The Horror of Humor Tension, Dehumanization, and Related Observations

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The Horror of Humor

Tension, Dehumanization, and Related Observations

By Eric D. Olson



Abstract

This paper deals with a specific theory of humor in relation to a process of dehumanization. It provides a review of relevant theories of humor and laughter and explores in depth the relief theory, which states that humor comes from the release of mental tension and expectations. It discusses a process of dehumanization, which is then applied to multiple forms of jokes and situational humor. This shows the ways that humor is capable of making the subject of humor less human. Having thus described the application of the dehumanization in the case of humor, the paper moves to connect the distinct genres of humor and horror through the dehumanization process. An analysis of the specific nature of horror through dehumanization results in a common thread in the way that people view the characters of horror movies and the subjects of certain types of humor. This is then examined in the context of the observer’s responsibility to prevent the dehumanization of others.

Many have heard the saying that laughter is the best medicine. But what about the circumstances when this is not true? Things that make some people laugh are highly offensive to other people. However, unless all are content with the idea of allowing a purely relativistic formulation of something as basic and pervasive as humor, there must be a theoretical basis to humor. Many ideas of humor require the treatment of other persons as lesser beings, as in the case of the genres of Blonde jokes, the performances of clowns, and racial and stereotypical jokes. These jokes do not merely work in a fashion that insult or belittle; they actually serve to make the butt of the joke less human in the eyes of the audience. Thus, the formulation of a theory of humor and dehumanization is required. However, it is not possible to stop at this point. Humor, considered to be a necessary part of society, seems to be linked to the horror genre, which seems to make for an odd combination. When the connections between the two genres are examined, it becomes obvious that the study of the dehumanizing effects of horror and humor are necessary, not just to prevent the dehumanization of others, but to prevent the audience member from dehumanizing herself.


I. Laughter and Humor
In order to understand the discourse that follows, I feel I must draw a distinction between humor and laughter. Laughter, first and foremost, is a bodily function that comes from a combination of physical processes. Laughter results from many different events: observing something amusing, physical stimulation, or excitement, as when a baby laughs upon being tossed in the air.1 Humor can be found in the first of these three. The definition of humor that will be used throughout this paper is as follows: an involuntary state of mental amusement that comes about via observation of action, speech, writing, or introspection.2 The important distinction between the two is that humor is much more exclusive, requiring amusement. Being tickled may cause a person to laugh, but that does not mean they are amused. However, if one is amused at the sight of someone’s plight as they are tickled, then the requirement for humor has been met for the observer. Likewise, when something extraordinary happens, such as a near brush with death or an inability to deal with a situation, laughter, sometimes hysterical, can result. Again, this laughter cannot be said to result from a humorous state, but rather excitement of the senses. Laughter can follow from humor, but humor is not a necessary condition for laughter, and laughter is not sufficient to indicate humor. It is important to note that my requirement of amusement, a mental state, for humor also requires a primarily psychological explanation of laughter. For the sake of this paper, when I refer to someone or something laughing, I assume that it results from humor.

II. Making Humor Amusing: Three Theories

From Aristotle to Hobbes, from Plato to Freud, some of the greatest minds have grappled with the issue of humor and its ethical implications. From their studies, three major theories have emerged. The first, which is generally referred to as the Superiority Theory, was most famously posited by Thomas Hobbes. “Sudden glory, is the passion which makes those grimaces called laughter; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleases them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof the suddenly applaud themselves.”3 The Superiority Theory views laughter and humor as generally negative. Plato first wrote in favor of the theory in the Philebus. He was especially opposed to laughter, and was not in favor of comedic theatre. “Men of worth must not be represented as overcome by laughter, and still less should we allow such a representation of the gods.”4 Aristotle agreed, but took the Superiority Theory further. He didn’t see any problem with humorous attitudes in moderation, but such moderation rarely occurs; those who go beyond moderation are not ethically desirable:

Now they who exceed in the ridiculous are judged to be Buffoons and Vulgar, catching it in any and every way and at any cost, and aiming rather at raising laughter than at saying what is seemly and at avoiding pain to the object of their wit… [T]he Buffoon cannot resist the ridiculous, sparing neither himself nor any one else so that he can but raise his laugh, saying things of such kind as no man of refinement, would say and some which he would not even tolerate if said by others in his hearing.5


Then, to Aristotle, to go beyond moderation is to be a buffoon, and in order to resist this effect, one requires tact. Since he feels that it is difficult if not impossible for the average person to achieve this moderation at all times, he recommends limiting the exercise of humor in order to enhance one’s character. Following in Plato’s footsteps, he argues against the sort of humor that uses another (or even the joker’s self) as the “butt” of the joke. To find humor is to point out a fault; since the gods desire people to reach their great selves, pointing out flaws slows that process. Ergo, humor and laughter should not be practiced, as they are ethical impediments.

