When I was living in Namibia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had a nightmare that has never left me. Vivid nightmares (among other side effects) were common among the PCVs who were taking mefloquine to prevent malaria. Unlike most dreams, this one didn’t burn off with the rising of the sun. Nope; I can still summon up images and sounds from it with almost no effort. It’s too long and complicated to go into here, but the ending is all that matters. In the dream, I’ve been watching an insane woman on a gurney in a hospital cackle and scream. She’s terrifying. I look around for help and can’t find any, and then when I turn back to look at the crazy woman, I realize that I am her. I’m the one laughing and screaming. I’m the one who’s clearly insane.
Laughter is a weird thing. When you fake it, it usually sounds fake. Real laughter is something uncontrollable and reflexive. Which makes laughter a pretty close cousin to screaming. They’re both unplanned reactions, natural and spontaneous. When you get scared or find something truly funny, you don’t sit around deciding how to react. The scare happens, the joke is told, and the reaction follows without thought.
When critics talk about the use of humor in horror films, they usually focus on laughter as a necessary release. A director sets the spooky scene, lets the tension build until it’s almost unbearable, then hits you with the reveal (which is, more often than not these days, a jump scare). Then you scream or laugh. Or a script might give the audience an opportunity for release by immediately deflating a frightening moment with a funny one.
This is what M. Night Shyamalan does throughout The Visit, a film many critics are hailing as the writer-director’s “comeback” and “return to form.” Shyamalan has demonstrated a deft ability to pair humor with scares in the past (in Signs, particularly), but he’s also been pretty dour (as good as The Sixth Sense is, it’s not exactly a joyful film) and he has completely whiffed on tone when making what should have been a modern, winking take on classic B-horror schlock. (No one can convince me that’s not what he was trying to do with The Happening because why the hell else would you allow Mark Wahlberg to give you that performance?)
With The Visit, Shyamalan gets the balance between scary and funny just right, often undercutting many unsettling moments with a joke. In one scene, the film’s preteen male protagonist witnesses a disturbing sight when he opens his bedroom door to discover his grandmother, decked out in her birthday suit, clawing at the walls like a demented cat. When he closes the door and turns to the camera, he immediately deadpans, “I’m blind.”
The moment works like gangbusters. There are a lot more beats like that one — so many that the crowd I saw the movie with was busting up just as often as it was screaming. Shyamalan understands that laughter is as natural a response to being scared as screaming.
He also manages to tap into the madness that always lies just below the surface when someone laughs. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that the grandparents who are being visited turn out not to be grandparents, at all. In fact, they are escapees from a local asylum. At one point, before this revelation comes, the teenage girl who is ostensibly doing the movie’s filming (The Visit is a found-footage-type movie but manages to put a different spin on the genre) comes upon her “grandma” staring at the wall, rocking in her chair, and laughing wildly. “Nana?” the girl filmmaker says. Nana abruptly stops laughing and turns around. Laughter, she explains, keeps the darkness away.
She might as well say, “I am crazy, therefore I laugh.” We associate laughter with humor, but it’s also a companion to insanity; think of all the chuckling, howling, giggling, and guffawing lunatics in any scene set in any madhouse in any movie you’ve ever seen. Like screaming, real laughter is a reflex — a loss of control. It’s a momentary relinquishing of your ability to conduct yourself within the confines of acceptable social behavior. And that loss of control is scary.
Maybe this is why humor in horror films is so satisfying. Yes, it’s about getting a release from the mounting tension. But it’s also a connection to a primal terror, to the madness that exists behind the facade of polite society. We laugh at something funny, and in the back of our minds is the fear that maybe this time, the laughter won’t stop. Maybe it’ll keep going, long after whatever was funny becomes less so. Maybe this time, you’ll find that the laughing, screaming madwoman turns out to be you.
- The Verge has a review of The Visit, along with an interview with Shyamalan.
- Did anybody else watch Shyamalan's t.v. miniseries, Wayward Pines? It was a pretty decent summer-(television)-slump distraction.
- Speaking of Signs, I never get tired of this scene. It illustrates exactly what I mean by Shyamalan's ability to follow a funny moment with a terrifying one, or vice-versa.
- Speaking of The Happening, this is a scene that happened in that movie.