Welcome, class.

Due
to a variety of reasons stemming from trending, blatant cash-ins, and
all-too-frequent voids of creativity, the horror genre is particularly
prone to repetition. Yet individuals such as myself (and quite likely
you) crave the fruits of the horror tree all the same. What others would
call clichés, we call conventions. A cliché is
something that has become trite with overuse; something we are tired of
seeing. A convention is a customary practice, a rule. To us, horror
films are like episodes of a favorite TV show. We tune in week after
week specifically to bask in these familiar tropes, traditions, and
archetypes. Here in Horror 101 we shall turn an academic eye on this
vast world of horror movie conventions.


So
come journey with me into the haunted recesses of one of
cinema’s oldest genres. Don’t be chickenshit. No one has
disappeared in here for years. Plus, I found this dusty old Ouija board
we can get drunk and play with…



Horror 101
(Lesson 5 of 9)


The Jokester



How are we today, class? Good to hear. Now, continuing with the medieval symbolism we have used in previous lessons…

Thus
far in our classic dragon battling horror story we have our brave
knight, his worthless maiden companion, and a wise wizard who dispatches
various pieces of crucial information to our Hero. Now it is time to
tack on our first truly superfluous character: the court jester who the
knight inexplicably allows to tag along, even though he spends the
entire quest annoying everyone. We have come to The Jokester.

There
is a veritable cornucopia of character types in the horror genre, but
the great majority are not deserving of their own Horror 101 installment
(though we will touch upon many during the course of our discussion next week). The Jokester deserves to be singled out not because
of the importance the character plays in the basic functionality of a horror
movie (like a Guy Who Knows Things), or even because of historical
relevance to the genre (there is none), but almost in spite of these things. The
Jokester’s significance lies in its general failure to achieve its own
function and how this failure has served to help redefine modern
horror.

The
Jokester is universally male. He is the class clown. One might call him
the comic relief, which would belie the fact that the Jokester is
almost never actually funny. And the only relief comes when the Villain
finally and mercifully kills him. To put things simply, the Jokester is
annoying. He can’t take a hint and he is always
“on.” As his name implies, the Jokester thinks
he’s funny. No one else does. In fact, quite often his
“friends” all seem to hate him. The Jokester is
generally that character in the group that causes you to wonder,
“Why exactly did they invite this asshole to the party in
the haunted mineshaft?”

It
is important to note that a Jokester is not any funny character in a
movie. Diegesis is a term usually used in reference to sound in cinema
diegetic music is music characters in the film can hear
(listening to an iPod, radio, etc), non-diegetic music is music only we can
hear (the score). Humor is the same way. Most comedies are filled with
what I’d refer to as non-diegetic jokes. We laugh, but the
characters don’t. Then there are characters like Xander
(Nicholas Brendon) from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) who routinely deliver
diegetic humor, which is intended to make the characters within the
fictitious world laugh; they are trying to be funny. The
Jokester is attempting diegetic humor. Though, as a further distinction, any character attempting to be funny isn’t necessarily a Jokester either. Randy (Jamie Kennedy) in Scream (1996)
is constantly cracking jokes, even doing Jerry Lewis impressions, yet he
is not a classical Jokester. Randy is defined by his knowledge; he is a
Guy Who Knows Things. A Jokester is entirely consumed with and defined
by his screwball status.



The
Jokester is a relatively recent addition to the genre (in the grand
scheme of things). He did not make much of an appearance until the
70’s, and then did not truly come into his own until the
Slasher boom of the early 1980’s. Why? It had
everything to do with an attempt to capture that same fun party
atmosphere that was pervading popular film comedies at the time. Horror
and comedy have always been twisted sisters in the cinema world,
and just as you can see the influence of the 60’s beach party
comedies on American horror from that period, the zany and rambunctious flavor of
films like Meatballs (1979) and Animal House (1978) was clearly rubbing off on horror
movies just the same. After all, these movies were all aiming at the same demo. Horror movies needed a “wild and crazy” guy too, and
very quickly the Jokester became a staple of the genre. Soon every
horror movie about a bunch of horny college kids going to party at an
abandoned ______ needed a Jokester to liven
things up.

Of course, world class comedians were writing the comedies that inspired the Jokester. With the underwhelming caliber
of writing talent the horror genre tends to attract, it is not much of a surprise that the Jokester rarely succeeded in being genuinely humorous. Thus the Jokester became the figurehead in the interesting transformation of horror fans’ relationship with horror movies during this period. 

