Sketch comedy has been a staple form of the genre for a long time, because it’s very easy to tell a joke and even easier to do so in a visual media with physical comedy, tangible characters, and short narratives. Short-form horror is not quite so easy. It’s a genre that benefits from time, and rising tensions, expectations, and breaks that escalate to a final conclusion. Is a sketch-horror format possible?
In fact horror and comedy both rely on the tension-break cycle, where set up and punchline serve the same functions as tension and release of horror. We’re starting to see an emergent wave of short-form horror online, in shorts such as Lights Out or Thresher, and we’re seeing more and more films that are a compilation of shorter horror films showcasing different writers and directors, like V/H/S, Trick ‘r’ Treat, or XX. In fact it’s a format that stretches as far back as cinema itself, and the surge of anthology has risen proportionate to the increasing volumes of films as a whole, but the internet is making it easier and easier for horror shorts to be seen.
Anthology horror continues the campfire story traditions, the old oral tradition of passing on dark myths and urban legends. Horror passed through the pulp-fiction years, the short, rapidly produced horror printed on cheap paper and created by a stable of writers working to deadlines, of which Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard were some of the major players. We now have creepypasta, the creative explosion of horror – good and bad – that has filled the internet with a fresh stock of bogeymen unique to our modern sensibilities.
Pulp horror was a television staple in the days of the Twilight Zone, ten seasons, one film, two reboots and nearly seventy years of history on screen, the single episode stories offering macabre twists and morals that force us to take perspective on our own lives. Today’s equivalent might be Black Mirror, a far less family friendly equivalent that makes a fearful thing of modern technology rather than applying a supernatural twist.
You can also see the short-form horror as a one-liner, a simple search for “two sentence horror stories” will yield some gems that give you a shudder. They follow a basic premise, establish normalcy, and subvert it:
“I can’t sleep” she whispered, crawling into bed with me. I woke up cold, clutching the dress she was buried in.
It tells so much in such a confined space, a tale of love and loss, but hints at something more dreadful and impossible. Ok, so it’s not as potent as an hour and a half film or a good book, but you might as well say that you’d rather go see a stand-up comedian than hear a knock-knock joke.
Which begs the question, can a sketch-horror series have the same potency with fear as a sketch-comedy show can have with humour? Anthology horror films prove fairly conclusively that multiple stories can join into an enjoyable experience, and horror shorts such as those on YouTube and the two-sentence stories are excellent examples of how fear and disquiet can be created in a very short space of time. Now build those into a half hour collection, with recurring characters, common themes, and framing devices.
This has been another article of me pitching ideas into the empty space in the hopes that someone with the resources and skills necessary finds it and makes it a reality. I hope you have enjoyed my analysis into the hypothetical.