An interesting question came across my Twitter feed from JRD Skinner (@JRD Skinner, flashpulp.com) today:
Does “Heathers” count as horror? This question led to a cool three-way chat where the idea was kicked around. I’ll go on record saying that it is, because Heathers is a potent black comedy, and black comedy overlaps very strongly with horror.
Heathers has a number of ‘horror’ elements, including a (simulated) hanging, poisoning someone with drain cleaner, gun murders and attempting shootings, several corpse displays, dead people interacting with the living, a girl’s face getting shoved into a communion font full of worms, significant amounts of blood near the end, and an attempted school bombing. Just because it’s funny doesn’t mean it isn’t scary!
Films like Shaun of the Dead (social failure manifested as zombies) Man Bites Dog (“reality television” and the rise of abhorrent individuals as “celebrities”), They Live (80’s-era Republican social policies), Videodrome (television, mass media, and the dissolve of the individual under technological assault), The Stuff (consumerism and environmental destruction) and the Romero zombies (consumerism, racism and body terrors) are examples of the strong social satire element lurking within films often labeled “horror”. Even the original Buffy: The Vampire Slayer movie is often labeled a horror/comedy. A quick Wikipedia check shows that comedy and horror have been intertwined since the 1920’s at least.
Satire is the living, beating heart of horror – part of its sinews, deep in the bones.
Many of the iconic horror films have at least a vein of social satire running through them. It’s also a truism that horror films and novels go in waves in context to the underlying cultural fears of the time.
From the 50’s atomic panics that created kaiju films (the original Godzilla is Japan’s attempt to process the horror of the atomic bomb) and McCarthy-era body snatcher invasions, to America’s attempt to process post-9/11 feelings through films like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and Cloverfield, horror allows us to confront That Which Scares Us.
Horror dresses our deepest social nightmares in bloody, lumbering metaphors to force us to confront them. Satire mocks and degrades the underlying social structures that support them. It seems only natural that these two impulses dovetail so often, and that comedy and horror should live together in the same body.