Back
in the days before the MPAA – when scenes would fade to black when the
monster attacked, saving us from the terror of seeing a poor character
ripped to shreds – body counts were generally low. Audiences
would have been left upset if too many of the beloved characters had
died (what is happy about that ending?). So in many older horror movies, it
was usually random side characters – Red Shirts if you will
– who did all the dying, leaving our central characters largely unscathed. Boy did things change. By the 70’s it became the norm for only one or two characters to
survive a film. Yet this wasn’t a Grapes of Wrath tragedy.
Audiences might actually cheer when the Villain dispatched one of our central characters in a particularly gruesome way.

Why the cheering? Because
our central characters soon became fairly unlikable and cartoonish. Now
they were gore fodder. The less we connected with them as actual people, the
freer we were to enjoy the aesthetic pleasures of seeing them
disemboweled and eaten. And no single character better represents this
shift toward cartoonish unlikeability than the Jokester.

The are three basic types of Jokesters:

•    The Party Animal
•    The Wacky Dude
•    The Trickster

 
The Party Animal (PA)
The
Party Animal is a hedonist. His catchphrase is
“Wooo!” which he screams loudly and often, conveying
to us how much fun he is having. And he has a lot of fun.



The PA is almost always an incorrigible horndog, and thus loves to say
sexually inappropriate things in front of everyone.
“I’m gonna get laid this weekend!” he
might scream as our characters are all hopping in their van at
the beginning of the film. Or later he might proposition one of our
female characters in such a fashion that it seems like he
didn’t actually want to succeed in his courtship:
“How about I join you in the shower and help wash them big
titties?” In fact, considering that often the
PA’s entire goal in the film is to get laid, he does not
seem to truly care about it, as his every action assures that none of our females will go near his johnson. The early
portions of most modern horror films are what I call the Party Phase. This is when everyone is having a good
time, swimming, smoking pot, playing a strip and/or drinking version of
some popular board game (“Who wants to play strip
Candyland?!”), etc. So the PA will need to set himself apart by being even more into partying than everyone else. Take the
opening moments from Pinata: Survival Island (2002), where our
characters are boating across the ocean, drinking, spraying each other
with water-guns, and all yelling “Wooo!” Our resident
PA, Larry (Aeryk Egan), needs to step up his game, which he does by
employing a time-honored PA tradition: mooning. Now we know he is the zany one.



The
Party Animal isn’t always a female-less loser though.
Sometimes the sexual aspect can be inverted, and he can be a bit of a stud. If the PA is jock (say the aggro buddy to our football captain
Hero) he may likely have a girlfriend who he constantly says pervy
things to, and who seems to hate him in every way except sexually. But
his inherent desire for fun-loving-partying will be his undoing,
inevitably leaving his girlfriend alone in bed to go do one last
obnoxious thing to someone or to grab some more beer before coming
face-to-face with the Villain and getting stabbed in the face. While not an example of the
picture I just painted, Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) in Hostel (2005) is another way to spin the sex and partying obsessed PA.

The
rest of the time the PA just seems like a creepy pervert. Unable to get
any himself, he loves to spy on his friends having sex, then laugh
hilariously about it when he gets busted, like Bert (James DeBello) in
Cabin Fever (2002). If he doesn’t laugh hilarious about it
– getting embarrassed and running away – he is probably not a
PA. Everything is a joke to the PA, for he is a Jokester.




The Wacky Dude (WD)
The
Wacky Dude is the more innocent version of the Party Animal. He too may
love to yell “Woooo!” but he isn’t
aggressively sexual or necessarily into partying. He’s just,
well, wacky. Having a WD in your group is almost like having a little kid around. Take Ned
(Mark Nelson) from Friday the 13th (1980), who is always making a stupid
face or doing summersaults. Ned also showcases the WD’s love
of costumes and props to aid his wackiness when he dons an Indian
headdress accompanied only by underwear. The
WD has “look at me, mom” syndrome. All Jokesters
seek to be the center of attention, but none so lamely as the WD. Like
most children, toys often play an important role in WD’s
lives. Maybe they have a strange pet (rat or spider or snake) that they
brought along for the trip, or they might have a video camera
they’re constantly sticking in everyone’s face while
they talk about wanting to be a famous director someday. One of the
most inspired annoying props given to a WD belongs to Rich (Peter
Iasillo Jr.) from Spookies (1986), who delivers all his corny one-liners
via a hand puppet. That’s right, he brought a hand puppet to party in a haunted house.



