flagship leading the best of the best at his crew, he's a man who has to lead a group of people with issues and inspire them to do something more. Like Star Trek before it, Ruldolph takes the alien to a place that explains that just because some one is physically deformed, it does not mean one is incapable of being a good person and does not automatically convey weakness. For the leader of oppressed women, she has no mental image of Dolly Parton and is thus able to accurately point out that by laughing at the joke, the audience have judged Parton on her appearence, not on her merit. Parton's attarctive appearance and southern twang are not the appearence of a wise preacher of wisdom to most humans watching the show. But if such a person says something that is an accepted truth, does their appearance make it less so? After all, to the people who loved Star Trek, did the fact that the ship wasn't real and the daring heroes were actors playing pretend detract from the profound truth they spoke? Picard's famous "With Each Link, the Chain is Forged" soliloquy is just as valid a point as "They just use your mind and don't give you any credit, its enough to make you crazy if you let it."

The joke then asks the serious question: are you laughing at our bizzare comparison... or your own small mind for never considering that it's a sound argument? And if that's the case, what other ideas do you scoff at because of the people discussing them?

As a loving family man who had a gift for bringing out the best in other people once said, "A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Sometimes, it's the only weapon we have." He was also a character from a comedy blended with a serious genre... and is considered a resounding successful example of both of it's genres.

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The problem, psychologically speaking, is that horror is intrinsically alienating while humor is intrinsically identifying. Humor brings us closer to characters, where horror drives us away to the position of hapless onlookers. If the two are mixed badly, it can end up implicitly asking the reader to identify with the horror, as though the horror were something good and right and normal. At best that effect is distasteful and disquieting; at worst it comes across as downright psychopathic. This isn't to say the two genres can't be mixed, but it would be a delicate task.

We can't underestimate the moral dimension. Readers always read from an implicit moral worldview. Horror violates that moral worldview (in any of a number of ways) but makes the violation seem overwhelming, an oncoming juggernaut that looms larger as the story progresses. Humor is a moral judgement: an ability to express a moral compass even (or especially) in contexts that have gone morally haywire. Finding a balance between those two moral imperatives is a challenge.

If I'm remembering the novel correctly, you might want to look at "The Dwarf", by Pär Lagerkvist. As I recall, it had a lot of dark humor and a truly evil main character. Perhaps not truly horror, but Lagerkvist is worth studying.

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