The Comic Monster as a Manifestation of Human Anxieties

Originally written for Visual and Environmental Studies 190 (The Horror Film), taught by Professor Adam Hart, at Harvard University, in May 2016.

Broadly speaking, horror cinema can be seen as the artistic attempt to create physical manifestations of human anxieties. By usually seeking to scare audience members, these films bring underlying fears to the surface. The workings of the horror genre and the effect that horror films can have on viewers have been discussed at great length, but relatively little attention has been given to the similarities that horror’s approach and use have to those of comedy cinema, another popular filmic genre that can also be seen to concern itself with the representation of anxieties. The two genres have certainly been linked in the past—the very title of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Charles Barton, 1948) refers to icons of American horror and comedy cinema, and Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton starred in horror comedies as early as the 1920s—but much of the writing regarding both horror and comedy focuses on examples of unions between the two genres, ignoring the similarities between non-comedic horror films and unscary comedies. Similarly, papers like Noël Carroll’s “Horror and Humor” analyze how characters like Frankenstein’s monster can be used for two different purposes (horror and comedy), hardly addressing how horror monsters and comic characters can be used for similar purposes. This paper seeks to show how comedy, like horror, can speak to underlying human anxieties by capturing them in the form of what I will call the “comic monster.” Using Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Steve Carr, 2009) as a frame of reference, I will show how much of the writing on horror monsters can apply to comic monsters as well, and I will use these similarities in conception to explain how the comic monster and the horror monster are both used to address similar concerns.

It might be useful to define the “comic monster” before moving further. This paper will use the term to describe the character in a comedy film that acts as the brunt of the joke. That is to say, we laugh at the comic monster, not with the comic monster. Paul Blart is a comic monster, as much of the comedy of his film comes at his expense. Reaction to the comic monster is typically not mimetic; we laugh when Blart falls down, but he certainly does not laugh. It is not the case that we can never laugh with the comic monster, as laughing at a joke that Blart tells would not preclude him from also being directly laughed at for much of the rest of the film. Louis C.K., as a counter-example, is not a comic monster during his stand-up routines: we laugh at his jokes, but we do not laugh at him (unless his jokes have him as the target of laughter, as is true with self-deprecating humor, but this is a grey area that will remain beyond the scope of this paper). Note that not all comedies necessarily have a comic monster, in this sense of the term: it is not clear that we laugh at the expense of any character in Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971), for example. This definition of the comic monster is admittedly rough, but it will suffice for the purposes of this paper, which will focus on Paul Blart: Mall Cop and the subgenre of comedies of which it is a member.

Perhaps the most conspicuous difference between horror monsters and comic monsters (and the most difficult to reconcile, at face value) relates to the fear that horror monsters can instill in audience members. Except in horror comedies and select scenes in the occasional non-horror comedy, comic monsters are decisively unscary. In “The Nature of Horror,” Carroll writes that “monsters are dangerous” and that “threat is compounded by revulsion, nausea, and disgust” (53). Though comic monsters can certainly cause disgust—later paragraphs will address this claim in more detail—the threat of violence seems to create an important basis for differentiation with horror monsters. Violence has been present in comedies (and in comic monsters) since the silent era, however, with much of the humor in slapstick comedies by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton resulting from injury to the protagonist or even to other characters. Indeed, two moments in the first half of Paul Blart: Mall Cop are especially violent: (1) when an unaware Blart runs into and dents a parked car with his Segway and (2) when a drunk Blart throws a karaoke singer to the floor before falling out of a window himself. Importantly, none of these actions results in lasting physical damage to others. There is no need for characters to fear Blart, because there is never the threat that he will actually harm anyone. He manhandles the singer, but he does so without any malicious intent and without actually hurting him in any way (at least, we are made to believe that the singer is not hurt). In addition, much of the violence (especially the more violent comic violence) is inflicted upon Blart himself. When he dents the car, it is his own body at risk; when he falls out of the window, he has no one to blame but himself. “The Balloonatic” (Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton, 1923) would not be funny if Keaton’s body broke down every time it was pushed to its limits. The only points in the film during which there is the clear probability that Blart could hurt other characters come in the film’s second half, when he fights against the thieves; because these characters are villains, however, the viewer does not associate himself with the thieves and thus does not model his reaction to Blart on that of the thieves.

