Tuesday, 4 March 2014

What do horror films and sitcoms have in common?

I was chatting to somebody about this on Facebook the other day and realised I don't think I've ever blogged about it before (if I have, I'm sorry). So here goes. One thing that horror films and sitcoms have in common is that I can't stand to watch them. I will do everything in my power to avoid sitcoms and horror films. They give me nightmares.

(Actually, it's not so much nightmares - it's not things that happen while I'm asleep, it's while I'm awake, but most potent when I'm trying to *get* to sleep).

And yes, I do mean sitcoms as well as horror films. The cringe-comedy ones, at least (which, in my experience, is all of them, though I've been told many times that such-and-such a sitcom isn't cringey). Horror films (and horror generally) are about powerlessness and being trapped, and I'd argue that there's an important sense in which cringe comedy works the same way.

There's a theory of comedy that says we laugh when relieved, and whether or not it's true for all laughter (I think not, personally), it certainly applies to your average sitcom. When your average sitcom protagonist talks his foot into his mouth or stumbles out of a long chain of misfortune into a public place with his trousers round his ankles, it's the fact that a TV show can cut away from the aftermath that enables laughter as a response. It's getting out of that cringey situation without having to face the things about it that are making us cringe that makes it harmless enough to laugh at.

The problem for me is that I take the situation with me. If it's the trousers-round-his-ankles kind of comedy, I start worrying about the possible (or inevitable) public indecency charge. If it's the foot-in-mouth kind of cringe, it more directly triggers my social anxieties and I become unable to think of anything except how much all the other characters will now loathe and reject our unfortunate hero.

With horror films, I have the same can't-stop-thinking-about-it response. I get sucked in too deeply to the protagonist's perspective and I can't find my way through to that relief which must be a part of the entertainment value of horror (it may not be the only entertainment value in effective horror, though there is at least one theory which says that it is).

So, when I see a horror film or a sitcom, I spend the next howeverlong - it can be anything from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks - trapped in empathy with the protagonist, feeling whatever they would be feeling, whether it's shame as in a sitcom or fear as in horror. It's not pleasant.

Worse, it works even with ineffectual comedy and horror. Whether or not something is actually funny, or actually scary, I have the same problem. For a week after I saw Evil Dead 2 (which certainly isn't scary by the standards of any adult I've ever asked about it, though it's very effective as a pastiche), it took me 2-3 hours extra to get to sleep because I was busy actually feeling the fear that Bruce Campbell was hamming up so thoroughly.

Maybe this makes me a coward in some way, or maybe it's a symptom of a mental condition (the thread on facebook which prompted me to write this was in response to an article about 'Highly Sensitive people', and I've also seen things linking it to anxiety). All I can really say about it is that I've had this response for as long as I can remember - in fact, it used to be rather worse; any film or TV show that portrayed danger of any kind would trigger the problem, and even some that didn't. Things mellowed a bit at some point in my adolescence, but have been pretty constant since.

Anyway, if we're ever hanging out and you put on a sitcom, please don't be offended if I bolt like a startled horse.

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