Tis the season to be scary, so why are so many “horror” movies funny instead? What is the boundary? What makes a story horror or humor? Explore the answer with this hilariously scary writing prompt.
Are You Writing Horror or Humor?
Interestingly, what determines whether a story is funny or scary is less the topic and more how the topic is treated. As an example, let’s discuss a comedic Halloween classic: Hocus Pocus.
Main Concept: 3 witches who suck out the souls of children to stay young
Is it just me, or is that a pretty creepy (see terrifying) idea? So how can it be a funny movie?
The answer is “the emphasis.” More of the movie is spent on the goofiness of witches, their confusion about modern stuff, re-inflatable cats, and rolling heads, and the last two are practically Looney Tune-like with their abilities to be mangled but unharmed.
In other words, although the scary idea provides impetus for the plot, it is overshadowed with hilarious hijinks.
To prove the idea works, here’s a writing prompt to take the same idea and make 2 totally different stories. Here’s what the two parts will have in common:
- a frightening condition or situation (serial killer, hungry witches, etc.)
- the basic characters (3 witches, 2 vampires, and a human teenager)
- the beginning mood (for about the first scene or the exposition)
The rest… well, the rest is going to vary a bit.
This time, we’ll make it creepy and try to give our readers nightmares (*wicked cackle as lightning flashes*). That means we need to emphasize the darkness of the situation.
Here are some pointers for keeping it headed in a scary direction:
- The consequences are experienced repeatedly (people die, are maimed, etc.).
- Focus on the losses and the main character’s plans to avoid experiencing it.
- Frightened reactions need to be serious and realistic (no flailing in a panic in a way that lightens the mood – if someone flails in a panic [because people do], it had better emphasize the overpowering helplessness caused by the fear rather than how ridiculous the person looks).
- No stupid, clichéd actions (we’re not trying to emphasize character stupidity).
- Ends badly or at least not completely happily (a chirpy, perky ending shouldn’t really be possible if you took step 1 seriously).
To summarize, the emphasis is on negative aspects and realism.
With that same situation and even the same starting mood, you can make the story funny instead of scary. All it takes is a different focus:
- Having few consequences or glossing over them (So-in-so isn’t really dead – it was just a sleep spell! Someone died? Sorry, I was too busy laughing at these crazy antics to remember that.).
- The villain(s) is goofy in some way – clumsy, has a stamp collection that he waxes poetic about at the slightest opportunity, can only kill someone who’s facing him and ends up chasing people in circles like a dog chasing his tail (you get the idea)…
- Characters do stupid stuff and survive (how, we’re not sure).
- Survival is as much by unfeasible circumstance as by intelligence/bravery (“Thank God that tree fell when it did!” or “If you hadn’t driven into a garlic store, we’d be goners!”).
- Ends happily (all the main characters survive and any previous deaths are already forgotten or somehow ok – “He was a killer, too,” or “Their spirits are free and happy now”).
That’s a formula that has turned a number of terrifying circumstances into a funny movie. Just don’t use it when you actually want something to be scary. It won’t end well.
Ok, actually, it will (that’s one of the rules), but it won’t be scary!
All right. Ready to write 2 totally different versions of the same story? These ones would be especially good to share! 😀