FANTASTICA Presents: Screaming Turns to LaughingFearful Features,Movies/TV,News Christopher La Vigna
Fright and funny are strange bedfellows, but damn do they hop into the same bed quickly. Laughs and screams seem to occupy opposite ends of the emotional response spectrum, yet they pair together like peanut butter with jelly, beer with pretzels, and New York-flavored cynicism with Abel Ferrara flicks. Think about it: how many times have you watched a horror film in the company of multiplex-going strangers, or at home with a group of friends, and found yourself and everyone else screaming at a moment of pure terror, only to be laughing seconds afterwards, basking in the afterglow of tension finally released? Once that immediate scare subsides, you can’t help but giggle and guffaw at how you have eluded a simulation of death’s grasp.
This brings us to the world of pranks and pranksters, a fitting subject with the much-loved (or much-hated, depending on how gullible you are) April Fool’s Day being almost upon us. Pranksters and scream-instigators (horror filmmakers, writers, haunted house actors, etc.) are of the same ilk whether they know it or not; both derive their pleasure from breaking through the monotony of their audience/victim’s daily grind, shocking them into that extra level of consciousness that their jobs, commutes, and reality-show-riddled DVRs. It’s no wonder then, that both sides dip into the other’s pool so frequently.
Pranksters, whether they’re hidden camera-show hosts or that one friend of yours who can’t seem to ever stall his trickster urges, are always trying to get a laugh. But rather than just rip off a good joke from a comedian they’ve overheard, they choose to deception as the vehicle of their humor. It’s a risky form, considering that the prankster is always taking a gamble in terms of what kind of reaction they’re going to get; their mark could either realize they’ve been duped and share in a good-hearted laugh, or they could grow enraged and seek to enact verbal and/or physical retaliation.
There’s some notable examples of the latter reaction in horror films; one being Carrie White, the titular tortured protagonist of Brian De Palma’s beloved Stephen King adaptation. When that infamous prom night gag goes awry, and Carrie stands alone on that stage drenched in pig’s blood, her mother’s warning of “they’re all gonna laugh at you!” echoing over the soundtrack, we know that the high school bullies behind it are going to pay for their carelessness with their own blood. And bleed they do, because Jesus freaks have never been no for their active sense of humor, least of all the the telekinetic ones.
And then there’s Tobe Hooper’s infamous sequel to his surprise hit, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. Hooper and company start this film with a prankster set piece gone awry; two dingbat fraternity brothers phone in a prank call to their favorite radio station, while at the same time getting into an impromptu game of chicken with a truck they pass on the highway. This of course leads to the two having an unfortunate drive-by sawing incident with the Sawyer clan, and poor DJ Stretch ends up recording the whole thing. Laughing turns to screaming turns to bleeding out of the gash where half your head used to be.
Horror filmmakers certainly love pranks themselves–what is the average jump scare if not a well timed “gotcha!” moment, in which a silent pet or an unfamiliar hand is made resemble a threat?– but the message these two films present here is clear: mean-spirited pranks are conducted at the prankster’s peril.
But what about when real-life pranksters take horror icons out of their domain and use them for gags? Hidden camera shows and YouTube pranksters are known to get the best mileage out of horror-centric gags, and they tend to be more harmless (though it’s possible that they leave the fatalities on the cutting room floor). Take the now famous CURSE OF CHUCKY bus stop prank, in which unsuspecting citizens are frightened out of their wits when an actor dressed as the worst Good Guy doll pops out of a poster and chases them down the street. It’s not only funny because we get to watch people get a quick jolt of panic, but because we ourselves laugh at how we would react in that situation, a level of empathy also elicited by the perilous situations characters confront in any fright flick (Note: your friends will always say “I’d turn around and kick his ass!” but when push comes to shove, they all become varsity track stars).
Judging by the endless amount of footage that can be found on the internet, horror-tinted pranks are undoubtedly an international phenomenon. Hell, in Asian territories, “scary ghost girl” pranks, inspired by THE RING, THE GRUDGE, and countless other entries into K-horror & J-horror, are a prank subgenre unto themselves. No matter who you are, the image of a small pale girl with long black hair, standing menacingly or screaming frantically, is jarring and always a good place to start for a jump scare hoax.
This writer admits that if that if he had been the rube set up for this prank, he most likely would’ve broken out into a fit of hysterical laughter, right after he recovered from the massive heart attack he would immediately have suffered.
But why all the scares and pranks, especially when there are some who love and some who loathe them? Why is there such a default urge in many of us to make our neighbor jump out of their skin? If this writer had to take a guess, and it’s a theory I’ve alluded to earlier in the piece, it’s this: Life is dull, and whether or not we realize it, we need someone or something to keep us on our toes. You could argue that there are plenty of scary phenomena happening in real life to take that role, but the point of jokesters and the boogeymen is that they want to give you that jolt, but leave you alive to appreciate it, to appreciate life a little more. Hear the sounds louder, see the colors a little brighter, and so on. If you’ll allow me to bastardize a famous quote from a classic Holiday film: “It’s April Fool’s Day. I suppose everyone deserves a good laugh.”