The same things that terrify us can also make us die laughing, and as long as there's been horror, there's been silly horror-comedy. Check out our history of the silliest horror movies of all time.
Note: This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, just a rundown of the eras in horror comedy. Feel free to suggest titles, or whole epochs, that we may have missed out.
The 1920s stage plays
In the 1920s, playwrights decided to spice up their stage plays by adding more horror elements, creating silly haunted-house and monster stories like The Bat, The Cat & The Canary and The Gorilla. Some of these, like Canary, got adapted to silent movies. The 1925 Lon Chaney film The Monster also features a comic-relief character, but isn't really a full-fledged comedy.
In many ways, the 1930s and 1940s were the heyday of the "clean" horror comedy, which featured monsters without any real gore or violence. Laurel And Hardy did A Live Ghost in 1934, the haunted-house movie The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case in 1930 and A-Haunting We Will Go in 1942. The Three Stooges also dabbled in horror-comedy with short films like 1943's Spooks!. And then going into the 1940s, Abbott and Costello, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Bob Hope, among others, brought the genre to new prominence. There's also the hilariously titled Zombies On Broadway. Let's put on a show!
The 1960s saw a slew of trippy novels, movies and TV shows in which horror elements often jostled with comedic ones — several of Peter Sellers' 1960s comedies often veer into horror at odd moments. At the same time, monster sitcoms like The Munsters and The Addams Family ruled television with their zany portrayals of monsters who were just like us — almost. This was also the era that gave the start of the long-running Scooby Doo cartoons, and a slew of cute/funny images of monsters, from the Frankenberry cereal to the Count on Sesame Street.
Susan Sontag published her famous essay on "camp" in 1964, but the 1970s really backed up the camp truck to our door, and dumped a load of glitter on our front steps. Horror comedy was no exception, with Vincent Price starring in two mega-campy Dr. Phibes movies, and other over-the-top horror films like Please Don't Eat My Mother and Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes taking over cinemas. Most of all, Rocky Horror Picture Show became a defining movie for a whole ripped-fishnets-sporting generation.
The self-aware horror spoof genre took off way more in the early 1980s, with movies like Creepshow mocking the genre's cliches. And in general, the horror-comedy movie genre really came into its own in the 1980s, diversifying into a bunch of thriving sub-genres.
Ghostbusters, Gremlins and more
1984 saw the release of both Ghostbusters and Gremlins, sparking a new onslaught of cute/scary monsters and ghosts, including four (!) Critters movies. I'd also put 1986's Little Shop Of Horrors and Haunted Honeymoon into this category: wide-eyed protagonists coming face-to-tentacle with weird, slimy or fluffy-but-nasty creatures. According to Box Office Mojo, both Ghostbusters films and the first Gremlins occupy three out of the top four best-selling horror comedy slots of all time.
Troma comedies in the 1980s and beyond
Troma deserves its own category, for its sheer volume of output if for no other reason. Although it's best known for the Toxic Avenger films and Surf Nazis Must Die, there are just so many weird, over-the-top and just plain wrong Troma films out there, you could fill a bookshelf with the DVDs. And really, Troma is just the tip of the iceberg of a slew of direct-to-VHS and direct-to-DVD movies that we've seen in the past 20 years ago, with a ton of cult auteurs pushing the boundary between scary and funny.
1980s Werewolf/Vampire Humor
Teen Wolf (1985), An American Werewolf In London (1981), Fright Night (1985), Mr. Vampire (1985), Once Bitten (1985), Vamp (1986) and Love At First Bite (1979) were just some of the cocaine-fueled laughs at Universal monsters. Here's a photo of Grace Jones at a vampire strip club, from Vamp.
The Reanimator films and Brian Yuzna's Society, among others, take the David Cronenberg trope of the human body being transformed into something gooey, icky or disturbingly awful, and they find the silliness and subversive humor that lurks just behind that, with gore, decapitated limbs still moving and lots of oozing goop all providing opportunities for slapstick and discomfort. The 1980s were also the heydey of Frank Hennenlotter's over-the-top violence and bodily destruction, in films like Basket Case. I'd also stick Peter Jackson's Dead/Alive into this category. In many ways, this genre has been the gift that keeps on giving, as evidenced by the awesomeness of 2006's Slither.
The Rise Of Sam Raimi
Classic Sam Raimi films deserve their own category, especially the Evil Dead films and Army Of Darkness. Bruce Campbell in his prime, rocking the chainsaw hand, against the legions of dead. Good times.
No discussion of horror-comedy would be complete without mentioning the 1990s and 2000s novels of Christopher Moore, especially his vampire classics Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, You Suck: A Love Story, and Bite Me: A Love Story, plus his zombie Christmas tale The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale Of Christmas Horror.
Tremors (1990), Arachnophobia (1990), Lake Placid (1999) and Eight-Legged Freaks (2002) were just some of the slew of tongue-in-cheek monster-rampage films that came out in the 1990s and early 2000s. My fave is probably Lake Placid, just for the amazingly deadpan performances by Bill Paxton and Betty White, among others.
Joss Whedon's Buffy empire, including a movie and two television series, pretty much deserves its own category, and it came along with a slew of other TV shows and books featuring (frequently female) heroines facing tongue-in-cheek magical/horrific threats, including Charmed and Xena: Warrior Princess.
The Chucky and Leprechaun Films
I have no idea where those fit in, so I'm putting them here. These are like the silly counterparts to the already quite silly Jason Voorhees and Freddie Krueger films. Chucky is a weird doll that comes to life and attacks people (I guess — I've only read a comic-book adaptation) and there have been a million films about a silly leprechaun going around disemboweling people and controlling their minds. And rapping. And dancing.
The Scream films in the late 1990s jumpstarted the slasher-movie genre with their knowing humor and sly horror-movie references. And then with the release of Scary Movie in 2000, the floodgates opened. There have been a ton of horror spoofs, many of them with the word "Movie" at the end of their titles. Plus the upcoming Transylmania, which exactly one person is excited about. (And we know where you live.)
Shaun Of The Dead, Planet Terror, Jennifer's Body and Zombieland all, to some extent, use the reanimated dead as a backdrop for character-focused comedies. (Okay, so the rom-com thing in the subhed is stretching it slightly — they don't all feature love stories, exactly. But some of them do.) Zombie comedies that are less character-focused include the Nazi epic Dead Snow, the zombie slave masterpiece Fido, the zombie sheep masterpiece Black Sheep and the incredibly nasty Zombie Strippers. Plus Bruce La Bruce's Otto, Or Up With The Dead People. Oh, and there's also last year's Poultrygeist: Night Of The Chicken Dead. No, really. There's also Jon Heder's webseries Woke Up Dead.
Meanwhile, in the world of books, many people see Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide as humorous, rather than as the indispensible handbook it is. There have also been a decent number of funny zombie books, including Breathers: A Zombie Lament by S.G. Browne, the mash-up Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, and several others.
Not entirely sure how it fits in, but horror spoof John Dies At The End, by Cracked.com editor Jason Pargin (under a pseudonym) is selling like hotcakes on Amazon.
Additional reporting by Mary Ratliff.