All this is to say that comic monsters can certainly be violent. Where horror monsters’ violence is meant to represent the threat they pose to others (and by extension, the threat that the ideas associated with them pose to the viewer), comic monsters’ violence represents the threat they pose to themselves. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), Leatherface’s otherness (associated with his social isolation) hurts the protagonists, so we are afraid of him; Paul Blart’s otherness (associated with his obesity) hurts himself, so we laugh at him. Each film sees its monster as an “other” in some way, a character outside the constraints of normality that most of the rest of the characters occupy. These qualities can originate in identical anxieties—in a general sense, rejection of the other—but manifest themselves with different targets, turning one into the object of comedy and the other into the object of horror.

One common method in which comic monsters and horror monsters are both made to be seen as “others” is through category transgression, in which a monster’s existence on the boundary between two categories pushes them out of either one. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen refers to horror monsters as “disgusting hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration” (6). The example he cites is that of the title character in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), which is both humanoid and reptilian (among other seemingly contradictory adjectives). Carroll makes the stronger claim that horror monsters are “creatures . . . whose existence contemporary science challenges” (“Horror and Humor” 148). United, these two conceptions tell us that a monster in not simply the unfamiliar, but the unfamiliar composed of elements of the familiar. No scientist would refute the existence of a person like Paul Blart, but he still exists at the border between two seemingly contradictory boundaries. Blart is severely obese, making him unfit for strenuous physical activity, but his occupation as a security guard often requires him to exert himself physically. This combination (“obese” + “security guard”) is certainly not unfamiliar to most viewers of the film: we have all seen at least one overweight police officer or security guard in real life. Paul Blart: Mall Cop does not challenge our understanding of the universe in the way that Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922), whose monster is a bat-man hybrid, might. The film thus does not play with our conception of how the world is, but rather of how the world should be. Much of the humor in Paul Blart: Mall Cop comes from the assumption that it is wrong for a man whose occupation requires physical activity to be unable to perform physical activity. Note that Carroll rejects the claim that viewers are afraid of horror films due to a fear that the horror monster is literally a threat to them (“The Nature of Horror” 56). Both genres, then, can be said to expose the viewer’s disgust regarding the boundary cases in an ordered conception of the universe.

A frequent example of category transgression in the slasher film is what Carol J. Clover calls “gender distress” (77), the trait of questionable masculinity, which is not absent from comedy cinema. Perhaps beginning with Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), many slasher villains (which shall be seen as an example of the horror monster for the purposes of this paper) exhibit confused sexualities: Norman Bates’s body houses the psyches of both himself and his mother. Leatherface wears a woman’s face as a mask for the conclusion of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Though both of these characters are ostensibly biologically male, the underlying male concern with having unacceptable masculinity is a particular anxiety addressed in the horror of each film. Blart, like Bates and Leatherface, is ostensibly biologically male, but the inability he faces throughout much of the film to win any woman’s heart or to save the woman he loves relates to the same concerns that lead to the interesting characterizations of certain slasher villains. Where Bates’s confused sexuality is a source of unsettling horror, Blart’s is a source of comedy, his frequent awkward attempts to impress Amy ending in slapstick failure.

One glaring difference between films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and films like Paul Blart: Mall Cop relates to a point that Cohen makes in “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”: at the end of a horror film, “the monster itself turns immaterial and vanishes, to reappear somewhere else” (4). This is to say that horror films do not allow their monsters to be definitively destroyed. Though Bates is incarcerated at the end of Psycho, the final image of his face makes his threat and insanity more pronounced than ever. Sally is safe from Leatherface at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but Leatherface himself is also free, and he will presumably be able to repeat his violent acts on future visitors to the area. Blart, on the other hand, eventually wins Amy’s heart; though the closing credits show the couple riding Segways in a rather embarrassing manner, Blart’s laughter in these shots shows that he is in on the joke, marking him as having completed a transition out of the “comic monster” category. Similarly, Spy (Paul Feig, 2015) ends with Susan Cooper freed from her concerns about being an unfit secret agent and about being unable to be loved by a man, her confidence restored in the final scene. That comedies should end with a sort of redemption of the anxieties that plague their monsters throughout the film while horror films conclude before the anxieties are quelled does not change the fact that both genres are meant to deal with these anxieties in the first place. Horror and comedy both create monsters to manifest these anxieties; that the former depicts their permanence and the latter the ability one has to conquer them highlights the difference in attitude the two genres have toward the implications of the anxieties, not toward the existence of the anxieties at all.

