One time, two of our young daughters went to some friends’ home for a sleepover. For some inexplicable reason, these girls’ usually responsible parents decided that watching the 1944 black and white movie, Arsenic and Old Lace, was a suitable evening activity. Twenty years later, that supposed comedy, with its murderous elderly aunts, still gives our girls nightmares.
Laughter often springs from a contrast between reality and what we are seeing. Surely, Arsenic and Old Lace could only be seen as a comedy by viewers who did not actually suspect that their sweet, unassuming aunts had scores of bodies hidden in their basements. As young girls, our daughters apparently were not completely clear that the movie didn’t depict reality.
Motivated by a misplaced sense of compassion (not to mention insanity) the two sweet, loving aunts in the movie murder lonely old men who are visiting them. Seeing the film as humorous, even if it is dark humor, presupposes an understanding of the sanctity of life. That is one of the values that Americans used to share and increasingly don’t.
Without that, Arsenic and Old Lace is no longer a comedy but a nightmare.