Though the above authors make a strong argument for the Superiority Theory, many problems still exist. The primary problem, for the purpose of this paper, comes from the fact that it defines itself in laughter, rather than in humor. Since laughter comes from many things other than genuine humor, I find it hard to grant the Superiority Theory full credence as a theory of humor.6

The second theory of laughter is the Incongruity Theory, and it states that people find humor in a situation because of an observed incongruity from the situation to their expectations of that situation. Thus, comic amusement can be found in deviations from the accepted norm of behavior. Noël Carroll gives the example of a 90-pound sumo wrestler in his essay, “Humour.”7 Sumo wrestling is generally undertaken by very large participants: so large, in fact, that the appearance of a 90-pound sumo wrestler would cause laughter to circle the ceremonial ring. What inspires amusement under this theory is the perception of a difference from the expected outcome of an action or situation.8 The basis of this theory is sound, and most of the currently practicing theorists that study humor or laughter focus on the Incongruity Theory or some derivative of the same.

John Morreall takes the Incongruity Theory a step further than had been done up to that point by defining the theory in terms of a psychological shift. This pleasant shift is caused by a perceived inconsistency as identified above. The move that Morreall makes intentionally creates a more scientific feeling to his framing of the theory, but it is still vulnerable to many of the same critiques. Namely, there is no one definition of incongruity. The definition I created earlier, though the accepted definition of Morreall and other theorists is far too narrow to encompass all cases, while Carroll comments that the other primary means of elucidation of incongruity is through the use of prototypical examples, which creates too broad a definition of humor. A definition that is too broad creates a conflict between what is truly amusing and other things that may seem amusing. This problem is not easily avoidable.9 I find that it also runs the risk, especially with a scientific formulation (Morreall), that the notion of incongruity has not been proven to work in the same manner for all audience members.

The third theory and the one that I intend to address on an extended basis throughout the remainder of this paper is known as the “release theory” or the “relief theory.” Both titles are equally apt; in the interest of consistency, the following portions of the paper will refer to this theory as the relief theory. The relief theory is first and foremost concerned with the psychological. Herbert Spencer frames the relief theory in terms of nervous and muscular excitement:

That laughter is a form of muscular excitement, and so illustrates the general law that feeling passing a certain pitch habitually vents itself into […] action, scarcely needs pointing out. It perhaps needs pointing out, however, that strong feeling of almost any kind produces this result. It is not a sense of the ludicrous, only, which does it; nor are the various forms of joyous emotion the sole additional causes.10

This excerpt, in addition to providing the basic framework for the relief theory, also provides a critique of the Incongruity Theory, which states that the observation of the incongruent or inconsistent with regard to expectations is the only force that creates amusement. The primary point of the relief theory, though it is not perfectly clear in the above passage, is that the observation of an action or situation causes a buildup of nervous excitement or tension, and then amusement is found in the release of that tension. This theory is referred to as the relief theory not only because it relieves the tension found in the lead-up to amusement, but also for the after-effects of amusement, which include relief. Noël Carroll rephrases this theory slightly, but the idea is the same. He states that the notion of expectation is less problematic than nervous energy or any emotional state. When a joke is told, expectations build as the punch line approaches. These expectations inspire a desire for closure: the answer to the riddle or the punch line of the joke.11 This moment of closure is the release of tension. Though the idea is the same, sometimes the semantics of the argument matter a great deal.

On its face, it is the simplest theory of humor and laughter. However, Professor John Morreall does not take this theory of laughter seriously. He argues that a theory that involves the release of nervous energy is a tautology, and that all that can be said from the relief theory’s point of view is that situations involving the release of emotional energy involve the release of emotional energy. This statement, of course, is obvious on its face and meaningless.12 However, Morreall does not take into account the nature of the release. Part of the problem with his interpretation is his reliance on “emotional energy.” Yes, when one uses merely the broad term of “emotional energy,” it becomes nonsensical to claim meaning in its release. However, by refining the type of emotional energy involved, tension, and the ways in which that tension is released, I believe that I overcome the difficulty of the above tautology. What I consider to be the source of the tension I have mentioned here will be discussed in greater detail in the following sections. The primary source of this tension is the dehumanization or humanization of people or objects/animals, respectively.