Just as horror films pull from cultural taboos based in innate fears of disease and sickness, comedies can address human concerns with the grotesque. Mary Douglas discusses how ancient societies saw the splitting open of coconuts as an act of defilement that made the food impure, relating to the health risks associated with consuming it (33). This rejection of something as impure due to its potential for spreading disease might explain a number of phenomena in horror cinema: rats in Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979), flies in The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986), or mulched flesh in Dead Alive (Peter Jackson, 1992). It also relates to Paul Blart’s character, whose obesity is the cause for much of the film’s humor. There is nothing overtly funny about corpulence, but there is certainly a societal rejection of obesity that seems to be a large reason for the reason these jokes are made in the first place (the comic monster, like the horror monster, is “an embodiment of a certain cultural moment” [Cohen 4]). Horror takes its concerns with cultural taboo and scares us with them, while comedy causes us to laugh at them, keeping in line with the methods pointed out earlier in this paper. Even though the dangers of obesity on one’s health are almost never brought up (it would be difficult to imagine a sequel in which Blart dies of heart disease), Paul Blart: Mall Cop clearly comes from the internalization of a rejection of obesity, just as Nosferatu the Vampyre is evidence of a rejection of rats. The sources of anxiety in comedies and horror films are not necessarily explicitly linked with the reasons they became anxieties in the first place, but they still speak to a cultural consciousness that understands their existence.

The laugh and the scream might have more in common than the differing moods that provoke them might suggest. Even if comedies are designed to poke fun while horror films are meant to scare, both genres have the goal of highlighting human concerns and addressing them in some way. Not all anxieties are necessarily addressed by both horror films and comedies, and their methods of reproducing and manifesting anxieties are certainly different. There is enough overlap, however, to warrant close examination of the similar processes inherent in each genre as well as their places as products of a culture.

Works Cited

Carroll, Noël. “Horror and Humor.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57.2 (1999): 145-160. PDF file.

—. “The Nature of Horror.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46.1 (1987): 51-59. PDF file.

Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. 2nd ed. Austin: U of Texas P, 2015. 68-115. PDF file.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. 3-25. PDF file.

Douglas, Mary. “Secular Defilement.” Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Ark Paperbacks, 1984. 29-40. PDF file.

Films Referenced

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Dir. Charles Barton. Universal-International, 1948. Film.

Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1979. Film.

“The Balloonatic.” Dir. Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton. Buster Keaton Productions, 1923. Film.

Dead Alive. Dir. Peter Jackson. WingNut Films, 1992. Film.

The Fly. Dir. David Cronenberg. Brooksfilms, 1986. Film.

Harold and Maude. Dir. Hal Ashby. Paramount Pictures, 1971. Film.

“The Haunted House.” Dir. Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton. Joseph M. Schenk Productions, 1921. Film.

“Haunted Spooks.” Dir. Alfred J. Goulding and Hal Roach. Perf. Harold Lloyd. Rolin Films, 1920. Film.

Nosferatu [Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens]. Dir. F.W. Murnau. Prana-Film GmbH, 1922. Film.

Nosferatu the Vampyre [Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht]. Dir. Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, 1979. Film.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Dir. Steve Carr. Columbia Pictures, 2009. Film.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Pictures, 1960. Film.

Spy. Dir. Paul Feig. Twentieth Century Fox, 2015. Film.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Dir. Tobe Hooper. Bryanston Distributing, 1974. Film.

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