Carol’s analysis of horror and comedy makes the argument that the two genres are dualities – two sides of the same coin, albeit with very different emotional responses. Using some of his rhetoric, I’d like to examine a particular instance of the horror-comedy genre: Shawn of the Dead
To begin, I’d like to discuss the notion of horror, revulsion and the uncanny. Carol calls out Freud’s thesis on the “Uncanny”, and how the uncanny is described as repressed feelings that are brought to the forefront. “Dirt” or “matter out of place” is also referenced. How exactly do these ideas of repression and dirt translate into monsters that evoke a horrific response? Granted, Carol discussed that horrific monsters are also seen as creatures that can deliver psychological or physical harm, but there’s a metaphor here that runs much deeper.
As my vehicle for horror and revulsion, I’ll choose the Zombie, a popular character in books, TV, and video games (I saw Jon’s post earlier). The Zombie originates from the Haitian word “Zombi”, although the Holywood version we’ve seen since “White Zombie” and “Night of the Living Dead” is quite different from how the Zombi was perceived in Haiti. The Zombi is a creature that has returned from the dead – already an unnatural occurrence. When we think about “matter out of place”, we can draw parallels to the dead rising from their final resting place – most would find it disturbing to see dead bodies walking along the sidewalk or shopping in the mall. We have a distinct idea of what happens to a body – and where it should go – after life has expired. Granted, there are many different burial rituals, but there is a place for that body to be laid to rest. When it resurfaces in the form of a zombie, that body has become “matter out of place” and is both uncanny and disturbing.
Although Haitian zombis did come back from the dead, they came back in an altogether different way – they came back as slaves. Zombis were typically fed a poison mixed by a Voodoo priest, which caused them to die and then re-animate as a slave. People who became Zombis were typically social outcasts – people who had been declared “socially dead” and repressed from society. This repression was made whole through the Zombi ritual, as the person was forced to die and become a societal slave. There are societal and political parallels as well, considering that Haiti was occupied by several nations before revolting for their freedom.
In short, we perceive something as horrific because it is unnatural. The “uncanny valley” describes this phenomenon in showing how poor emulations of the human form ultimately end up as horrific. They attempt to appropriate human qualities, yet they are not human. This is where comedy can come into play, turning the horrific into comedic by incongruity. We expect the monster to act in a particular way, and when that expectation is reversed, so is our emotional reaction. Here’s a clip from Shawn of the Dead that demonstrates this:
As the audience, we are revolted by the zombie, and the tension builds up the the moment that Simon Pegg looks at the girl with horror and says “Oh my god… she’s so drunk!”
Instantly, an incongruity is created. What was uncanny has become uncanny once more. There is another reversal, and a horrific situation has become comedic. This is continued throughout the film as the characters act in ways we do not expect them too. The monsters are never rendered physically “harmless” – but we project our own experience into the main characters as they try – with little success – to destroy the creatures. Carol says that the “boundary line between horror and incongruity is drawn in terms of fear”. By acting in ways no sane human would act in this particular situation, the actors effectively render the situation comedic. The zombies are no less dangerous, but their terror is tempered against characters that act in completely unexpected ways (i.e. taking a picture of a zombie that has just had a hole put through its chest, or hitting the creatures with pool cues while Queen blares in the background). Even Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are a physical incongruity, which is made fully realized in one of the final scenes as Frost becomes a Zombie that plays video games and lives in Pegg’s shed. But utilizing these incongruities, Shawn of the Dead walks the line of horror and comedy, mixing both to create it’s overall experience.