The form of the relief theory that I work with in this paper is not pure. The deliberate incorporation of some aspects of the Incongruity theory fills the small gaps that Morreall and others protest. However, since I do not frame my argument in the light of incongruity, it is more appropriate to refer to this as the relief theory. The use of tension for the purpose of this paper, though it is not pure in the same way that “emotional energy” is pure to the original formulation of this theory, it is still consistent and applicable to contemporary situations. “‘A good joke provides tension, and then, release of that tension,’ says Greg Giraldo, a Harvard Law School graduate turned comic who hosted Comedy Central’s Friday Night with Greg Giraldo show. ‘You build the tension by saying things that are controversial. The release is the laugh. The bigger the surprise or insight in your joke, the bigger the laugh.’”13 Giraldo, a working comedian with an understanding of what is amusing, relies on the aforementioned relief theory, and this suggests the non-theoretical accuracy of the relief theory.
III. Dehumanization: Defining a Process

Before I step further into this analysis, it is important to discuss dehumanization. In order to “humanize” an object or animal under my definition, one must apply human standards or human conditions to said object or animal. Human standards, as I refer to them, are cultural and societal ideas regarding norms or activities. An example of the application of human standards to an animal exists when a dog owner trains the animal to toilet in a certain location. Such activity is not natural to dogs or wolves; instead, it comes from a human sense of decency and nicety. Human conditions, on the other hand, can be traits or characteristics that are unique to humans. The desire to wear clothing is a uniquely human characteristic. It comes not only from a societal requirement, but from the necessity to remain warm in inclement weather.14 However, when a pet owner applies that characteristic to their pet, whether it is a dog, a cat, or a potbelly pig,15 they humanize that animal. It is less common to humanize an object, but it is done. Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway humanizes a volleyball. He talks to it, imagines it responding, and even makes a face for it. He names the volleyball after its manufacturer, Wilson.16

However, humanization is not the object of this explication. Dehumanization works in much the opposite fashion as humanization. Humanization is a positive process, bringing objects or animals that do not possess human characteristics or qualities closer to the human ideal, thus positively moving the object or animal. In the opposite process, dehumanization, the original subject is a human being. The object of one who dehumanizes another is to decrease that person’s humanity, thus negatively moving the person. It is not possible for such a move to take place without the influence of an outside party. The traits that humanize, as noted in the last paragraph, are not the same as the traits that dehumanize. To humanize, one applies human conditions or standards; to dehumanize, one removes some of what are generally known as intrinsic human traits, such as dignity or liberty. Dignity, defined by Merriam-Webster as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed” (146), is commonly impugned by applying derogatory traits or ideas to a person, in some of the forms of “humor” described in the next section. I contend, for the purpose of this paper, that all humans17 possess dignity through their self-determination. Deliberately or unintentionally impugning or calling into question the dignity of a person for whatever reason constitutes dehumanization. Dehumanization also creates tension, as described in the prior section. The fact that a group, person, or object is treated in such a way as to dehumanize causes the audience to react by creating mental tension. Dehumanization is not an easy thing to do, mentally. People find it hard to dismiss, even temporarily, the humanity of the subject of a joke or amusing situation, and thus this creates tension in a way that other forms of humor not related to dehumanization cannot effectively mimic. This is also why some of the most popular forms of humor, as noted below, rely on dehumanization: more tension, in many cases, equals more amusement and laughter. For professionals such as Giraldo, the object is to create maximum amusement, thus creating a positive experience for an audience and increasing the professional’s fame and personal fortune.

Having established a theoretical process for determining whether a joke or otherwise amusing situation or comment dehumanizes the subject, it is important to show the theory in action, which allows the move beyond idle theorization.


