A Comedy of Errors Part II: Dracula

A Comedy of Errors Part II: Dracula

I recently finished Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a novel that, along with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, defined a goddamn genre. Modern readers might be put off by the dry, elevated prose throughout the epistolary epic, especially since recent imaginings of vampires are either laughably melodramatic or so far up its own conceited, dreary ass that a return to the source material seems like an exhausting task.

Let me tell you, Bram Stoker’s Dracula indulges heavily in melodrama and dreariness. That being said it also reads like a dream, in part, because it is secretly hilarious.

The primary protagonist of Dracula, while an ensemble piece, is ultimately Van Helsing. He isn’t even mentioned until nearly 150 pages into the novel, but once he’s established, he is the primary agent of action and knowledge against the Un-Dead Count. Once he’s introduced, the entire plot revolves around his decisions. And he’s funny. He’s Dutch, so, naturally, his English is broken and jumbled together in long, raving rants. And he’s awkward. He’s blunt when he should he should be tactful, and overly explicative when he should be precise. Nearly immediately after Lucy Westrenra dies, Helsing verbally diarrheas a litany of his research, confusing his poor former student, Dr. Seward, before obtusely saying, “I want to cut off her head and take out her heart,” which only distresses Seward further. It takes another litany and several demonstrations to get Seward on board.

Van Helsing fucks up socially, constantly. He makes Mina Harker, once the vampiric curse is falls upon her, cry by callously saying, in so many words, “don’t forget that a Vampire breast-fed you a couple of hours ago,” before realizing his social mistake.

What’s more is that he addresses his comedy directly. He straight up fucking laughs in hysterics after Lucy has died. Seward attributes it as  “it was only his sense of humour asserting itself under very terrible conditions.” Van Helsing goes on one of his rants, discerning “laughter who knock at your door and say, ‘ can I come in’,” from laughter that says, “‘I am here.'” I’ve gone on before about how Horror and Comedy are nearly one and the same, given their basic elemental makeup. But here Dracula pokes at a baser inclination with its comedy. Which is that laughter, dramatically induced via comedic relief, is a fear response. I’ve written about this before, thinking my modern perspective of irony of tragedy and comedy was somehow a revelation.

Buddy, we’ve been funny for a long while and for the same reasons.

Take this: Lucy Westenra slowly becomes a Vampire. She’s entombed and the fuckers who loved her mourn her passing. Van Helsing says some crazy shit about wanting to cut her head off and stuff her mouth with garlic (again, hilarious in the way he proposes it). Seward pledges to never take a diary entry down again. CUT TO several newspaper clippings of children, desanguined, found in a feverish daze after being lured away by a ‘bloofer lady’:

A correspondent writes us that to see some of the tiny tots pretending to be ‘the bloofer lady’ is supremely funny. Some of our caricaturists might, he says, take a lesson in the irony of grotesque by comparing the reality and the picture.  (229)

It’s not only that this passage implies that Stoker was, on some level, self-aware of how ridiculous his story is, it’s the baffling use of the term ‘bloofer lady.’ There’s no contextual explanation as to what that means in the clippings, nor is it ever repeated after the chapter closes. Furthermore, there’s no footnote (in my copy, at least) explaining the term, suggesting that it went over the heads of scholars for years and years. Thank Christ for Urban Dictionary, which explains that “bloofer” is, in fact, the reported cockney dialect of “beautiful.” Say it out loud in a cockney accent and you’ll get it. Bloofer lady. Hilarious.

Stoker reports dialects of many UK islanders– Irish, Scottish, cockney, Welsh, I think, in addition to Helsing’s strange Dutch accent. Now, the first reaction might be that Stoker’s making fun of the lower classes (Dracula, after all, is the tale of haunted aristocrats) but I’m one to think that Stoker, being Irish himself, was poking at the intellectual class reading his book. I like to think that he knew well that his literary audience would have been confounded by a lot of the more colloquial verbiage in the book, whereas an educated albeit lower-class reader would be able to decipher the language perfectly. Some of the dialogue is so entrenched in dialect that the only reason I was able to understand half of it is due to my fascination with Scottish People Twitter. It ultimately adds a sense of playful levity to the Gothic narrative, because of the playful nature inherent to “vulgar” UK slang and expressions.

