If you haven’t done it yourself, you’ve seen someone else do it. They reach a scary moment in a book, or a jump scare in a movie, or even stumble upon a prankster who jumps out at them from behind something– and instead of screaming, they burst out laughing.
What is it that makes us laugh when all signs point to “AHHHHHH?” Scientists have a handful of theories:
Some say it’s a sort of peace offering– an instinctive reaction to confrontation. Laughing shows we’re not looking for a fight, so whatever’s coming at us will hopefully back down and go away.
Others suggest that laughing is a way to manage our fear. When we laugh in the face of danger, we’re trying to convince ourselves things are less dire than they seem.
But my favorite explanation (and the one that makes the most sense in connection with scary stories) is that laughing when we’re afraid or crying when we’re happy actually balances us out emotionally.
Speaking as a reader, one of the things I love most about middle grade is the way our main characters are centered in their family and community– I draw deep satisfaction from the inherent wholeness and balance of middle grade worlds. As a writer and lifelong smart aleck, shared humor is one of my favorite things to write; to me, it’s a sign of a close, happy community. I can’t imagine penning a family or town where people don’t joke, tease, and mildly snark.
As you read this, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute. It’s conflict, not happiness, that drives a story. Especially a spooky story!” You’re right, of course. But it’s also important to remind the reader what your characters are fighting for. Shared humor reinforces a sense of belonging and reminds us what we like about certain characters. Conversely, humor meant to embarrass or bully someone hardens our hearts against a villain.
Wisecracks are also the perfect opportunity to illuminate individual personalities and relationships between characters in a “show, don’t tell” way. For example, when a group of kids has to cross dangerous territory, a competitive best friend or sibling might say, “Hey, your shoe’s untied!” in order to get a head start. The competition between the characters gives them the courage to face the peril.
On the other hand, a nervous friend who’d rather be at home under the covers is more likely to resort to gallows humor, like, “It’s my night to feed the dog. He’s going to be seriously crabby when I die and his bowl is empty.” How other characters respond to this joke will be revealing. Are they impatient? Reassuring? Or do they toss another joke right back?
If you love writing stories with lots of scares, laughter can also provide some much-needed contrast. I adore a runaway horror story as much as the next spooky author, but like true joy, intense fear is hard to sustain. Worse, fear actually gets exhausting after a while. Raise your hand if you write to exhaust your readers. No? Then consider providing moments of levity to give them a break.
This is all well and lovely and I mean every word, but don’t be fooled– I’m no altruist. There are lots of upbeat reasons to put some banter in your book, but you can also use laughs to trap the unwary. I love to use humor to lull my readers into a false sense of security. Then, when it’s time for the next creepy moment, I’ve got them exactly where I want them! So, if you haven’t tried mixing jump scares with jokes, I highly recommend it. You don’t have to be a serious person to deliver some serious scares!
About the Author
Sarah Cannon, author of Oddity, has lived all over the U.S., but right now she calls Indiana home. She has a husband, three kids and a misguided dog. Sarah holds a B.S. in Education. She’s a nerdy knitting gardener who drinks a lot of coffee, and eats a lot of raspberries.
She is probably human.