IV. Dehumanization in Practice: Clowning Around, Blonde Jokes, and Stereotypical Humor

One of the largest problems with humor as an aesthetic field is the friction humor often finds with ethics. Some jokes, such as puns and witticisms, are genuinely harmless. No one is offended by the following joke: “Why couldn’t the bicycle stand up on its own?” Because it is two-tired! Many things are funny because they are ironic in nature. For example, note the photo at right, which is courtesy of Wikipedia, an online experiment in community knowledge. There is no offense to be found in the placement of the “Dead End” sign near the cemetery, but it is possible to glean amusement from such placement. A “Dead End” sign located on a street will not normally inspire amusement in the viewer. What is amusing is the ironic placement of the sign; this kind of irony is situational in nature.18 The “Dead End” sign in the photo is amusing because of the circumstances surrounding it, not due to something intrinsic to it or some action it undertakes. There is nothing personal or intrinsic to the sign that is being acknowledged in a derogatory sense when a person receives a sense of amusement from the sign.19 The distinction can be found in the fact that a situational irony, while it provides amusement, does not make a motion through either the dehumanization or humanization processes noted earlier. Humor from situational irony is the most difficult of the types of humor to understand via the relief theory. I propose that the tension that builds in the mind at the sight of the sign is released almost immediately upon comprehension, though the tension begins to build at the first notice of the irony, before the conscious part of the mind realizes such an irony exists. Though there is tension as described, few would argue that the tension in a case of situational irony or a pun would be comparable to the tension found in a dehumanizing joke.

Other forms of humor move into the realm of dehumanization. Take the example of the clown, which Carroll explicates in “Humour.” When paraphrased, his argument amounts to the following description. Clowns vaguely resemble humans in an anatomical sense, but are not consciously considered to be the same as you or I. Clowns are too short or too tall; their mouths are painted larger than their natural mouths, which makes the eyes and other features appear small. Clowns wear gigantic shoes, which not only make them appear out-of-proportion, but different from humans. Generally, clowns are seen as less intelligent than the non-clown human being. Clowns can take abuse that would cause grievous injury in the average person. When a clown is struck in the head with a sledgehammer, she generally makes an exaggerated fall, whereas a non-clown entity would require an immediate trip to the hospital. Clowns fall from insane heights and spring up to take another such fall. It is as if a clown is not made of flesh and blood; rather, she is constructed of rubber. Instead of bones that snap or shatter, the bones of a clown bend, flex, and then spring back into position.20

By fleshing out the distinction between the nation of clowns and humanity, it becomes clear that clowns are a sort of “other.” Clowns are clearly separate from humans in their physical structure, but also in the way humans view clowns as opposed to other humans. Due to the physical dissimilarities between humans and clowns, people don’t fear for the health and well-being of clowns. Humans can laugh at clowns’ disproportionate features, features that mock the human form of anatomy. These features are generally non-frightening. People do not need to fear for the well-being of clowns, due to their different nature. Humans are able to laugh at clowns because, to the observer, they are not human in many observable ways. This is where the dehumanization of humor begins. Though the clown sets itself apart from humanity through its actions, the audience is unable to completely dismiss the humanity of the clown. As the clown performs the stunts and pratfalls that are characteristic of most routines, tension builds in the mind, due to the inability of the mind to dismiss the possibility of injury. The humorous way in which the clown will end such a pratfall serves as the means to release that tension in a way that gives the clown the audience’s appreciation. However, it does little to assuage the fact that the audience viewed the clown as a less-than-human being during the pratfall itself.

If one looks farther, it is easy to see that the seeming vast majority of non-ironic humor depends on such characterizations. For example, “Blonde jokes” would not be effective if the comedian based their jokes only on the actions of people they knew personally. Here is a sample blonde joke that is effective for my explication: “Did you hear about the blond that needed gas money?” She sold her car for it (Lotsofjokes.com). Blonde jokes are equivalent to the physical comedy adopted by clowns in that it requires the “caricaturization” of the subject of the joke. A caricature, as drawn by a street artist or professional, creates an altered view of a person by enlarging some features while minimizing other features. Caricaturists also introduce unrelated aspects meant to make person appear less human or more attractive. When I refer to caricaturization, I mean the way a joke changes a person or group of person in order to allow them to function as the butt of a joke, whether it is to improve that group or degrade that group. Generally, caricaturization (my term) is a process of degradation; it makes others less ideal in order to provoke humorous feelings. Blonde jokes function the same way.

