copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Cartoonist Charles Addams is the father of a truly bizarre family. “Dysfunctional” doesn’t begin to describe its dynamics. Headed by Gomez and Morticia, The Addams Family includes son Pugsley, daughter Wednesday, Uncle Fester, Grandmama, and the shaggy Cousin Itt. A disembodied hand, Thing, is a permanent houseguest. This unlikely cast of characters is waited upon hand and foot--in the case of Thing, literally--by a hulking butler named Lurch. They live on a weed-choked estate behind a wrought-iron fence in a Second Empire mansion, complete with a garden (of sorts). The cartoon appeared regularly in The New Yorker magazine.
The one-panel strip was eventually translated into a television situation comedy (sitcom) of the same title starring John Astin (Gomez), Caroline Jones (Morticia), Ken Weatherwax (Pugsley), Lisa Loring (Wednesday), Jackie Cogan (Uncle Fester), Blossom Rock (Grandmama), Felix Silla (Cousin Itt), and Ted Cassidy (Lurch and Thing). The cartoon is also the basis of The Addams Family movie (1991) which starred Raul Julia (Gomez), Angelica Huston (Morticia), Jimmy Workman (Pugsley), Christina Ricci (Wednesday), Christopher Lloyd (Uncle Fester), Judith Malina (Grandmama), John Franklin (Cousin Itt), Carel Stricken (Lurch) and Christopher Hart (Thing). The screenplay for the motion picture is available at Movie Script Place.
In addition to featuring the same characters and setting, the cartoon, sitcom, and movie all parodied the contemporary American nuclear family, inverting traditional family and American values. The Addamses found ordinary people and their interests either repulsive, puzzling, dull, or offensive, preferring their own bizarre, macabre, and peculiar pursuits. Gomez never stopped courting his wife. Morticia was fond of raising roses, from which, snipping the buds, she would retain the thorny stems, immersing them in ornate vases of water, and tend to her carnivorous plant. Wednesday (who is, as her name suggests, “full of woe”) delights in executing her Marie Antoinette doll by guillotine and enjoys electrocuting her brother in the family’s electric chair. Pugsley’s passion is wrecking his electric train by derailing the engine and cars or blowing it up with a well-placed stick of miniature dynamite. Uncle Fester likes to impress others with his trick of illuminating a light bulb simply by placing it in his mouth, and he often chases intruders with his blunderbuss. Grandmama, a witch, is forever trying new spells or potions. Vertically challenged Cousin Itt’s face--or, indeed, his entire head and body--is never seen, because his hair extends from his scalp to the floor. He rides around the mansion in his three-wheeled car and speaks in shrill gibberish that only the rest of the family can understand. A childhood friend of Gomez’s, Thing is a severed hand that pops out of cigar boxes, urns, and other containers throughout the house to deliver the mail and do other assorted odd jobs. The butler, Lurch, is a giant. He wears a tuxedo, maintains an expression and a posture that suggests that rigor mortis has set in a little early, and rumbles rather than speaks. A Frankenstein-like servant, Lurch, Morticia reminds Gomez, is part of many families and has the heart of an Addams. Much of the cartoon’s, sitcom’s, and movie’s humor derives from Lurch’s unfriendly demeanor and the chores he performs in his ungainly and deadpan manner.
The Addams Family suggests that there is a fine line between horror and humor, as do such television shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Munsters, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie. Literary critics have found humor--quite a bit of it, in fact--even in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The difference between whether an incident or a situation will be humorous of horrific depends, of course, upon its treatment. Typically, humor will look for opportunities to exaggerate or understate the significance of ordinary incidents and situations, will seek the absurdity in daily activities and the pompous or inappropriate behavior of characters who are out of their depth or in an environment foreign to them, and so forth, whereas horror will seek the bizarre, the uncanny, the eerie, the frightening, and the incongruous in such incidents and situations with an eye not to how and why these incidents and situations are amusing but as to why they are in some way menacing.
It is menace that, ultimately, makes a situation horrific and dreadful. By applying The Addams Family technique to everyday situations and incidents and looking for the potential menace in them rather than for the potential humor in them, the horror writer can come up with plot material that might otherwise go unnoticed or unappreciated. The technique is simple, but effective: interpret commonplace incidents and situations from an out-of-kilter, offbeat, madcap point of view. Interpret figurative expressions literally and literal expressions figuratively. Imagine how the Addams family might interpret everyday events and occurrences or how they might understand the meaning of an innocuous phrase.
For example, were the Addams family to have a dinner party, the catered refreshments might include finger sandwiches that were truly finger sandwiches--severed human digits laid side by side between two slices of bread and garnished with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and the dressing of one’s choice. The whole meal, in fact, would be likely to comprise a feast fit for cannibals. Now, take the humor out of the situation, and replace it with horror. Make a few other adjustments, lending the storyline as much verisimilitude as possible within the conditions of the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, and viola!, The Addams Family principle has provided a plot for a horror story such as the maestro Stephen King might have written.
A bit of brainstorming--lovely word for horror writers!--may suggest other possibilities. The appetite among some Asians for dog flesh is well known. What better way to increase the stock of this delicacy in one’s freezer than to go to a large city park frequented by the owners of such pets and wait for one or more of them to walk their dogs past the perfect ambush site along the a woodland path?
Another idea? (Simply insert a 100-watt bulb into one’s mouth, Uncle Fester style.) How about this one? A vampire king’s five-hundredth “birthday” (that is, the night that he was transformed into one of the living dead) is approaching, and his followers want to get him something special to commemorate the occasion. They discuss various possibilities: blood bags from the local blood bank, the chorus girls from a popular Broadway (or Las Vegas) show, kindergartners from a local preschool or daycare center. Finally, they decide on five hundred virgins. The only problem is that they’re hard-pressed to locate such a vast number of this commodity. The story resulting from this premise would be partly funny and partly fiendish, much like The Addams Family itself, showing, once again, that it is possible to mix humor with horror (and even a little social commentary), as long as, if the story is to be considered horror rather than humor, the menace outweighs the clowning.