Smile While You’re Screaming: Horror-Comedy and ‘The Visit’

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M. Night Shyamalan is back – with a good movie this time. Who would have thought that after seeing The Last Airbender? I was definitely skeptical when stepping into the AMC Burbank 16 last week but left quite impressed. The movie I am talking about is M. Night Shyamalan’s horror film The Visit. It is a tale about two kids visiting their grandparents for the first time. Not to spoil anything, but let’s say he visit doesn’t quite live up to the kids’ expectations. It really doesn’t.

But it also doesn’t live up to what you usually expect when watching a horror movie. And that’s a good thing in this case. The up and coming “new” genre in film and TV is called “horror-comedy.” For the record, this might have been something that Night should have employed a little earlier in his career.

Anyways, horror-comedy combines two extremes into an ideally well-balanced blend of screams and laughter. That was definitely the case in The Visit. Even as a horror movie addict I found myself squeezing the armrest because of the tension that kept building up. And here comes the interesting part: Terrifying scenes are followed by very funny ones. The result? The entire audience cries out loud only to crack up the very next moment.

We all know about the mandatory group of young girls that is usually seated somewhere in the rear at EVERY scary movie that you watch. They come in chit-chatting, laughing and spilling popcorn, and you just know, “They are SO gonna spoil this movie!” They will scream their heads off and start laughing hysterically just to get by the scary parts. We have all been there and we have all hated it.

But let’s think about this concept for a second – why do these girls have to laugh so hard? What’s their deal? Well, laughing releases the tension that builds up when you’re scared. On a side note, this is the reason why we laugh at all: it releases tension.

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The Visit takes this concept onto a whole other level and makes laughing during scary movies socially acceptable. It forces the entire theatre to step into those girls’ shoes. And frankly: It’s real fun. Horror-comedy has something relieving and unifying to it. You feel very close to the rest of the audience if you all collaboratively gasp at the scary parts and then all crack up together. And this is no accident – it is a formula.

Horror and comedy are two very extreme genres. They should either make you laugh or scared all the time. But you need breaks in between to release some tension so it can rebuild for the next joke or shocker. It’s like blowing up a balloon. If you keep blowing air into it, it’s going to burst eventually. So you have to let go and release some air once in a while. Horror-comedy takes both extremes and unites them in a perfect way. You have the permission to laugh after scary moments. No hard feelings. Through the laughter you release much more tension than you usually would just pulling yourself together and swallowing your fear. After a good laugh there is suddenly much more room to become scared again. It’s a genius concept.

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M. Night Shyamalan is not the first one to adopt this concept – I don’t think anyone suspected that anyway. The first bestseller of horror-comedy was Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” from 1820, which made readers “laugh one moment and scream the next.” And who didn’t laugh when Johnny Depp kept on fainting at all the scary parts in the movie Sleepy Hollow? It was still scary.

Finally – the critics. Well, some of them didn’t like The Visit too much. In fact when it comes to Mark Kermode’s opinion in The Guardian, the movie is even worse than Lady in the Water: Is it meant to be a horror film? Or a comedy? The publicity calls it “an original thriller” but it is neither of those things. Only “endurance test” adequately describes the ill-judged shenanigans that ensue.”

Well, Mark – that’s the thing. It’s neither just a horror film nor comedy. It’s comedy-horror. And even if you couldn’t squeeze into a particular genre, by all means – who cares? Comedy horror brings some fresh air into the often-times repeating horror stories. Another family moving into a haunted house? Another exorcism that has to be performed on a female student? Or maybe a possessed student moving into a haunted house? In the future we will definitely see more of the new old genre Comedy-Horror. Up next: Scream Queens by American Horror Story mastermind Ryan Murphy. You may keep smiling while you’re screaming.

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