There is no real evidence that blonde women have loose sexual morals or are less intelligent than any other person, but these features, seemingly unrelated to actual blonde women, have been placed at the forefront of the American culture as the chief descriptors of these women. The earlier joke, though not sexually based, was in the minority, as approximately 70.5%21 of the jokes on the webpage of blonde jokes were either primarily sexual or sexual and intellectual in nature. Dehumanization comes through blonde jokes in the fact that these unsubstantiated claims regarding blondes are meant to inspire amusement. This amusement dehumanizes the blonde subject of the joke. The major leap between the first category of dehumanization, that of clowns, and the second, that of blondes, is that clowns are not “really” clowns. At the end of the day, clowns wash off their makeup and go home. They were not dehumanized as people, but as characters. Though as clowns, people characterized them as less than human because of their profession, the fact is that the individuals were not dehumanized by something intrinsically bound to their lives. Blonde jokes do the same, but to central parts of the real person’s personality and characteristics; this places them a step worse on the hierarchy.

This leads to the final and especially dark category of racially- and gender-based jokes. It is not easy to see how people find humor in jokes that have basically no redeeming value. Caricaturization plays a part in this, but cannot be held totally to account. What is funny about a joke that is used in such a manner as to degrade a race, sexual orientation? In fact, I would go so far as to say that this group doesn’t actually belong in the genre of humor. However, these statements or situations still create amusement and humor for some. The White Pride website “Stormfront.org” contains a message board section, one thread of which is entitled “Encounters with ‘Stereotypes.’” The ‘thread,’ or series of comments, was filled with members’ experiences that, in their mind, were funny, and ‘confirmed’ stereotypes. Member “Scott” began the thread with his experience:

A few weeks ago I stopped by KFC for a quick bite to eat and saw 5 tables taken by black families. I thought to myself "Damn, it IS true!" And earlier today I was at a red light when a rusty El Camino pulls up beside me. Behind the wheel is a [M]exican and in his lap is a trembling, barking [C]hihuahua!! It was truly a "wtf!" moment. Do any of you have a story to share about an encounter with a walking, talking punchline [sic]?22

While this website was filled with invective, some of the most chilling were those experiences members cited as amusing or “funny.” It is easy to see that a comment such like this clearly satisfies the conditions for being a dehumanizing comment. It was also obvious that other viewers of the website found this comment funny, in the form of the “lol’s” and “lmao’s”23 that followed. It is difficult to say why some find this brand of “humor” funny, but it is clear that people that do find this sort of humor funny are not rare. It is not hard to imagine where the dehumanization of the subjects of the above described jokes happens, but it isn’t as easy to describe why people find these same jokes amusing. Amusement is one of several ways to release tension; arguably, it is the easiest. The reason that ordinary people who do not possess Euro- or andro-centric attitudes occasionally find themselves laughing at such an offensive piece of humor is that the tension has built, and must be released in one way or another. Though they do not agree with the attitudes behind the dehumanization, the dehumanization still causes tension, and though the tension is sometimes relieved through other outlets,24 sometimes it is relieved through humor.

In this section, I briefly outlined what I consider to be the chief areas of humor that are either affected by the dehumanization process or are safe in regard to dehumanization. Dehumanization is a process that degrades the person in the eyes of the speaker and others. The fact that dehumanization is so prevalent in the field of humor, which seemed harmless prior to the earlier explications, brings up another question. Where else can one find dehumanization as a standard process? This question leads conveniently to the next section of this paper.


V. Tension: Dehumanization as a Coping Mechanism and the Transition from Humor to Horror

Let us return, for a moment, to the relief theory mentioned earlier. The idea that dehumanization and expectations cause tension as they build up in the mind was discussed. However, the release of this tension does not only come in the form of laughter. In an era where observation of news stories that show graphic videos of crimes is common, many people experience this tension in non-humorous fashions everyday. Anyone who has seen this sort of video footage may be shocked the first time, but after that point has an inkling of the end result of the tape. Tension builds as the observer watches the oft-grainy, black-and-white picture, waiting for the perpetrator to do a dastardly deed, often a violent one, and then either escape or be caught. This tension comes as a result of the dehumanization occurring in the observer’s head. Often, these police videos involve the death of a perpetrator or assault of a victim, and the observation of such things are not necessarily easy for the observer to cope with. Once this end is established as a possibility in the mind of the viewer, tension builds as a way to prepare the viewer for this end. Though laughter is not always the end result, it is a possible outcome as the tension is released through one of many possible methods. This sort of tension and dehumanization is closely linked to none other than the horror genre.

