Horror jokes, black humor, and cognitive poetics

Reuven Tsur*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The aim of this paper is to explore how the detailed analysis of two jokes may illuminate a comprehensive theory of Cognitive Poetics. Cognitive Poetics is an interdisciplinary approach to the study of literature employing the tools offered by cognitive science: it explores how poetic language, or critical decisions are constrained and shaped by human information-processing. One of its fundamental assumptions is, that in the response to literature adaptive and other cognitive devices (such as speech and language processing) are turned to aesthetic ends. Another assumption is, that in the response to literature adaptive and other cognitive processes are delayed, or disrupted in some other manner. An important issue in literary theory concerns the relationship between impressionistic and analytic criticism. Cognitive Poetics attempts to relate human qualities and perceived effects to verbal and literary structures in a principled and systematic manner. This it does by offering some hypothesis concerning the cognitive structures and processes mediating between them. It is claimed here, that neither in psychology, nor in the cognitive study of art is sufficient attention paid to the distinction between the functioning of cognitive mechanisms and its unique conscious quality. This paper's answers are given to questions and problems raised outside humor research, in the study of esthetics in general, and in the study of literature in particular. In this sense, jokes are treated as works of verbal art of a minimal size and horror jokes as constituting a literary genre in its own right. Shift of mental sets, the main cognitive device in the response to jokes, is responsible for a wide range of literary phenomena. One crucial question to which this paper addresses itself is, whether—and in what manner—does the familiarity with conventions affect the reader's response. In this respct, “the reader” is not a unitary concept. Readers are assumed to differ in their decision style, which is ultimately determined by their capability of facing uncertainties and complexities. Another crucial issue concerns two main streams in the Western Literary tradition, that of “the line of Wit” and that of the line of “High-Seriousness”. It is claimed, that the theoretical apparatus presented here may explain the problematic relationship beween them, and their esthetic nature.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)243-256
Number of pages14
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1989


Dive into the research topics of 'Horror jokes, black humor, and cognitive poetics'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this