What Is Horror Comedy?

The sky is possessed by an unearthly glow. The moon is a pale in colour and frightened. You stand beside a road cutting across the land like a rough scare of the skin of the world. Tenebrous and indescribable alien beings are eating in a nearby diner. Behind you cults practice bloody sacrifices to undying, ancient gods that sleep beneath the earth. Before you strange hooded figures perform eldritch rituals in front of a black, faceless monolith. In the background there is a pigeon. You have awoken in a world that is somewhere between reality and your nightmares. You are late for a PTA meeting. Welcome to Night Vale.

Horror and comedy sound like the complete opposites of each other. One aims to create positive feelings within the viewer, the other unpleasant feelings. However they are both broad churches, filled with many sub-genres, some of which have more in common than is immediately apparent. Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast from Common Place Books, is only one recent example of horror and comedy meeting to great effect.

Horror and comedy have been combined several times in the past, with the emphasis sometimes leaning towards one or the other.The League of Gentleman popularised the combination in their hit sit-com for the BBC and later in a film. Channel 4 has produced Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a comedy drawing heavily on the seminal horror works of Steven King, James Herbert and Lars von Trier’s excellent horror TV show The Kingdom. Mark Z. Danielewski’s ergodic bestseller The House of Leaves falls within the horror genre but can also be read as a spoof of an academic monograph. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is a standard zombie horror movie, populated by characters from a rom-com.

What all these works have in common (aside from combining horror and comedy) is that all use a touch of the surreal to meld the two contradictory genres together. Surrealism has a long history of being successfully employed in both horror and comedy. From Monty Python’s Flying Circus to The Mighty Boosh, surrealism in comedy is well established. Many of horror’s greatest authors use surrealist elements in their stories, from the mixing of sleep and awake in the writing of HP Lovecraft to Steven King frequently giving life to inanimate objects in many of his novels.

The horror/comedy crossover genre is usually bent towards the surreal and Welcome to Night Vale is no exception. My own attempt to write a Welcome to Night Vale style opening feels more like a scene from a Francis Bacon painting than a work of conventional horror. Welcome to Night Vale draws its influences from a wide range of surrealist horror, most notable the short stories of HP Lovecraft that set the tone for the podcast.

In the American desert town of Night Vale, a community radio station gives regular updates of local news and events. However, the town is beset strange creatures and horrific events – from mysterious hooded figures and an ancient underground city, to a man in a tan jacket who no one can remember and the nameless, indescribable, monstrosity that is the station’s management. The strange thing is no one in Night Vale finds any of this unusual, however, Lovecraft’s influence is written all over the town and podcast.

It is difficult to take the writings of man who believed that space is a black-soupy liquid either, through which alien beings could swim, seriously and it is in this where Welcome to Night Vale is able to meld Lovecraft’s wired fiction horror style with surrealist comedy. It is this combination which makes Welcome to Night Vale distantly from the torture porn sub-genre of horror, popularised by the Saw movies, which is currently hugely popular with cinema goers.

It is also this unusual combination which makes it different from horror spoofs like the Scary Movie or Scream franchise. Whereas these seek to embrace the conventions of the horror genre and find humour in how ridiculous they can be, Night Vale mocks and subverts these conventions. Horror if often accused of being formulaic and so deep is this criticism that even spoof horror is formulaic in its approach.

Welcome to Night Vale is not a conventional modern horror but like House of Leaves, it feels like a breath of fresh air into a genre which too often falls back on tired formulas and generic stories. Welcome to Night Vale finds a new way of examining the horror genre and draws on the deep roots of modern horror which go back to Lovecraft. Like the best horror/comedies, it cleverly moves between the two genres, never going too far down one road or the other.

Horror/comedy is not something new and but it is a different way of thinking about horror and comedy, informed by the best cannon works of both genres. I would recommend anyone interested in either genre download Welcome to Night Vale and be amused and creeped out in equal measure. If you live in the town of Night Vale then follow the stations own advice: “turn on your radio and hide”. Goodnight Night Vale.