The popularity of the horror genre is so great as to be difficult to comprehend. Ever since such authors as Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker penned their horrific masterpieces, society has had a thirst for horror, whether in books or, more recently, in television and movies. However, there are many kinds of horror, as there are types of humor. I will only draw two distinctions, since the focus of this section is not on the written word, but the visual medium of television and movies. This is the distinction between “pure horror” and “slasher horror.”25

What most of us think of when we think of a horror movie would belong to the genre of “pure horror.” Pure horror, as it is here formulated, primarily concerns itself with the psychological effects of suspense, foreshadowing, and dread on the part of the viewer. The emphasis in pure horror is not on the act of the murder, mutilation, or other horrifying things that might occur, but on the spaces between acts that lead up to the climax of the action. This category is deliberately expanded to include many movies and programs that would be considered primarily suspense-based “thrillers.”26 The pure horror category is uniquely similar to the standard process explicated in the relief theory. Suspense builds, and as it builds, tension grows in the mind of the audience member. More than the nature of the deaths, however, the tension is released by the actuality of the occurrence of the death: after such a buildup of tension corresponding with suspense, the mere fact that the foreshadowed event reached actualization is enough to release the tension. In pure horror movies, there is much less dehumanization than in slasher horror movies, but it is still present.

Take, for example, the move Final Destination 2. The general plot involves several teens and adults who were saved from a massive car accident in which they all would have perished because one girl had a premonition of the accident and prevented the entrance of the survivors onto the freeway where the accident took place. However, the survivors spend the remainder of the movie being stalked by Death itself; Death is finally thwarted at the end of the movie, though along the way it claims all but two of the survivors. Though the deaths are creative and do not lack for gory intensity, the focus of the movie deals with foreshadowing and the planning against death, though the viewer is aware at all times that there are more deaths to come. This creates the tension: the buildup to each death. The tension is released by the bizarre nature of the deaths: they are described in the movie as freak accidents. In pure horror movies, there is much less dehumanization than in slasher horror movies, but it is still present.27

“Slasher horror,” as I define it, deals with movies that are focused on the act of murder or disasters and the gore with which they can take place as opposed to the development of the story. Many, but not all, of these moves lack significant plot elements or don’t necessarily make sense in terms of the origins of the situation that the characters find themselves in. This is because the focus of the movie is not on the plot, but rather the interesting and gory ways that the characters are killed. However simplistic or nonsensical the average plot is, the slasher horror category is where the vast majority of dehumanization in horror comes into play. The incredibly horrific, gory deaths that are the primary characteristic of the slasher category require the use of dehumanization. This accomplished through several of the methods listed earlier.

The characters of slasher horror are generally portrayed as severely lacking of intelligence, while overly attractive. This not only serves to reinforce the process the dehumanization sponsored by humor and society, but also allows the audience member to shift some of the blame for the gory death that is to come onto the character herself. If a character makes an error and allows the monster to be released, it is almost certain that in the end, one of two scenarios will play out. The monster will either end the life of that character in a gruesome way, or someone that person holds dear. Also, slasher movies rarely end well for attractive female characters, especially those who are blondes or participate in nude scenes. As before, this plays off stereotypes of attractive women, as well as giving the audience the ability to blame her for her “immorality.” By assigning blame and deficient characteristics, the audience subconsciously dehumanizes the characters of the movie, so even when the characters die in horrific ways, the effect is not as devastating as in a movie where the humanity of characters is meticulously developed and scripted. Of course, the tension builds in much the same way as in movies belonging to the pure horror category; the primary difference is in the dehumanization required by the slasher category.

The example I would like to cite as an example of this genre is the recent slasher movie, Jason X. This movie is the tenth movie in the Friday the Thirteenth movie series, and is improbably set both in the future and in space. There is little to the plot that suggests any character development or attempts at making the situation the characters find themselves in more believable. In the Friday the Thirteenth series, in all movies but the first, the monster/killer is Jason Vorhees, a boy who drowned in the waters of Lake Crystal. Grown up, the killer is nearly invincible, and the characters of each movie hope restrain or to “kill” Jason, since it is impossible to approach the problem from another angle. Since this is the tenth movie in the series, it is obvious that these attempts were never successful. The push of the movie into the future had the effect of opening up many new means of death to the director of the film. Though Jason eventually is defeated, it is obvious that the focus of the movie is on the gory deaths of the crew of the space ship where Jason finds himself. The deaths are creative and gory, and intolerable without the effects of the dehumanization process. One character is thrown on a giant drill; he was the character that not only turned on the drill, but left himself vulnerable to attack. The expectation of his death because of these errors builds the tension that is characteristic of the relief theory, and the death acts as the release mechanism for the tension. Though this is one example, it is representative of the dehumanization process and functioning of the relief theory in the slasher horror category.28