At a certain point when I was discussing Dracula with my companions, I was frustrated that the only common understanding of the book was the “I VANT TO SUCK YOUR BLOOD” parody of a misquote from Bela Legosi’s incarnation of the Count. But the more I thought about it, that comedic take on Dracula is almost closer to Stoker’s intention than initially realized. Nearly everyone can agree that the vampires depicted in Twilight are garbage creatures, over-saturated in the poetry of eternal life and shiny, blah, blah, blah. Meanwhile, What We Do In the Shadows nails it, utilizing a comedic tone to play with the wide-spanning vampiric lore without diminishing its potency. Likewise, The Castlevania video game series employs a subtle humor (often in the form of items and certain enemies) that pokes fun at the concepts without taking you out of the experience. There’s a level where you essentially murder everyone in Hogwarts.

And finally there’s the gleeful Sir Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of Van Helsing in Coppala’s adaptation of Stoker’s classic, who seems to be the only actor cognizant of what movie he’s in.

There are yet unmined opportunities to explore with Vampires. Dracula itself is a culmination of many years studying the folkloric traditions and superstitions surrounding the monster and Stoker only scratched the surface. So take heart, horror authors.

But for Christ’s sake, use some humor to blunt the subject’s poetic edges. Vampires are ridiculous and you know this.

A Comedy of TERRORS

A Comedy of TERRORS

Spoiler alert for Stranger Things. And Breaking Bad, kinda. And comedy in general.

If you ask any jackass on the street to define comedy, they’ll likely just say “It’s funny. BURRRP.” Well, that ain’t helpful. So let’s talk comedy. Specifically, let’s talk what comedy looks like in literature and television and study its spine.

Let’s start by saying that comedy, by definition, isn’t always funny. And what’s less funny than talking pretentiously about William Shakespeare? A professor once told me (so it must be true) that Shakespeare* distinguishes comedies and tragedies thusly:

A comedy is the story of an outsider joining an in-group / society. (Integration)

A tragedy is the story of an insider forced out of an in-group / society. (Isolation)

That’s it. Apply it to any modern movie and you’ll find that it works. What about a story about a family man who alienates his friends and family in the pursuit of power at the cost of societal decay?

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Tragedy. That one was easy.

What about the story of a guy too cool for school that has to go back to school and falls in with a group of lovable ragamuffins?

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Also easy. C’mon, it’s in the title.

Dan Harmon is the premiere television comedy writer of the decade(s), having championed Community (above) and half of Rick and Morty. Here are his rules of writing every episode of anything ever:

  1.  A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2.  But they want something.
  3.  They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4.  Adapt to it,
  5.  Get what they wanted,
  6.  Pay a heavy price for it,
  7.  Then return to their familiar situation,
  8.  Having changed.

When you think of the Shakespearean definition of comedy, you see why this works so well episodically, especially with the Community series in which the zone of comfort is literally being accepted by a society. You have the tragic turn of an insider becoming an outsider, and then the comedic reintegration in a linear progression.

Sometimes you have comedies and tragedies playing out in parallel– take the story of a weird girl with psychic powers becoming best friends with a bunch of adorable dorks (integration) searching for their missing dork friend (broad integration):

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Exploding G-men brains: comedy gold

…and mix it with the story of a sweet girl hanging out with a bunch of cool kids (integration) who drink beer and have sex and pay no consequences whatsoever.

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Oh right.

The tragedy of Stranger Things lies in the alienation of Barb– the cost Nancy pays to trade up into a higher in-group. You can chart out a hell of a whole lot of micro comedies and tragedies in that show and you’d still be hard pressed to label it solidly in either camp. Because it’s rooted in horror.  More on that later.

Now that we’ve covered the macro structures, let’s back up for a bit and examine the basis of all comedy so that we can cover the micro– I’m talking irony. The definition of irony is simply a contradiction of expectations. Now, the primary theory  of laughter is that it creates a social bond between those in a group, signaling that theirs is a safe place. I think of why I laugh nervously– to tell others that I’m not dangerous (or sometimes to awkwardly attempt to make a tense scenario a more amicable one). So let’s blend that with a model that explains why irony is funny to us on an evolutionary level:

A group of hunters are walking through the woods looking for food to kill. They hear some grass moving violently and they think it’s a tiger waiting to pounce on them. They send Kevin, agreed to be the biggest asshole of their group, to go and check it out– Kevin looks in the grass and finds… nothing. It was just the wind. He laughs to the other hunters to nonverbally communicate that everything is fine and they laugh back to confirm everything is indeed fine.

