What world do we live in where you’re not supposed to be laughing when a zombie eats a few people?
My name is Iscah Agas, and I’m a horror movie laugher. Yup, that’s right, you can often find me laughing during horror movies.
Yeah, you know the type. The kind of person who watches horror movies and is laughing at all of the messed-up, definitely not comedic scenes, while getting dirty looks from everyone around her. “Is she making fun of the movie?! Why does she think Debbie getting her arm chopped off is funny? Is she completely desensitized?!”
No, soccer mom three rows in front of me. Relax.
Most of the horror fandom knows that laughing during horror movies is normal. I’m guessing that a lot of people reading this do the same thing. You’ve probably also been told off by a fair amount of theater goers in your life. And family members. And friends. One time, the theater-goer turned out to be my dentist, which got me all kinds of concerned. You don’t want your dentist being mad at you. It could lead to a Little Shop of Horrors situation.
But don’t worry; you’re not really being a jerk. Laughing during horror movies is so common, there have been scientific studies into it and there are a number of theories as to why we do it. You’re probably not desensitized, either. If you were desensitized, you wouldn’t have had any reaction to Debbie getting her arm chopped off.
One theory is that it is an instinctive response to fear that exists as a result of humans being primates. In most primates, laughing and grinning is an aggressive response to feeling threatened.
For me personally, I don’t know if I’m really laughing in response to feeling threatened, but I do laugh out of discomfort, which is similar enough. I’ve certainly been known to laugh during uncomfortable scenes in most movies, including movies that aren’t horror. That horse’s head in the Godfather? Yeah, I don’t actually think that’s funny, don’t worry. For me, that’s the laugh of the awkward silence during an uncomfortable conversation. What else do you do?
As many-a-glaring family member has silently suggested to me, laughing probably isn’t the response they were looking for.
However, I also find myself laughing during movies when I’m not particularly uncomfortable. I don’t know that I’m laughing during House of 1000 Corpses out of discomfort, for instance. It certainly has scary scenes, but my laughter is usually a response to how delightfully weird that film is.
Another argument is that laughing is a response to the adrenaline rush that horror movies give you. That adrenaline rush could be in response to fear, but it’s not really the same as nervous laughter. A person’s response to adrenaline is usually a lot stronger than a person’s response to being uncomfortable, and you can get adrenaline from a lot of different emotions. It’s similar to being on a roller coaster: some people scream, some people laugh, and some people stay far, far away.
This seems to apply to me more often than frightened laughing, as I do tend to laugh from adrenaline rushes in general. I’ve always laughed on roller coasters, for instance, and as someone who likes to perform, I tend to laugh harder after I get offstage than before I get on. It also makes sense that some people like horror movies, roller coasters and being onstage, and some people hate some or all of those things: some people like the adrenaline rush and some people don’t.
From my completely unscientific and entirely anecdotal experience, I have noticed that a lot of people experience both good adrenaline and bad adrenaline. Good adrenaline makes you feel exhilarated, and bad adrenaline just makes you feel terrified. If you feel like you’re in actual danger, you’re probably going to feel the latter. However, I also know a fair amount of people who have expressed to me that they’ve never felt adrenaline in a positive way, and they tend to dislike most activities that will give them that response.
So, at least for me, both of these arguments apply in different circumstances. I suspect a lot of people would also say the same. I would, however, like to posit another theory: perhaps we’re overthinking this.
There’s been a fair amount of writing and even studies about why people exhibit a laughing response during horror movies, and I think the above-mentioned arguments do apply in different situations. However, I do think we’re missing a critical factor in this: maybe some of us are laughing during horror movies because we’re enjoying ourselves.
A crazy idea, I know.
We don’t only laugh when we find something funny or when we’re uncomfortable. Laughing can also be a simple expression of happiness. I laugh when I see loved ones I haven’t seen in a long time. It’s not because they did something funny or I am afraid, but because I’m happy to see them. Enjoying art we like makes us feel happy.
I think that a lot of people are looking for a more complicated answer to a simple question. The assumption is that, because someone is laughing in a time where it is deemed inappropriate, that laughter must be either a defense mechanism or something they can’t really control.
However, it’s only seen as “inappropriate” if you assume it’s inappropriate to be happy while watching certain films, and I don’t think that’s fair to the viewer. No one wants to see real life Debbie get her arm chopped off; we just want to watch a movie. And, it seems like the premise that laughing during a horror movie must be a complex response to another psychiatric phenomenon neglects the reality that a lot of people just like horror movies for their own sake.
Unless it’s Lady in the Water (2006). Then I’m laughing at it.
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