Discover more from Below the Surface
Dive 49: The Secret Connection between Comedy and Horror and Mental Health
Hey, it’s Alvin!
What if I told you that comedy and horror are one and the same?
The distinction between them is a surface-level illusion. And understanding the distinction might be the KEY to resolving a potential mental health crisis among children, teens, and adults. Because more than anything, this is about your outlook on life.
This occurred to me a while back when I was watching Markiplier (or Mark Fischbach) playing a horror game on a YouTube stream.
Now, when it comes to horror, I’m the exact opposite of whatever a “fan” is. The thought of jump scares by a half-spider-half-train beast covered in blood is repulsive. Gloomy music and spooky ambiences don’t appeal to me because I’d rather spend my precious time with happier, upbeat things.
Which is why I love Markiplier.
Mark is a fun and funny guy on screen, no matter what game he’s playing. If I played that horror game on my own, I probably would be terrified. Because I’m good at scaring myself. But the way Mark responds to the horror elements of the game completely changes how the game feels to me. Watching him play and joke makes it feel less like a horror game, and more like a comedy.
This was mind-blowing to me.
How is it one person can be terrified by something another person finds funny?
Then, I realized this is more common than you might think.
It’s said that the United States is more polarized than ever. When I speak to people from both ends of the political spectrum, I noticed they often say similar things about “the other side.” They each fear what “the other side” will do. And it’s not uncommon to hear both sides say about the other, “they’re not funny,” or, “they have no sense of humour.” This, of course, while they laugh at jokes told by their “own side,” often while poking fun at “the other side.”
But they’re really two sides of the same coin.
So, what does this have to do with comedy and horror?
Comedy and Horror have the same structure
If you think about it, comedy and horror work the same way.
They both SURPRISE you.
A funny joke has a setup that subverts your expectations, so the punchline surprises you. The surprise is supposed to make you laugh.
Here’s one by one of my favourite comedians, Mitch Hedberg:
I like an escalator, man. Because an escalator can never break. It can only become stairs.
Here, the surprise is a different way of looking at escalators. Then, Hedberg adds to this joke to paint an absurd alternate reality in your mind, so you can see it more clearly. See how he uses a mundane setup, so it contrasts with the absurdity of the alternative to land the punchline:
There would never be a “escalator temporarily out of order,” sign; only, “an escalator temporarily stairs.”
Horror also has a setup that subverts your expectations, so the terror surprises you. But this surprise is supposed to make you scared.
Imagine lying in your warm, comfy bed on a lazy, rainy night. Then…
You turn your head to see a long, tapered, metal blade sticking through a newly formed vertical crack in your wooden bedroom door. It withdraws to the other side of the door, then… BANG! There it is again, forming another jagged vertical crack in your door. And as you peer through one of the cracks to try to see who or what is on the other side, all you see is darkness.
To show you how similar comedy and horror can be, here’s the first sentence to a micro-story I found online. Can you tell whether it’s a comedy or a horror story?
Jonathan ignored the signs warning of thin ice; he loved skating on frozen ponds.
The author wrote it as horror. But if Jonathan was a bumbling idiot who fell through the ice like one of The Three Stooges, you could easily rewrite it as a comedy using the exact same intro.
The devil’s in the details.
The storyteller’s job is to tweak the characters, the plot, the setting, and everything else. By including and excluding specific details, the consumer interprets the story the way the storyteller wants.
Because the only difference between comedy and horror is in how the audience interprets the events.
With action movies, the action is either there, or it’s not. Drama is all about blowing minor matters out of proportion. Science fiction is mostly about the setting. But comedy and horror differ because the storyteller has to shape and frame the narrative so the surprises either induce laughter or fear.
People like Markipllier aren’t confined by this narrative frame. So, he can flip the script—turning a horror game into something comedic.
This affects you because…
We’re inundated with horror stories… and there’s nothing funny about that.
Or is there?
The 24/7 news cycle is driving people insane. It makes people stressed, anxious, and depressed. It even impacted me. And if children and teens depend on the adults of the world who are stressed, anxious, and depressed, then what do you think it does to them?
But that’s only PART of the problem.
I grew up in an age where news agencies strived for objective reporting. But over the years, mainstream news left that gold standard behind. They began injecting opinions of people on the streets, but ONLY if they aligned with what the news agency believed were the facts. Now, even reporters offer their feelings about current events as part of the news. Ryan Chapman has an informative video that dives deeper into this evolution of news. Check it out when you have time.
Showing you how others are reacting to an event is one of six key persuasion techniques described by psychologist Robert Cialdini. It’s called “social proof.” It involves showing you how others supposedly feel about an event to infect you with the same emotions.
So, if you think about it, today’s mainstream news outlets are just purveyors of horror stories. ALL day. EVERY day.
They frame everyday events by including specific details and describing them in a way that induces fear. They boost that fear by sharing only the fearful opinions of others.
This has trained many people to look at EVERYTHING fearfully. And as human beings, we respond to fear by fighting (with anger) or fleeing (scared).
Stress is our body gearing up for a fight.
Anxiety emerges when we imagine something bad that might help us plan our next move.
Depression can stem from an overall negative outlook on what’s ahead.
So, it’s no wonder a 24/7 negative news cycle of horror stories can lead to poor mental health. Even worse, fear has been used by powerful people to control the masses throughout history. Not that the news business would ever admit to any of this.
Comedy is the Solution
It’s time to stop living in fear. Luckily, you and I, as individuals, have the power to change how we look at things. Just like Markiplier, we don’t have to see things the way we’re told to see them.
Understanding that comedy and horror are just different interpretations of the same events brightened my outlook on life. There’s a horrifying dystopia behind every funny idea, but also something absurdly funny buried in tragedies. Jimmy Carr is a stand-up comedian who’s great at the latter. He’s one of my favourite comedians. But even those who work in jobs surrounded by tragedies, like firefighters, rely on dark humour to keep themselves “sane.”
If you’re not ready to flip real-life horror stories into comedy, you can take a smaller step by immersing yourself in more comedy.
I believe genuine belly laughter is underrated mental medicine no one talks about. Maybe it’s no surprise that there’s a decline in mental wellbeing while there’s also a decline in the popularity and quality of comedies.
I also think people are losing their ability to laugh at themselves and their own foibles. So, I’m working on getting better at laughing at my own misfortunes. There are older folks I know who are great at poking fun at themselves in ways that make everyone around them laugh. They’re joyful people, fun to be around, and they’re super cool.
I’m ashamed to admit I’m bad at finding humour in things. But what helps me is watching funny videos, chatting with people who make me laugh, and diving into comedy classics. Seriously, whatever happened to all the genre parodies like Austin Powers, the Naked Gun series, and Airplane!?
Well… at least I have Markiplier.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of comedy and horror. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. I’d love the hear from you. I need some good comedy recommendations.
Thank you for reading. Have a fun and funny day. And I’ll see you in the next one.