WiHM 12: Finding Humor in What Scares You by Lana Cooper
Title: Finding Humor in What Scares You
by Lana Cooper
I come from a long line of people who crack jokes at inappropriate times as a coping mechanism. Throughout my childhood, my parents always found the humor in seemingly dire situations. When Dad’s hours got cut at the factory, Mom joked that at least she wouldn’t have to worry about him spending money.
When my younger brother was beaten up in the school bathroom by a bully, Mom made up a song parody to the tune of “Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” recounting my brother’s assault in verse. It made him laugh after a harrowing experience and gave us something to do as we figured out what action to take.
When I ran afoul of the nuns during my stint in Catholic school for reading Stephen King novels and trashy tabloids during Sustained Silent Reading, Dad encouraged me to take it with a grain of salt, saying, “Don’t worry, kiddo! They’ll kick you out soon enough! You’ll be back with your friends in public school before you know it. Don’t let them stop you from being you.”
It was my parents’ knack for finding humor in situations that seemed scary to a kid (or an adult, for that matter) that reinforced the power of laughter to help you regain the upper hand when things seem out of control. While my parents often leaned on gallows humor during situations that most would never find funny, it was the ability to elicit laughter that gave them a moment of pause – to make a plan and take action to protect those they loved and to make sure everyone was safe and in good spirits.
Fast-forward years later when my mother was in the hospital for Whipple surgery for pancreatic cancer, Dad kept cracking “Code Brown” bedpan jokes in the waiting room whenever there was an announcement on the hospital intercom system. While Mom was undergoing a grueling eight-hour surgery, poop humor was something that Dad leveraged to divert our minds from the grim possibility that she might not make it.
Two years later, I remember being at my disco-loving mother’s viewing and noting the irony that we were playing “Staying Alive” from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (one of her favorites) shortly before we buried her. It wasn’t lost on me just how much Mom herself would have laughed at that twist.
All of those experiences reinforced for me that finding the humor in what scares you is like throwing a flashlight on the dark corners, exposing what’s there – or what’s not. I think it’s why I’ve always been drawn to the intersection of horror and humor in the stories I write.
What Scares the Things That Scare Us?
Horror is all about anticipation, the highs and lows that build toward a fever pitch and ultimate resolution. Weaving comic relief into a horror story can help ease the tension and lower the reader’s defenses so that when a boogeyman (or woman) rears its head, it’s all the more terrifying. Similarly, humor can be a weapon or defense mechanism in allowing your protagonists to find the wherewithal to triumph over evil.
If humor can catch a reader off guard or be weaponized by a monster-fighting protagonist, it also calls for established ropes to be turned on their heads. As a writer, you can certainly look to folklore or conjure up a relic to help defeat an evil force in your creation. Humor and using it to subvert evil also forces you as a writer to think: what scares the things that scare us?”
Historically, chilling tales of vampires have existed from ancient times in Mesopotamia through Europe in the Middle Ages to the present. While some might argue that tales of these blood drinkers have reached peak saturation in the horror genre, there’s still plenty of opportunity to find the fright in these creatures – and the humor.
When writing my short story, “The Middle-Aged Vampire’s Guide to Un-Living” (and working to adapt it to a screenplay), I spun it from the perspective of wondering what would scare a vampire who has lived for over four centuries. Drawing upon the lore in Whitley Streiber’s The Hunger, I thought about vampires who aged rapidly without explanation – the feeling of dread as your power and beauty slipped away, leaving just an eternally living husk.
I thought about that horrifying premise, but also wanted to make the story funny and explain why its protagonist was aging. Over 25 years ago, Stan Valentin, a centuries old vampire, was cursed by a succubus to age as a mortal man with all the drawbacks of vampirism and none of the perks. That’s right: no superhuman strength, speed, eternal youth, or ability to compel humans to do his bidding. Instead, he still has to feast on blood, avoid sunlight, and finds himself growing paunchy, balding, and droopy.
Suffice to say, Stan didn’t handle this lifestyle change very well. Compounding the issue was the fact that he has few marketable skills and is desperately trying to hang in on the acting game. Decades prior, he was a stunt man for silent film star, Rudolph Valentino. As the decades progressed, he had a few leading roles in straight-to-home-video horror flicks. Now, post-curse, Stan can barely get a gig as an extra. When your looks are one of your only redeeming attributes and you’re forced to get by without them, it’s a terrifying prospect for a creature of the night.
As far as tropes go, it’s usually considered a “feminine” trait to have a character obsessed with aging or losing their looks. Part of the fun of horror is subverting those tropes and trying to find something fresh in the process. So, it was fun to create a vampire with just a smidge of Norma Desmond-style delusions of grandeur thrown in.
Vampires and The Golden Girls? An Unlikely Connection
From a less fantastical angle, a vampire can be a metaphor for a narcissist or unsavory person who creeps back into your life to wreak havoc when you least expect it – unless you’re prepared to block them out. While vampires may suck your blood, narcissists can drain your energy and take what they need before they scurry off.
One of the clues to the inspiration for vampire Stan Valentin lies within his name: Stan. Now that “stan” has become a verb entrenched in our popular lexicon (I stan, you stan, we stan, he stans, she stans, they stan), I would like to point out that Stan Zbornak of The Golden Girls is just as applicable to the term as Eminem’s “Stan.” Both are presences that don’t quite get the hint and keep hanging around. However, only one requires a toupee.
Although Stan Valentin can be repelled from a home with garlic bulbs, Stan Zbornak isn’t as easily deterred. Similarly, if you ever want to see the normally unflappable Dorothy Zbornak get rattled, no words inspire more unease and anxiety than, “Hi. It’s me. Stan,” the familiar introduction that her philandering ex utters every time he shows up at her door. (It’s also worth noting that although she never appeared in a horror flick, no one exemplifies witty “Final Girl” energy like Bea Arthur.)
Much like his human inspiration, every time vampiric Stan Valentin materializes in his own sorceress ex’s life, he’s always in need of a favor or for her to bail him out of a jam. Because, sometimes, not even several hundred years of un-life can bring self-awareness or a willingness to accept personal responsibility when things go wrong.
Now that’s pretty scary.
Why Horror Needs Humor
While horror and humor seem to sit at the opposite end of the spectrum, they have a lot more in common than first looks would indicate. Laughter and terror are both extreme responses to scenarios. And you need light in order to cast a shadow.
While dark, foreboding horror that doesn’t have a happy ending certainly has its place and can leave a lasting impression (and a few night terrors in its wake), given the current state of the world, there’s something to be said for horror that casts a ray of hope. And finding the humor in horror just might do the trick!
Lana Cooper doesn’t usually talk about herself in the third person, but makes an exception when writing an author bio. In 2014, she published her first novel, Bad Taste In Men, a coming-of-age tale for awkward geeks who grew up in the ’90s. Steeped in horror and humor, her short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including Campfire Macabre and Enter the Apocalypse: Vol. 1. You can read more of her work on her blog, DelightfullyDysfunctional.com and connect with her on Instagram @delightfullydysfunctional.