Spectator Subjectivity Within the Horror Comedy Genre
There is both horror in humor and humor in horror. The two genres are basically antitheses of each other, and yet when fused together offer an entirely new experience. This dynamic is possible within Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) and Cabin in the Woods(Drew Goddard, 2012) because the emotional reaction of the spectator lies within that of the main character protagonists. The relationship between humor and horror in bothScream and Cabin in the Woodscreates a nuanced experience of subjectivity through referential meanings, self-awareness, misguided tropes, and ill-judged omnipotence.
Spectators enjoy horror movies so much because they know what will happen, the movie’s classic formula. The awareness of what is to come in a horror movie makes the movie more enjoyable because the viewer feels smart and well versed in the universe. Though the spectator is often seemingly omniscient, which creates dramatic irony, he is ultimately aligned with the main character. Cabin in the Woodsdirector Drew Goddard plays with this idea of fusing trope and referentiality. The introduction of self-awareness reinforces the movie’s element of referential meaning. The most self-aware character is the exaggerated stoner, Marty, who first figures out that something is awry. However, because of how stoned he is, he cannot be certain something spooky is amiss enough to make a grounded argument to his unbeknownst friends. Spectators, at this beginning part of the movie, are also uncertain of the exact plot and experience the horror skeptically with Marty. A disembodied voice whispered, “I’m going to go for a walk,” to Marty (and the viewer) alone. Marty reply-shouts into the darkness that he swears that somebody is talking, but then refutes his stance with “I’m pretty sure someone is”. Spectators enjoy the movie even more because the characters they are watching are reacting in time with them.
Though the spectator is often seemingly omniscient, which creates dramatic irony, he is ultimately aligned with the protagonists that are not. Because the spectator knows more than these main characters, it forces the viewer into the ideology that he knows what is going to happen next. This theory allows the spectator to relax and simply laugh at the mysterious goings-on that go unexplained to the characters. Then, to the viewer’s horror, it is revealed he did not posses all the information. Screamis riddled with plot twists. Killers, Stu and Billy reveal themselves as such after their convincing portrayal as main character, Sidney’s best friends. Because of this plot twist, just as Sidney did, spectators feel betrayed, as she was so confident not in who the killer was, but who it was not.
The movie is also wildly and implicitly self-aware in this scene. “Watch a few movies, take a few notes. It was fun,” Stu recalls as the two killers explain their lack of motive in the killings. Stu and Billy, of course, ultimately fail in the murdering of Sidney and others. This quote from the movie and its ending imply that film spectators truly do not know the whole truth or every piece of information to decipher what will eventually happen in movies. Average spectators and film theorists alike cannot accurately determine the events in a movie no matter how seemingly simple the plot. “I don’t really believe in motives, Sid. Did Norman Bates have a motive? Nope. Did they ever decide why Hannibal Lecter liked to eat people? Don’t think so,” Billy adds. This comment references other killers in comparison to Stu and Billy. Also, it is noteworthy that the director of Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), the movie that introduced Norman Bates as a killer, regards the film as a comedy, saying that there was a very fine line between getting someone to laugh and getting someone to scream (Carroll, 146). Carroll also illustrates that Silence of the Lambs could be interpreted not as a horror film as Hannibal Lecter “is only a psychotic…rather than a monster” (148). Stu and Billy base their fundamentals in movies they have seen similarly to the way spectators can identify tropes and clichés in films.
Tropes are another way to enjoy a genre. Though certain horror movie tropes are so monumental and cult followed that it may be easy to dismiss them as crazy fan theories, crazy fans are the ones who create these movies. Nobody makes a horror movie who does not like and enjoy horror. Playing with tropes is a fun way for horror-comedies to get the spectators on their side as if to say “hey ya know that thing you like, here it is!!” And it is not the clichés that spectators are familiar with that get them laughing; it is the sort of out-of-place nuances that are funny. The force field preventing the gang in Cabin in the Woodsfrom escaping the horror simulation is hilarious. This is not a trope, nor is it innately scary or funny. Its sheer divulgence from what spectators knew this movie to be surprises them. It is sudden and it is sidesplitting to watch the brawny and handsome Curt (Chris Hemsworth) slowly fall to his death seconds after believing him to be the savior and the leader of the group, just as the other characters did. Therefore, spectators can both laugh and cry in the familiarity of the tropes as a frequent movie indulger and the shock when the clichés are not as they seem subjectively. So, what is funny in the horror-comedy is both its loyalty to the genres and its nuances to them.
As discussed in class, a horror movie is categorized as such if its characters display fear. “Specifically, such fictions are generally designed to control and guide our emotional responses in such a way that, ideally, horror audiences are supposed to react emotionally to the monsters featured in horror fictions in the same manner that the characters in horror fictions react emotionally to the monsters they meet there,” Carroll adds (149). Therefore, spectators and characters alike share reactions to the story’s events. This notion immediately forces the spectator to identify with those portraying frightful emotions, often the protagonist and not the killer. In this way, it is easy to understand why the rug feels pulled out from underneath a spectator who feels like he knew all of the killer’s plans and intentions, but was actually identifying with those who did not. This revelation comes to the spectator by surprise, but not to his horror. Instead, like the reaction to misguided tropes, self-awareness, and referential meanings, the spectator should identify with the protagonists and their emotions.
“That is, with horror fictions, ideally, the emotional responses of the audience to the monster are meant to mimic the emotional responses of the human characters in the fiction to the monsters therein,” Carroll claims (149). Horrific and comedic elements within the same movie elicit respective emotional responses within the spectators. Though seemingly opposite reactions, both horror and laughable realizations are presented on screen by main character protagonists as ones to mimic. Both Scream (1996) and Cabin in the Woods(Goddard, 2012) contain elements of referential meanings, self-awareness, misguided tropes, and ill-judged omnipotence, which ultimately force the spectators to identify with the protagonists.
Carroll, Noel. “Horror and Humor.” Beyond Aesthetics, vol. 57, no. 2, 1999, pp. 146–160., doi:10.1017/cbo9780511605970.016.