If you dissect that, you essentially have, in my terms:

  1. Set up (We’re hunting!)
  2. Expectation (Kevin’s gonna get et!)
  3. Punchline: A contradiction of that expectation (It was wind all along! We’re safe!)
  4. Return to normalcy (Hahaha! We’re hunting!)

That’s the basis of every joke ever written. You’ll notice it’s almost impossible not to tell a joke without telling a story and that it’s elements are not unlike any other particular scene.

I tend to write humorous books. Here’s the first paragraph of the 9th chapter of The Fish Fox Boys in which our heroes enter a dilapidated mall after the decline of civilization:

Adam and Fred walked carefully through The Mall’s vast, moss-covered corridors, past windows of the storefronts and restaurants that were now strangled by vines and shattered by trees growing through the glass. At first they were startled by what they thought were several people frozen in time, until upon closer inspection, they discovered that these were simply what the old world had called “mannequins.” Fascinated, they poked and prodded a mannequin sporting capri pants and a vest.

Without really thinking about it, I had written through those four steps:

  1. Set up (We’re walking through a scary old mall!)
  2. Expectation (There are frozen people!)
  3. Punchline: A contradiction of that expectation (Oh, those are just giant dolls wearing clothes! We’re safe!)
  4. Return to normalcy (Hahaha! Let’s poke ’em! We’re farting around in a scary old mall!)

A lot of that humor has to do with irreverent tone and pointing out absurdity, but the tone doesn’t become irreverent and the absurd isn’t examined until the end of the paragraph. And I’m going to posit that #4 is where the true humor lies (Let’s poke ’em!), instead of the punchline (Just mannequins!). If you think about how Mitch Hedberg delivers jokes, the laughter is almost always a beat after he says the punchline and comments how dumb his jokes are which also serves to recenter the audience before his next joke. You also have TV comedies like The Office where the punchline is delivered followed by a talking-head shot to capture the more human, often funnier reaction to the punchline (which also contextualizes the audience to the true nature of the characters on screen). The last step is even the funniest in the hunter-tiger model which tells the universal truth that laughter is contagious. You don’t need a joke to make people laugh, you just need laughter.

Back to horror (you thought I forgot! Shame on you!). A while ago, I had to the opportunity to see Robert Brockway read from the second installment of his brutal and genius punk-rock-horror series, The Vicious Circuit, and during the Q&A, a woman asked him how he could take subject matter that’s so inherently foul and horrific and still make it so goddamned hilarious. His answer was that the set up of a joke and the set up of horror is almost exactly the same, just with a different outcome. To use the hunter-tiger model again, there could have just as easily been a tiger waiting in those bushes to eviscerate Kevin. And writers like Brockway prove that the other hunters can still laugh at the end.

In my paragraph from The Fish Fox Boys, the punchline could have been replaced with a horrific payoff– that the people frozen in time were exactly that, stiff inanimate bodies standing around. Again, I think, what counts is the #4 Return to Normalcy (and how you define normalcy in your work). Fred and Adam could have screamed and runaway… or they could still poke the bodies and make fun of their clothing.

It makes a lot of sense to me, that laughter is so closely related to fear. We know that it’s the social cue of safety and the release of anxiety. It’s one of the reasons why going to a standup comedy show feels almost like a more powerful religious experience for me– the catharsis of that internal anxiety being coaxed out by a charismatic comedian and diminished by a room full of other homo sapiens telling each other nonverbally that everything’s fine. But that initial anxiety is necessary. You ever have to switch a sitcom off because it made you feel too anxious? Because you inadvertently mumbled, “Oh God”? Exactly. What makes us feel uncomfortable is also what makes us laugh. As a sidenote, I think that’s why slapstick was/is so popular. (See Buster Keaton’s House Falling on Buster Keaton)

It’s on that anxious axis that all  stories swivel.

But don’t forget that laughter is also the language of play and, whether you’re torquing the tension of a horror or a thriller piece or polishing the jokes and tone of a humorous work, remember that there’s a lot to play with here using the simple mechanics. And if you ain’t hip to this writing scheme, then, well, do what makes you laugh.

Unless that includes, you know, doing real-life horror stuff. GET THOSE KITTENS OUT OF THAT BURLAP SACK, KEVIN.

 

*I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare himself didn’t actually make those distinctions and that definition likely precedes the bad bard by some hundreds of years.