Several years ago I attended a midnight screening of one of my favorite horror movies, David Cronenberg’s “The Brood”, a film I’ve always regarded as deeply affecting and scary. I don’t know exactly how I was expecting a rowdy group of twentysomethings to react to a relatively low-budget Canadian horror film from the late 1970s at midnight on a Saturday night—the kind of reverence and awe with which I’d long treated the film were probably too much to expect even in more somber circumstances—but I do know that the reaction the film provoked that night took me by surprise. The reaction was laughter. Within seconds of the film beginning, it became obvious that people had come to laugh at what they assumed going in was to be nothing more than a cheesy, stupid old horror movie, some hammy B-picture with stylized acting and dated effects. The constant ridicule which followed seemed only to confirm the assumption: “The Brood” was a film better watched ironically than in earnest.
It’s easy to laugh at something when you’ve decided in advance that it’s going to be funny. It’s even easier when a room full of people are laughing along with you. I’ve seen a person laugh at a new release horror film so loudly that you could almost feel the tension and dread in the room dissipating, as if the disruption had set a precedent for all who heard it that what followed was funny rather than scary, causing laughter to spread through the crowd. I’ve seen crowds whoop and holler through “Eraserhead” as if it were “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. I’ve seen boorish teenagers yell out insults at Shelley Duvall throughout Halloween screenings of “The Shining”. I’ve even seen a classroom full of Film Studies undergraduates laugh through George Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead”, practically bursting into applause when Duane Jones slaps Judith O’Dea across the face. There is no limit to how a room full of people will react while sitting through a movie they have decided not to take seriously.