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Horror In Theatre

3 June 2015

Why exactly people are so eager to fork over their hard-earned money to be scared, distressed or disgusted is still under discussion, but the fact is that they do. So if horror is such a big money-maker, how come we don’t see more of it in theatre?

It’s no secret that the film and theatre industries aren’t afraid to ‘borrow’ popular stories and franchises off each other. Whether it’s Mamma Mia! or Rocky, each year box office hits make the transition from stage to screen or vice versa. The latest, and perhaps unexpected, revival in this category is the musical production of Stephen King’s Carrie, which recently finished its run at Southwark Playhouse. Unexpected, because while in the cinemas horror continues to dominate, the genre is a much rarer sighting in the theatre. Why exactly people are so eager to fork over their hard-earned money to be scared, distressed or disgusted is still under discussion, but the fact is that they do. So if horror is such a big money-maker, how come we don’t see more of it in theatre?

While Carrie was quite a high-profile production and ‘zombie survival games’ enjoy an increasing popularity, often you can count shows in the horror genre on one finger. And that’s The Woman in Black.  At first this seems easily explained: even in the West End big budgets like those spent on horror classics like The Exorcist are the exception rather than the rule. There’s also the challenge of visual effects, which are often integral to successful movies in the genre, but are either impossible or impossibly expensive to create on stage. And let’s not forget that those highly effective ‘jump scares’ many filmmakers employ are much easier to create from behind a camera, where the audience’s point of view is under the director’s control, than in a theatre where the spectators choose their own.

That said, theatre also has one very big advantage over film, one that makes it uniquely suited to producing horror: the audience is in the same space where the action happens. This makes it a lot easier to build tension, one of the key ingredients of a proper scare. Tension relies not only on creating suspense, which originates in the story, but also on an appropriately chilling atmosphere. And that’s exactly what theatre’s good at; if there’s one thing more frightening than a door slamming on screen, it’s a door slamming a few feet away from you in a darkened auditorium.

Another important component is relevance, which means the show taps into recognisable fears and insecurities. The ghost from Hamlet, for example, would’ve resonated deeply with Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who lived in a time of religious insecurity and were anxious about their spiritual afterlives. That the fear of what happens after death isn’t overcome yet is apparent when looking at the spirits, vampires, mummies and zombies that still haunt horror stories today.

However, theatre makers shouldn’t confuse being relevant with being ‘real’. Especially in theatre, one might be forgiven for trying to be as naturalistic as possible in order to compensate for the inherent theatricality you get when you put a show on stage. But, as implausible as it may sound, this can actually be counterproductive. Research has shown that while many film fans will pay happily to see unspeakable things done to people in the cinema, few can stomach much less explicit documentaries, knowing that what they see there is real. It’s a finding confirmed by the history of the popular Grand Guignol theatre in Paris. Opened in 1897, it specialised in naturalistic (i.e. blood-and-gore-heavy) horror shows. Audiences rapidly declined after World War II, prompting the theatre to close in 1962. As the director at the time said: ‘We could never equal Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.’ In other words: horror should be relevant, but it shouldn’t hit too close to home.

All in all, there are plenty of opportunities in the horror genre for ambitious theatre makers. Especially combined with the recent flourishing of immersive shows, there’s no reason why horror shouldn’t be as successful in theatres as it is on the big screen. Perhaps even more. Because one thing is certain: when horror theatre takes off again, it won’t be for the faint-hearted.

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