Heard on The History Channel: “Why was Helen Keller a bad driver?” (long pause) “Because she was a woman.”
“We murder to dissect,” William Wordsworth observes, and, in “Sonnet: To Science,” Edgar Allan Poe pretty much agrees. Critics have been dissecting humor for a good many years now, and, as a result of their painstaking research, they’ve exposed much of the tissue--and, indeed, the viscera--of comedy. In short, they’ve gutted their subject so thoroughly that its pretty much a bloody mess. That’s fine, of course, with the horror buff.
As a result of their dissection of humor, critics now bandy about terms like “bathos” and “slapstick” and “irony.” They talk about “ambiguity” and “exaggeration” and “understatement” and “incongruity.” They pontificate about “timing,” and “nuance” and “setup.” They argue about “straight men” and “punch lines” and “context.” They quibble about the use and abuse of “language.” They use these learned words as if, in doing so, they’re talking a good deal of sense when, as often as not, perhaps, they’re talking nonsense. That’s also fine, of course, with the horror buff.
It’s not really that the critics are wrong in their assessments and the pronouncements that derive from them. It’s that they’re looking at humor from without, rather than from within. We can learn a great deal about things by taking an objective approach in our studies. Neil Armstrong is proof of that. However, despite the wealth of scientific knowledge we’ve accumulated since astrology became astronomy and alchemy transmuted itself into chemistry, we may say, with Soren Kierkegaard, that we ourselves are left over.
There’s a great deal of truth to be gleaned through observation and analysis, but there’s also some to be gained from introspection, from self-analysis, from one’s experience of his or her own subjectivity, and from the contents of his or her own consciousness. Women go to male gynecologists and obstetricians, but only the pregnant themselves can appreciate certain aspects of pregnancy and childbirth, because these aspects of the processes can be known only from within--from within the flesh and the soul. The same is true of humor.
Comedians know what’s funny, and they can explain, to some degree, why it’s funny. W. C. Fields attributed humor to a streak of cruelty, saying those who laughed most and hardest at his self-deprecating humor were the ones he’d turn to last, if at all, for help if he was in need, because their laughter at his misfortune, even if his suffering was staged, indicated that they were relatively sadistic. George Carlin declared that comedy is “distortion,” but he didn’t say how or why or what’s being distorted. Some of the comedian’s tricks of the trade, apparently, must remain tricks of the trade, just as magicians are loathe to let the public in on such secrets as how to saw a woman in half or how to make the Statue of Liberty disappear.
Carlin also said that he doesn’t try to make his audience think. “That would be the kiss of death” for him as a comedian, he maintains, but he does let them know that he’s thinking.
Sometimes comedians disagree as to what’s funny and what’s amusing. Most comedians think all is fair game for the comic, but Bill Cosby drew a line at profanity and encouraged Eddie Murphy to do likewise. Murphy didn’t, but his career as a comedian didn’t seem to suffer. Most comedians seem to agree, however, that some audiences are quicker than others and that they need to adjust their repertoire of material and their timing accordingly.
Are comedians born or made? Is a sense of humor a product of nature or nurture? This question is as old as comedy, with proponents of both sides arguing their cases ad infinitum. The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes, meaning that it’s both genetic and environmental. Some people are born with an affinity for the amusing, the droll, the comic, and the witty, but they can learn from other funnymen and women, as Mark Twain learned from lesser comic writers he knew in his early, formative years, such as Artemis Ward, Alexander Macfarlane, and Josh Billings. No doubt, comedians are also inspired by the greats who have gone before them.
By now (or probably way before now), you’ve no doubt thought that (a) the title for this post is erroneous or (b) the idiot who’s writing this stuff forgot to take his Prozac or (c) both of the above. Isn’t this article supposed to be about “A Sense of Horror”? Then, why is it about humor?
We’re used to the phrase “sense of humor,” but we don’t usually talk or hear about someone having a “sense of horror.” Nevertheless, just as musicians often have an ear for music and comedians can, in some sense of the word, “sense” humor, so, it may be argued, can horror writers discern the horrible in persons, places, and things that other people see as commonplace and everyday and not in the least horrible or even the least little bit unsettling. When Stephen King was asked what scares him, he replied, “Everything!”
If you read “Everyday Horrors: Cornfields,” you’ve seen how cornfields, to ordinary folk, are just cornfields. They’re mundane, ordinary, and commonplace. They’re vegetables. What’s scary about a crop of corn, for Pete’s sake, or even for Dave’s sake? It’s only after we recount how many horror stories, both in print and on film, are set, in full or in part, in cornfields that we think, Wow! Cornfields are scary! Of course, that’s because writers and filmmakers have shown us how and why cornfields are scary.
Nobody told them cornfields are scary, though. They knew it or they intuited it or they just felt the fear rolling out of those neatly spaced rows of corn that are knee high by the Fourth of July. Stephen King (Children of the Corn) and Dan Simmons (Summer of Night), Jonathan Maberry (Ghost Road Blues), Norman Partridge (Dark Harvest), and the makers of such movies as High Tension, Freddy vs. Jason: A Match Made in Hell, Hallowed Ground, The Silence of the Lambs, Scarecrow, Jeepers Creepers II, The Corn Stalker, I Walked with a Zombie, The Stand, Night of the Scarecrow, and Shallow Ground saw, and, seeing, knew that cornfields are inherently scary, despite their wholesome appearance, and, in their stories, they showed the rest of us the horror and the terror of these ranks of tall annual cereal grass with big ears.
So, is a sense of horror innate? Can it be learned? Like a sense of humor, it is likely both, and that’s a significant lesson for the aspiring horror writer.
Among the influences on his career as a writer, Stephen King lists authors as diverse as Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, William Golding, Shirley Jackson, Fritz Leiber, H. P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, John D. MacDonald, Don Robertson, Thomas Hardy, Theodore Dreiser, John Fowles, Edgar Allan Poe, J. R. R. Tolkien, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Robert Browning (Dark Tower Series), Daphne du Maurier, and Alexandre Dumas. It’s quite a list. He’s taken something--an observation, a technique, an insight, a tip, an idea for a plot--from each and every one of them (and probably others as well, whom he’s forgotten to name). Each one of them has inspired him, just as they have each taught him how to be a better storyteller and, therefore, a better horror writer. Yes, writing, like comedy, can be learned.
But a sense of horror is also innate and, as such, it must also be nurtured from within. In looking, learn to see the horror implicit in the person, place, or thing that’s being seen. The post concerning “Everyday Horrors: Cornfields” does this (see the list of bullets), but after, not before, the fact. After horror writers suggested--in fact, showed--the horror of the corn, it was relatively easy to backtrack through the maize and determine what, exactly, is eerie and alarming about stand upon stand of 10- and 12-foot-tall annual cereal grass with big ears. The point, though, is to discern these qualities and features while one is observing the things themselves of which they are parts or effects.
So take a look at a German Shepherd, and see Cujo; a car, and see Christine; a dead cat, and see a twisted zombie child; a stranger’s arrival in town, and see an old-world vampire; an alcoholic writer, and see a man haunted, or even possessed, by the past.
Then, one’s sense of horror can prosper and grow until one is, like King and other masters of the macabre, afraid of “everything!”
Why did Ed Gein keep his house so warm? (long pause) So the furniture wouldn't get goose bumps.