Armchair Philosophy - Is Comedy based on Horror?

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Armchair Philosophy - Is Comedy based on Horror?

Postby AxiomaticBadger » 25 Nov 2014, 04:09

I've been writing a short article on creating RPG Horror Scenarios, and it's involved reading a moderately ridiculous amount of adventures, horror stories, and articles on psychology.

One of the key ingredients in horror is that it plays on primal fears, which can be summarized as:
1. Ceasing To Exist
2. Injury
3. Powerlessness
4. Isolation
5. Humiliation.

What's struck me is that all comedy I can think of seems to be based on the same principles, but combining them with harmlessness. Dark humour makes light of Ceasing to Exist, whilst slapstick revolves around injury and pain without any actual damage.
What is a romantic comedy except a plot where the Protagonist is powerless against Love?

What do you Guys and Gals think? Have I discovered something, or am I just delusional?
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Re: Armchair Philosophy - Is Comedy based on Horror?

Postby Darkflame » 25 Nov 2014, 05:13

I have thought similar lines myself - but I dont think it covers all comedy.
I think some comedy is purely based on unexpected or unlikely things happening. You anticipate something, and something else happens counter to that anticipation. (even if the alternative scenario is in no way worse)

For example, here's a 5 second clip I found hilarious;
Now, you could argue that falls under Humiliation, but I think the comedy here is the anticipation being broken.

But, of course, much comedy is what you describe.
Clearly we can still find something funny even if its not unexpected "train wreck" comedy such as Peep Show - many of your numbered points seem the bases of much of that. It can be hilarious without being unexpected.

So my conclusion I think is a wishy-washy one; Comedy can have a few different bases. <-- Tells some truly terrible tales.
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Re: Armchair Philosophy - Is Comedy based on Horror?

Postby AxiomaticBadger » 25 Nov 2014, 06:13

The clip is the perfect example of Humiliation, in that it is a "Terror" reaction to something innocuous.

The subversion of expectation is important, but it's also a horror trait.
In horror, we call events and items which subvert expectations or are inconsistent with their surroundings “Creepy” or “Disturbing”, which along with things that evoke Disgust are Indicators; they signify the presence of something which evokes terror.

As a contrast, imagine if instead of there being a [Spoiler] in the box, there had been bloody scalpels, or lumps of raw meat, or just plain old Spiders?

As an aside, I really don't think it's possible to do a 5-second horror sketch, beyond jump scares. You can't become invested in the characters' wellbeing, so anything that happens is automatically harmless, and therefore funny.

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Re: Armchair Philosophy - Is Comedy based on Horror?

Postby Duckay » 25 Nov 2014, 14:11

I'm not sure how comprehensive your 5 points are. Some people are afraid of ghosts, and while you could argue that's really a fear of death (and in some cases you would probably be correct), in other cases it's about the world not behaving in ways you can reasonably predict (what you later describe as breach of expectations).

But that aside, I don't think the overlap you're seeing is because comedy is based on horror (although sometimes that is true); I suspect it's because both are heavily based on primal instincts.
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Re: Armchair Philosophy - Is Comedy based on Horror?

Postby AxiomaticBadger » 27 Nov 2014, 04:02

The key question to ask is "Why is the world not behaving in ways you can reasonably predict scary?", to which the answer is "Because if I cannot predict how the world will behave, then I cannot effectively influence it - I am Powerless". H. P. Lovecraft wrote “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”, yet the unknown only scares us because it renders us helpless.

It may have been a mistake to state the Primal fears so simply, so I'll expand on them a tad by showing how they can apply to Ghosts. To what extent they apply depends on the story, or what the subject believes about them, but usually all 5 will be touched upon:

1. Ghosts remind us of our own mortality, but somewhat subvert that by being tacit proof that one continues to exist after physical death. More overt is when the ghost's personality has been distorted from how it was in life, or when it is capable of possession or other mental influence, and so raises questions of identity and "Am I Still Me?".

2. It the very least, the existence of a Ghost implies catastrophic damage to a physical form. In those ghosts who have an appearance, they are often described as presenting either the aforesaid damage or inhuman distortions. Should the Ghost be hostile, then the physical threat it poses also arouses this fear.

3. No matter whether hostile or benign, or even just passive, ghosts evoke this fear because there's nothing you can do about them. The moment you become haunted you lose control over a part of your life. Mirroring this, ghosts themselves are subject to powerlessness, as even those who are capable of affecting the world can only do so in a strictly limited fashion.
Consider, one of the most prevalent concepts connected with ghosts is that they are incapable of "moving on" without help, or they have a task they are incapable of completing. Mirroring this is the concept of a Ghost either being trapped in a location, or the defeat of malicious variants by trapping them.

4. Almost by definition, ghosts are avatars of isolation. Their very nature precludes them from interaction with others, they are separated from their loved ones, and surrounded by a world they cannot meaningfully touch, granting what limited influence the story grants them a particular poignancy. In many cases, this isolation is re-enforced by consigning the ghost to a specific physical location, such as a house or the location of their demise, or in haunted-house stories by the ghost enforcing isolation by sealing the exits and/or separating the characters.

5. Ghosts usually touch upon this in two ways. The first is the subtle insinuation of there being a stranger who watches you do those things considered private, such as sexual activity or toiletries, whilst on the second is the more social consequence of general social censure regarding superstition – a person who believes themselves haunted cannot seek help because “ghosts don't exist”.

I say “based on horror”, because whilst I agree that they're both based on primal instincts, the connections are always in some way negative... and it's worth repeating this is the case in all comedy I have ever come across, from slapstick (Mutilation) and toilet humor (Humiliation), through satire and stand-up (more (Humiliation), all the way to gallows humor (Ceasing to Exist) and absurdism (Powerlessness).
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