WiHM 12: The Humor of Horror
The Humor of Horror
By: Kathrin Hutson
This may seem like a bit of an odd place to start, writing about humor and horror at the same time. I am, however, a huge fan of dichotomies and turning tropes on their heads. The last time I had the privilege of writing for The Horror Tree, I did very much the same thing—comparing the darkness and intensity of what I write with the upbeat, light-filled, perfectly happy person I am in my daily life. There’s a balance that has to be maintained when we’re writing anything, especially a genre like horror or any dark fiction that has a propensity for sucking us down into unexplored emotional territory (oftentimes intentionally unexplored).
This balance with the humor of horror appears in the actual writing or creating of any dark, grueling, terrifying work of art, no matter the medium.
I know I’m not the only person on the planet who uses humor as a defense mechanism. Sarcasm and buffoonery used to be my go-to reactions to anything that felt too hard, too scary, too uncomfortable to handle. And I ended up stuffing away all that discomfort beneath a veneer of being “the funny girl.” Boy, did that ever backfire. I lost a lot of friends, credibility, and trust that way, and in the last ten years since coming back from my own darkest days as a heroin addict, I’ve ditched the humor-as-a-defense and have managed to filter it out into a lighthearted authenticity that says a lot more about who I am now (or so I’ve been told).
Until just recently with the writing of The Witching Vault, the first book in my new Dark Urban Fantasy series Accessory to Magic, I’d never truly stopped to consider how much more poignant stories can be when that humor is incorporated into fiction. Yes, even seriously dark, violent, brooding, bloody, chaotic, action-packed, horrifying fiction.
I’ve realized over the last few months of working on this series just how prevalent humor can be and is within the darkness. As a defense mechanism for my characters, of course. But also as a defense mechanism for my readers.
I think about the Friday nights of my high-school career spent at the movie theater with my friends. Just a group of six Goth kids spending what little money we had on tickets for horror movies (and admittedly sneaking those of us who couldn’t afford tickets through the back door). We hit up Saw (and Saw II and Saw III), Amityville Horror, Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, The Omen, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Grudge, Dawn of the Dead, and of course Shawn of the Dead. And I remember sitting down in these theaters late at night, hardly anyone else in there with us, laughing our butts off at the blood splatter and the idiot moves the characters made to “investigate”. Because everyone knows one never opens the door to see what dark terror lies behind it and lives to warn the others.
But that was the point. The laughter. Groaning in mock frustration and throwing popcorn at the giant movie screen because we were protecting ourselves. Of course, as teenagers, nobody wanted to be the one who jumped in their seat or covered their eyes. Those of us who did couldn’t live it down until we had a chance to redeem ourselves with the next trip to the theater.
And I’ve found through my own writing over the last few months that this same humor within the horror is almost essential. As a defense and egoic protection, sure, but also as a way to deliver the messages I’m always trying to deliver through my work—especially to those who might otherwise not be willing to hear them or even crack open my books in the first place.
The humor is what saves us from falling too deeply into the horror that we can’t pick ourselves up out of it again. It brings a level of both reality and absurdity to the “impossible” of fiction. It allows us an escape, a tether back to the reality of our own lives that we can hold onto like a rock climber ties themselves to the firmly anchored top rope. So we don’t fall.
Don’t get me wrong. I used humor in all the wrong ways when I was younger, and it didn’t save me from falling. Honestly, it probably just hastened that descent into my own personal darkness. But now, I find myself truly enjoying the use of it in my dark fiction more than I ever expected. As far as I’ve heard, my readers have enjoyed the snark and sharp wit of these characters thrust into impossible and terrifying situations more than any of us anticipated, so I can only assume I’m doing something right.
It has to be done right—that balance between humor and darkness. As a moment of relief after a pulse-pounding action scene. As a way for characters to connect with each other over the horrifying experiences they’ve just faced, possibly bungled, but still somehow survived. And as a way for all of us to push through what feel like tremendously dark days of our own, personally and as a wider collective.
I like to say that if I can’t laugh at myself, I’m taking things way too seriously. When I first started exploring what that meant, the “laughing at myself” was all self-deprecating. Now, I prefer to laugh with myself, because I know what lies on the other side of those dark days.
And if we don’t have a little laughter before there’s actual room to breathe, we might never make it. I say that only because I almost didn’t make it. But now I get to use the balancing act between the humor and the horror to help my characters—and the readers who love them—to see themselves through with a little more strength and hope. What more could any of us ask for, really?
International Bestselling Author Kathrin Hutson has been writing Dark Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and LGBTQ Speculative Fiction since 2000. With her wildly messed-up heroes, excruciating circumstances, impossible decisions, and Happily Never Afters, she’s a firm believer in piling on the intense action, showing a little character skin, and never skimping on violent means to bloody ends.
In addition to writing her own dark and enchanting fiction, Kathrin spends the other half of her time as a fiction ghostwriter of almost every genre, as Fiction Co-Editor for Burlington’s Mud Season Review, and as Director of TopShelf Interviews for TopShelf Magazine. She is a member of both the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. Kathrin lives in Vermont with her husband, their young daughter, and their two dogs, Sadie and Brucewillis.
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