The new collection of essays from Lexington Books, Horrific Humor and the Moment of Droll Grimness in Cinema: Sidesplitting sLaughter “presents the first focused look at the moment in audience reception where screams and laughter collide.” Editors John A. Dowell and Cynthia J. Miller “bring together twelve essays from an international collection of authors across the disciplines.”
That’s all very well in terms of academic literature, but what that means for the film fan looking for insights into a certain subset of cinema is a little more specific. In the editors’ introduction, “The Hilarity of Terror: Toward an Understanding of sLaughter,” they more specifically define the book’s premise as looking at the “intense moment of human cognition in which one recognizes when a subjective experience — most typically in a form of signification via some media — is (subjectively) deemed funny because it is (also subjectively) deemed horrific, and only horrific because it is funny.”
Wordy, yes, but it’s not horror comedies or cognitive dissonance, but the fact that these two ideas — horror and humor — can exist in a simultaneous and complimentary state. Horror comedies are discussed, yes: Don Tresca’s essay, “‘Must I Remind You of a Little Movie Called Deliverance?: sLaughter and the Postmodern Pastiche,” for example, touches on both Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil and Cabin in the Woods.
There’s also discussion of killer clowns, the films of Troma, and the cannibalistic ‘50s in Bob Balaban’s Parents. However, Horrific Humor also looks more specifically at elements one might not normally consider. Nazis are considered in a couple of chapters, and encompass multiple viewpoints. Whether or not the “Cinenazi” of Quentin Taratino’s Inglorious Basterds might actually represent “an argumentative dead end […] actually irresponsible” is what Ben Betka postulates in “Surfing Fascists and the Masses: (Non-)Evolving Imageries of the Cinenazi,” wherein “[e]xplanations of their motives are optional and ultimately redundant.”
There is also “In the UnDead of Winter: Humor and the Horrific in Dead Snow,” wherein Cynthia J. Miller suggests that Nazi zombies work because of the contrast between the seemingly opposite characterizations of the Nazi — “controlled, precise” — and the zombie — “mindless, shambling caricatures of humanity” — has the capacity “to become vehicles of humor through their almost incomprehensible embodiment of contrast.”
Both Betka and Miller make the point that Nazis have become, essentially, divorced from their real-world origins (Betka specifically pointing to Hogan’s Heroes) into archetypes which exist in and of themselves, yet still bearing the weight of history behind them in order to achieve some semblance of instantly-obvious spectacle which is “a spectacle of social and visual horror,” as Miller puts it.
Notably, that historical contrast and elevation of a historical reality to near-parody is explored in rich detail by Ann Larabee in “Too Soon?: Laughing at Disaster on the Cinematic Titanic,” wherein the author looks at how early film versions of the 1912 Titanic sinking were rife with gallows humor, but minimized the actual visual horror of the event, but James Cameron’s Oscar-winning Titanic “for the first time […] the corpses are displayed.” As Larabee states, “It is the least humorous movie since the Nazi Titanic of 1943.” Ouch.
It’s a deep read, and although there was one essay I couldn’t get into — Ben Urish’s “sLaughter As Existential Epiphany” was just far too dry — Horrific Humor is, ultimately, a fascinating read. Beginning with Iain Ellis’ “Troma-tized by Punk,” with its explanation of how Troma utilized punk’s imagery and iconography to create “narrative onslaughts of sLaughter that echo punk’s own intrinsic parodies of outburst,” continuing with David Misch’s laugh-out-loud “Ha! / Aaah!: The Painful Relationship Between Humor and Horror,” and its droll appellations (Sigmund “Shecky” Freud, to name but one), and going all the way through Larabee’s “Too Soon?”, the reader will find one’s self looking at aspects of cinema they’d never before considered.
Horrific Humor and the Moment of Droll Grimness in Cinema: Sidesplitting sLaughter is available in hardcover and ebook from Rowman & Littlefield.