“The Haunted House” episode of The Andy Griffith Show could easily have been a horror story rather than an installment of the famous television sitcom. It has all the elements of a classic horror story: a decrepit, abandoned house that is allegedly haunted, a visit to this house by law enforcement personnel, frightening and bizarre incidents of an apparently supernatural character, and a rational explanation for these incidents. However, the story is comical, not horrific. Why?
The answer to this question takes us a long way toward understanding not only the affinities between humor and horror but the nature of horror fiction itself.
Let’s start with a summary of the story’s plot, courtesy of Dale Robinson and David Fernandes’ The Definitive Andy Griffith Show Reference: Episode-by-Episode, with Cast and Production Biographies and a Guide to Collectibles (McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, NC, and London, 1996):
Since much of the plot, just as it stands, could be used for a horror story, the key difference that differentiates it from that of a horror story is not the action--the series of incidents, including characters’ behavior--but the characters’ comical reactions to these incidents. In a horror story, the elements of humor--exaggerated facial expressions and physical gestures, poses and postures, attitudes and responses, slapstick, clowning, and farce, irony and satire--would be minimal, if they were included at all, and the story would focus upon the evocation, through the characters’ responses to the situation, of revulsion and fear. It’s possible--probable, even--that the rational explanation of the incidents--a tramp has been residing in the house--would be shown to be false and that the incidents would, in fact, have a paranormal or a supernatural cause.
Opie hits a baseball thrown by a friend and breaks a window at the abandoned Rimshaw house. Both boys are nervous about retrieving the ball because the house is rumored to be haunted. As they approach the door, they hear a spooky noise that scares them away. They go to the courthouse and tell their story to Andy and Barney. The men tell them it was probably just the whistling wind. Andy wants them to stay out of the house because it is likely that the floorboards are loose. Then, sensing that Barney was putting up a false front when he said there was nothing to be afraid of, Andy asks his deputy to go get the ball for the boys. While it is clear that Barney doesn’t want to do it, he can’t back out now. When Gomer suddenly comes by, Barney quickly enlists him to come along.
The nervous deputy enters the house first--”Age before beauty,” says Gomer. Unfortunately, they don’t get much farther than the boys did. Ghostly moans send them scrambling for the door.
Back at the courthouse, Andy chides Barney for failing to get the ball and for believing the house is haunted. Barney says that he recalls that when old man Rimshaw died, his last wish was for his home to remain undisturbed. Otis Campbell chimes in with rumors he has heard: the walls move, the eyes on the portrait of Mr. Rimshaw seem to follow a person around the room, and axes float through the air.
Andy dismisses all this as nonsense, and he goes to the Rimshaw house with Barney and Gomer in tow. They quickly locate the baseball, and despite objections from his
cohorts, Andy insists they look around the place. While he wanders off into another room, Barney and Gomer slowly move around the room, looking scared to death. Suddenly, Gomer disappears! Barney panics, and Andy returns. Gomer suddenly reappears. He had inadvertently stepped into a closet or something. The eerie thing is, Gomer says that someone or something pushed him out. Next, Andy notices that the wallpaper above the fireplace is peeling and the wall is warm. Barney suggests that maybe an old tramp has been using the fireplace.
Andy ventures upstairs and asks Barney and Gomer to check out the cellar. Gomer correctly surmises that the cellar is downstairs. When Barney opens the cellar door, he sees an ax. Too scared to go down the stairs, he softly inquires, “Any old tramps down there?” then quickly shuts the door. Gomer tells Barney that legend has it that Rimshaw put chains on his hired hand and then killed him with an ax.
Barney notices the eyes on the Rimshaw portrait following him. When he tells Andy, Andy responds that it’s probably a trick of the light.
Barney knocks on the wall--and his knock is answered. Andy gets the same result when he knocks. Suddenly, Andy appears frightened. He orders loudly, “Let’s get out of here!” Barney and Gomer quickly bolt out of the house, but Andy remains. He has a plan in mind.Suddenly, we see Otis and the notorious moonshiner Big Jack Anderson in the house. They are laughing, and Big Jack is quite proud of the fact that his scare tactics have worked. He has found the perfect spot for his still, and claims he could probably stay there for twenty years.
As they come out of their hiding place, believing the house is empty, they get the shock of their lives. They witness an ax hanging in the air, a baseball rolling down the stairs, and the eyes moving on the portrait. They make tracks leaving the house. Meanwhile, Barney has bravely determined he must go rescue Andy, so he comes in the rear entrance. He sees the suspended ax and hears moaning. He nearly passes out from fright before Andy can explain things.
The lawmen later use the infamous ax to smash Big Jack’s still. Andy captures Anderson and surrenders him to Federal Agent Bowden of the Alcohol Control Division. Mr. Bowden has been after the tough and tricky outlaw for years. As usual, Andy generously shares the capture credit, in this case with both Barney and Gomer.
Largely, then, horror stories stress elements of the uncanny and the inexplicable and concentrate upon feelings of revulsion and fear, rather than offering rational or natural explanations for suspected supernatural phenomena and poking fun at characters’ foibles. To better see how a master of the horror story might handle a similar storyline to that of The Andy Griffith Show’s “The Haunted House,” read H. G. Wells’ short story, “The Red Room.” Both stories are concerned with an allegedly haunted domicile, and both focus on their characters’ reactions to uncanny incidents which may or may not have a natural or a rational as well as a paranormal or supernatural explanation.
Note: For a discussion of this same television episode from a humorous perspective, visit my other blog, “Writing Hilarious Humor