Now, having discussed the two categories of horror, it is important to briefly discuss the aim or goal of horror as a genre. Carroll claims that “works of horror are designed to elicit a certain kind of affect. I shall presume that this is an emotional state […]”29 The emotional state that Carroll claims that horror elicits are, in the context of this paper, the state of tension espoused by the relief theory. The rise and fall of action in works of horror are meant to work in the same way as those of humor: the professional works to create a sense of tension, through dehumanization and expectation, then releases the tension in such a way as to create a sort of inner peace in the audience member, whether that is through humor or an interesting death sequence.
Conclusions: Connections and Implications

In the previous section of this paper, it became clear that humor and horror are connected in a way that is not readily apparent to the average audience member, not that the average audience member should be expected to draw the distinctions made above. It is difficult to comprehend that the same mechanism that allows us to find a joke or situation to be amusing also allows us to witness a horrific death in a slasher horror film, with only mild differences. Through the dehumanization process and the relief theory, it is possible to note how both a joke about an ethnic group and a character in a film dying a horrific death are similar in a procedural sense. However, what does this mean in a broader context? Though what remains of this paper will not focus on the sociological effects of the subject of the jokes and movies, I feel that it closely relates to oppression theory and the ways that people use ordinary societal means to keep the disadvantaged in the position where they are currently located. I draw a particularly close parallel to feminist oppression theory and the ways in which different theorists frame that particular debate.

This project, up to this point, has focused on the dehumanization process and its effects on the relief theory. However, this focus has left one question unanswered: what is the effect of the dehumanization process on the person in which it occurs? As one might gather from the explication that has occurred up to this point, there is nothing good that can come from using the dehumanization process. The impugning of others’ dignity by forcing them through the dehumanization process results in the person dehumanizing him- or herself. By acting in such a way as to cause the dehumanization of others, the audience member also brings the dehumanization process back on him- or herself: it is inevitable that every person is a member of a group that is dehumanized on a consistent basis. In fact, it would be difficult to explain some parts of society if this wasn’t true. Dehumanizing others is in fact a tacit approval of the system of dehumanization, thus also tacitly approving the dehumanization of the self, which cannot be ethical in any major system of ethics.

In this discussion, the process by which laughter at repulsive and offensive ideas and objects becomes acceptable was examined, as was the process by which the viewing of certain horror films becomes tolerable. This was not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of these issues. I do not intend to say that everyone reacts through the dehumanization process and the release of tension in the same manner. Some people will never enjoy watching the types of horror movies discussed. Others will never find a racial stereotype funny. The purpose of this explication was not to discuss these facts. The intent was to show the way in which some people are able to go through with watching some horror films and laughing at some offensive jokes. This was accomplished through the use of the dehumanization process and the release of tension through the relief theory. Also a brief discussion was intended to show some of the negative benefits to the audience member who uses the dehumanization process. However, there remains one issue that has not yet been addressed. Humor is not a voluntary process; people do not choose what they find to be funny in the vast majority of cases. What about those who involuntarily laugh at a joke about a racial stereotype? That issue relates to responsibility and rule-following, which lie largely outside the scope of this paper. However, I will say that what is required, in my view, is diligent effort to not use the dehumanization process. One cannot go wrong by avoiding the use of the process in as many cases as possible. Much as a child is socialized to know what is considered funny, people must look for way to undo that socialization and instead attempt to work toward the suppression of this dehumanizing humor. Though a person may never succeed in completely eradicating this process from her life, as Pascal writes in “The Wager:” “What do you have to lose? […] Now, what harm will come to you by taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere, true friend.”30 Though Pascal wrote in regards to religion, his words still ring true. What do you have to lose?

Works Cited


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc. (1988).
“Blonde Jokes, Page 1.” www.lotsofjokes.com. Accessed 25 Feb. 2007.
Carroll, Noël. “Humour.” The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Ed. Jerrold Levinson. New York: Oxford University Press (2003) 344-365.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge (1990).
Carroll, Noël. “What Mr. Creosote Knows about Laughter.” Monty Python and Philosophy. Ed. Gary L. Hardcastle and George A Reisch. Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing Company (2006) 25-35.
Castaway. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. DreamWorks, 2000.
Cohen, Roger A. and Ryan A Richards. “When the Truth Hurts, Tell a Joke: Why America Needs Its Comedians.” Humanity in Action USA 2006. Publication Forthcoming.
“Encounters with Stereotypes: a Discussion Thread.” www.stormfront.org. Accessed 5 March 2007. http://www.stormfront.org/forum/showthread.php/encounters-stereotypes-270956.html
Final Destination 2. Dir. David R. Ellis. New Line Cinema, 2003.
Jason X. Dir. James Isaac. New Line Cinema, 2001.
Morreall, John. Taking Laughter Seriously. Albany: State University of New York Press (1983).

