Ooh, the Horror

Comedy and horror: two genres at opposite ends of the spectrum, right? Well, as Jay Richardson discovers, for some performers there's barely a cobweb between them

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Nick Coyle
Published 22 Jul 2017

With its history of illicit secret societies, grisly grave robbing and blood-curdling novels, Edinburgh has a reputation as one of the world's most haunted cities. Yet every year Fringe audiences willingly shuffle into spooky churches, pubs that once housed witch-torturing dungeons and dank, airless vaults that stored the corpses of plague victims, an uncanny sense of foreboding creeping over them...

“Whenever you take a chance on a show, you're already a bit scared it's going to be horrific and you're trapped for an hour,” says Nick Coyle with a laugh. The Australian comic, whose previous shows featured such terrors as death by snake, evil goblins and meditative audience participation, is performing his “most macabre” show yet, Queen of Wolves, in the gloomy Underbelly. “The others had dark elements. But with this one I've really opened the trapdoor!” he enthuses.

Inspired by classic Gothic literature, the novels of the Brontës, Rebecca and The Turn of the Screw, Coyle is pastiching well-known horror tropes. In a forbidding mansion, “poor, scared and plain” governess Frances Glass is haunted by the spirits of children she was meant to look after. Coyle acknowledges that the show's other characters are chiefly ghosts. “Which made casting easy as I simply have things falling over.”

Aspiring to as much BBC period drama gloss as a "little Australian man in a bonnet” can project, the “state-of-the-art 18th-century theatre effects” are “mainly just strings”. But while he thought the "crappiness of the effects would be part of the joke, they've genuinely scared people. It's a surprise I'm really pleased about.”

Twisted sketch group Gein's Family Giftshop initially forged their friendship over a shared love of horror movies. According to Ed Easton, that's partly because “there's such a large crossover between horror and comedy, both in terms of emotional reactions to it and how you play it. Laughter and screaming are both instinctive. Smart laughs might take longer to land. But my favourites are definitely those gasps-followed-by-laughs.”

Both are “visceral”, agrees storytelling comic Will Seaward, whose Spooky Midnight Ghost Stories IV is just his latest festival instalment of the show. Almost from the start, crowds have joined in with “wooooh!” noises, he says, “so I'd describe it as a kind of ghost panto really”.

Framed as campfire stories, this year the ebullient Seaward is sharing a Gothic tale based on Frankenstein, “predominantly set in a glassware-strewn laboratory”. He's also inviting the audience to join him in a live séance, before relating a dinosaur yarn “that's a splicing of tight-metre, Edgar Allan Poe-type poetry and blood-soaked zombie horror”.

Genuine screams in his hour are rare. Instead he “revels in the trappings of fear rather than the emotion”. Far from being the bastard, stitched-together offspring of two critically underappreciated genres, comedy-horror can draw on a “history and imagination other genres just don't hit”. Ghost stories in particular are “so much fun because iconographically they're so rich”, says Seaward. Great writers and filmmakers “have done the imaginative gymnastics for you”.

Indeed, his work isn't so much parody as "super-charged, surrealist rendering”, Seaward clarifies. “Because they're less preachy than fairytales and less rule-bound than love stories, they lend themselves to surrealism in a way that other genres don't. Because they're supernatural you can bend physics. You can do almost anything!”

Easton certainly appreciates horror's visceral, visual palette. Few things are as shocking as fake blood splattered over children's PE kits, especially when unsettlingly sported by grown adults like himself, Kath Hughes and James Meehan. The idea of the group's name, suggestive of 'The Butcher of Plainfield' murderer Ed Gein selling face lamps and skull mugs from a little mom and pop store, is a great advert for their dark yet relatable humour.

Because Gein's are less about “ghosts and ghouls” than the "bleakness of reality”, Easton says. One of their previous skits featured him being attacked by the devil. But it was based on physical assaults that group members had actually experienced. Their demons are personal.

“A lot of the darker aspects are things that come from our own lives we want to make light of,” he explains. “It's almost like therapy. Maybe it's more psychological horror. Me moving into my dead mother's house is part of my reality. It's become mundane and stopped being horror. It's not amazing, obviously. But I'm in a privileged position to be able to make comedy from it.

“I understand some people wouldn't want to make light of that. But I've spoken to audience members afterwards and we've shared that thing of, 'Oh, your mum's dead too'. You bond in a nice way. It's like wearing a special badge.”