To be more specific, Scream Queens is clearly part and parcel of the horror subgenre called Horror/Comedy. So in a sense it is not straight horror. But I don’t think anyone assumed that it was. To negate Scream Queens as part of the horror canon is to negate such great films as Gremlins (1984), Beetlejuice (1988), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)—and let’s not forget the landmark horror television series Tales From the Crypt (1989-96). What follows is my counter point to Elizabeth’s thought-provoking post, laying out why I feel Scream Queens is definitively part of horror and how horror comedy walks a thin line to maintain its place in the category.
Scholars of horror desperately try to define the parameters of horror. Both Elizabeth and I are tirelessly trying to create our own definition of what constitutes horror. One thing that all scholars seem to agree on is the fact that not everything that is horror fits nicely into the little box labeled “horror.” Perhaps part of the reason for this is that “horrific” is a subjective term. Some people find vampires and ghosts to be horrific. I, myself, find family gatherings, commitment, and small children to be much more terrifying. The things that incorporate horror but do not quite fit wholly within the category get shoved into subgenres. Some widely agreed upon subgenres are: teen horror, slasher, supernatural horror, monster horror, family horror, natural horror, body horror, psychological horror, and comedy horror.
Horror comedy as a subgenre
Most people agree that horror comedy can go in several directions. To make this easy, we will default to the article on tvtropes.org as it provides an easily understandable foundation for the subgenre.[i] Much as many people believe sexuality exists on a continuum, I argue here that horror acts much in the same way. Tvtropes makes three digestible categories out of the subgenre: horror dominant, comedy dominant, and balanced. Whichever place on the spectrum a film or TV show happens to fall, each category is dependent, I argue, on the larger category of horror.
A film I would consider horror dominant would be one of Elizabeth’s favorites…Scream (1996). This film has all the traditional markings of a horror film including the killer, tension, and lots of recognizable horror tropes. What extend Scream into comedy is not only the gallows humor and the one-liners, but also the self-parody of its own tropes. Nonetheless this film clearly prioritizes the horror side of things by keeping the tension and gore high and believable. If the self-reflection moves to parody, however, or takes priority over the narrative, I argue that the film or TV show would thus move into the realm of comedy dominant.
Great examples of comedy dominant horror are Beetlejuice and Ghostbusters (1984). On this end of the continuum, the emotional response elicited from the audience moves away from threat and disgust toward endorphin-releasing laughter and comedic repulsion. Here is where I think we lose some of the horror purists—in the absence of tension and emotional build up. I argue, however, that this end of the spectrum is the zenith of horror comedy. Here is why… in order to really get the jokes, you essentially have to be a huge horror fan. Anyone can watch a horror dominant film and get the desired effects. Not so with comedy dominant. Yes, horror comedy is funny to a wider audience but to get all the references and to truly appreciate the laughter you must be privy to the inside jokes and the smaller intricacies of the genre. While I am not a fan of the Scary Movie franchise, I admit that they are a part of the horror comedy family. Granted they over-rely on dick and fart jokes that I find completely useless, but the overall humor is dependent on the audience understanding the settings, the characters, and the tropes.[ii] Therefore when Elizabeth categorizes Scream Queens with Scary Movie, it only solidifies how it belongs in the family.
Scream Queens is a comedy dominant horror comedy
Fox’s Scream Queens does fall on the side of comedy dominant. This does not negate its inclusion in the horror genre though. Elizabeth argues that by elevating the level of comedy Scream Queens negates its potential as horror. Here is where I feel the need to clarify my divergence from her opinion. While, yes, it does showcase the comedy, I argue that the comedy in the film is so dependent on the horror genre that it is impossible to distinguish the two. Unlike Scary Movie, which fundamentally relies on sight gags, deformities, and potty humor, Scream Queens is a particularly smart horror comedy. The show doesn’t assume the audience’s stupidity or interest in catching a glimpse of a penis. Scream Queens counts on its viewers to know that fighting the killer is often futile (hence the baseball bat scene), that the killer is always one step ahead, that there will be no quick reveal, and that the killer has really bad aim sometimes. Recognizing the chainsaw wielding Red Devil as Leatherface is part of that meta-commentary.
Arguing that there is no tension in Scream Queens would be remiss. Perhaps critics of this show have simply become numb to the tension after watching too many torture porn films. Compared to Saw (2004) the tension of being buried up to your neck in the backyard while hearing the blades of a lawnmower fire up might pale in comparison. The fact that Red Devil seems to pick his victims at random keeps the pressure high. No one expected the security guard to have her throat slashed, especially after we were anticipating the killer to be upstairs. (Zayday prompted us to think that, and typical horror trope would have us believe it.)
I know it’s early in the season, so time will tell. But arguing that Scream Queens isn’t horror is invalidating horror comedy as a subgenre. Understandably, the purists want tension, gore, and scares—but that would just be more of the same. I am not an objective party in this debate. I love cheese, sarcasm, and wit with my horror. I want to laugh at things that society tells me not to. Whereas the buildup of emotion may not be quite the same, the cathartic release certainly is.
[ii] I can’t complain about the potty humor as those of you know who have read my reviews on The Visit and The Green Inferno, both M. Night Shyamalan and Eli Roth had extended scenes involving fecal matter. So apparently this is becoming a “thing.” As per horror scholar Noel Carroll I suppose it serves the end of emphasizing the repulsive.