The Trickster
Pranks
are popular with all Jokesters, but they are a way of life for
Tricksters. While some Tricksters can manage to remain loved by their
friends despite their shenanigans, like Ted (Stu Charno), who pulls two pranks within the first 30
minutes of Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), most Tricksters earn only ire
in their attempts at humor. Despite receiving a palpable wave of
negativity for his first prank, this doesn’t stop Shelly
(Larry Zerner) from attempting two more ill advised pranks in Friday the
13th Part 3
(1982) before he dies. “God dammit, Shelly, why
do you always have to be such an asshole?” This reaction really sums up the life of the Trickster. Shelly may in fact
be the ultimate Trickster, considering he brought a trunk full of
costumes to a weekend getaway for the sole purpose of pulling pranks, and then one of these costume props (a hockey mask) inadvertently becomes the franchise’s most iconic element.



This
leads us to the meatiest of Jokester conventions, the Joke Death. Usually performed by Tricksters, the Joke Death is the ultimate Jokester prank, in which the
Jokester cruelly fools his companions into thinking he is dead. Then
once the others are freaking out, the Jokester drops the
ruse and starting laughing, usually saying something along the lines
of, “You should’ve seen the looks on your
faces!” Joke Deaths can come in all shapes and sizes. They can
be as minor as the Jokester sticking his arm into a hole and pretending
something has grabbed him, or as elaborate as cutting a hole in a table
and a serving tray so it looks like his decapitated head is
what’s-for-dinner. In Friday the 13th Ned goes the simple
route and pretends to drown. In Part 3 Shelly gets a little more
complicated and makes it look like he received an ax to the head. 

The
Joke Death serves (or at least is intended to serve) a dual function in
horror movies, one that further highlights the correlation between horror
and comedy. First we get the scare, or at least the kill. Many horror
movies have a limited number of characters that can be bumped off, not to
mention a precarious set-up that demands that our central characters
maintain an almost farce-like level of unawareness of the danger they are in.
Thus there isn’t always a lot of leeway for death in the early
stages of the film. So the Joke Death seems like a win-win for
filmmakers. We get the sense of danger and tension, maybe even some
blood, then we get a moment of levity when it turns out to be a joke. All while allowing our characters to continue with the Party Phase at the abandoned
_______ without a care – well, other than maybe wondering why they invited
this asshole Jokester.

As
I said earlier, modern horror has seen a shift towards audiences
rooting for the deaths of the characters. Most satisfying is when a Jokester who
employed a Joke Death gets a Joke Death Comeuppance. Joke Deaths are a
perfect case of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Fool me once, shame on you, fool
me twice, shame on me. There are few deaths more deliciously deserving
than the JDC, when the Jokester, now actually dying, will cry out for
help, only to be ignored by the friends he struggled so valiantly to
alienate with all his previous obnoxious behavior and trickery. Not that there
was really much hope for Shelly after Jason slit his throat, but Shelly
all but guaranteed his gurgles for help would be greeted with a
“Not funny, Shelly. You’re not fooling me this
time.”

Lets return to our previous class’s hypothetical 1998 horror film, Day of the Dragon, which featured rising star Josh Hartnett as a photographer leading a doomed photo shoot into an abandoned zoo, plagued by a possibly undead Komodo dragon. This film would surely have a Jokester. Maybe Matthew Lillard as a Party Animal trying to sleep with all the models. Or maybe Jack Black in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998) mode, as the wackiest Wacky Dude ever, ad-libbing songs at every turn and bouncing off the walls like, well, like Jack Black. But I say the film needs Breckin Meyer as a stoner Trickster, who early in the film causes a stir when the rest of the crew hears him screaming for help. They all frantically run around the zoo trying to discover where his cries are coming from, only to find him smoking weed and fucking around inside one of the animal pens, laughing hilariously – “You should see your faces!” Then, of course, later in the film when he becomes trapped in an animal pen with the evil Komodo, he’ll scream and scream, but no one comes running this time. “He’s just trying to trick us again. Stupid pothead.”





That’s it for today class! See
you next time when we discuss… The Victim Pool.





Previous Lessons
The Solo Hero
The Couple
The Stragglers
The Guy Who Knows Things


Many of the concepts for this series originated from contributions to the magazine, Penny Blood (2004-2007).