Morreall, John. “Introduction.” The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor. Ed. John Morreall. Albany: State University of New York Press (1987).

Pascal, Blaise. “The Wager” Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company (1998) 94-96.
Spencer, Herbert. “The Physiology of Laughter, From Essays on Eduaction, Etc.” The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor. Ed. John Morreall. Albany: State University of New York Press (1987).


1 Morreall, John, The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, 4.

2 This is my own, rather contrived definition. It amply fits the purpose of this paper, but should not be taken to be an exhaustive definition of “humor.”

3 Hobbes, Thomas, 19.

4 Qtd. in Taking Laughter Seriously, 4.

5 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 73-74.

6 Carroll, Noël, “Humour,” 346-347.

7 Ibid, 348.

8 I briefly address the idea of this difference between the expected and the actual, though I hedge my argument in terms of situational irony.

9 Carroll, “Humour,” 351.

10 Spencer, Herbert, 104.

11 Carroll, “Humour,” 352.

12 Morreall, John, Taking Laughter Seriously, 36.

13 Giraldo, Greg, Qtd. in Cohen, “When the Truth Hurts, Tell a Joke: Why America Needs Its Comedians,” 2.


14 The order that I mention is not necessarily the order in which the wearing of clothing came about. In fact, I have heard rumors that some scientists think that humans wear clothing because we wore clothing at one time, thus causing our protective layer of hair to evolve away to nothing. I find this to be an interesting distinction, but it is a socio-scientific distinction far beyond the scope of this paper.

15 Incidentally, as I was in the process of writing this paper, I saw a potbelly pig wearing a Ballerina’s tutu at a petting zoo in Minneapolis, MN, and was reduced to laughter. Though I am not specifically examining this point in this specific paper, I think it is also possible to over-humanize an animal or object, thus causing amusement. This could be a workable topic for another project, but is beyond the breadth of this paper.

16 Castaway, DreamWorks (2000).

17 This is not to say that animals or objects do not possess dignity; I do believe that it is beyond the scope of this paper.

18 There are several other sources if irony which are deterministic or literary in nature. I do not know these kinds of irony to inspire amusement, and thus they are inapplicable to the subject at hand.

19 It was recently pointed out that this situational irony will not inspire humor in some people. For example, the family of one of the deceased buried in the graveyard would not be amused. In fact they may find that their loved one has been dehumanized by the location of the sign.

20 Carroll, “What Mr. Creosote Knows About Laughter,” 31-32.

21 48 out of 68 jokes on the page, which was representative of other pages of blonde jokes, were sexual in nature; 14 of these addressed both sexual and intellectual failings (http://www.lotsofjokes.com/cat_01.htm).


22 This was one of the tamest of the comments generated in the thread I discuss. Many dealt with cheap alcohol, occupations, debauchery, or preference in women; all were directed at non-white races. I was frankly unable to read more than a small amount of the thread, but thought it important to include an example of this category of ‘humor,’ in the interest of thoroughness, so I erred on the side of the least offensive post available. (Stormfront.org)

23 “Lol” is computer slang generally understood to mean “Laugh out Loud,” while “lmao” is computer slang generally understood to mean “Laughing my a** off.”

24 Other possible outlets for the tension as I refer to them here are emotions like outrage and sadness, actions including physical violence, and the creation of certain feelings toward the joke-teller.

25 Again, these are contrived categories. They were not taken from a scholarly or non-scholarly work, but will be explicated on my own terms.

26 There are many possible subdivisions in the “thriller” genre as well. I primarily confine this paper to psychological thrillers, which are mental and emotional, but not commonly violent, and horror thrillers, which are mental, emotional, and violent in nature. The horror thriller is particularly applicable because the main characters are not only up against a superior adversary, but they are also going to become victims if they do not emerge victorious from their conflict with the adversary.

27 Final Destination 2, New Line (2003).

28 Jason X, New Line (2001).

29 Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, 15.

30 Blaise Pascal, 96.




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