Horror On Stage – Theatre’s most unloved genre needs recognition!

By June 21, 2015

Film, TV & Tech.

[Photo Credit: ghoststoriestheshow.co.uk]


Why are there so few good horror films? For every beautifully-crafted tale of chills and noises in the night, there are a dozen off-licence-DVD-rental-shelf calamities. For every Rosemary’s Baby there’s a Leprechaun; for every Sixth Sense there’s a House of Wax. It’s a sad fact that the horror genre’s ratio of good to bad is incomparable to any other genre. For horror-lovers, it’s endlessly frustrating, but when you’re a theatre-lover also, this conundrum takes on a whole new level.

There is no horror at the theatre. It simply doesn’t exist as a genre. Time Out’s website lists ‘London’s Best Horror Plays’ with the subtitle ‘Our critics round up the most horrifying plays in town’. There is one entry: The Woman in Black. Some list!

The Woman in Black may be the second longest-running play in London, usurped only by Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, but it’s had scant few successors in mainstream theatre. Following the immense success of The Lion King, there was a surge of film-adapted musicals. These ranged from the successful (Billy Elliot) to the less successful (Shrek: The Musical) to the bizarre (Elf: The Musical). Similarly, the success of Rent brought along the resurgence of rock musicals and for a short while following War Horse’s release it felt impossible to escape puppeted animals on stage. But what about The Woman in Black? Where are all the horror plays?



[Photo Credit: Zach Rosing]


This question links back to horror films – they’re hard to do well and very easy to get wrong. There’s no room for such creative risk in the competitive theatre world. The second reason is, quite simply, that horror is looked down upon as a genre. Because it’s designed to scare, it’s considered insubstantial and somehow valueless, but why should fear be a less legitimate emotion than sadness or happiness? So much great theatre is geared to make us laugh and cry, so surely a scream is just as good a reaction!

Take, for example, Andy Nyman’s excellent Ghost Stories, which until recently played at Leicester Square’s Arts Theatre. The Woman in Black’s only natural successor, it is an underappreciated masterwork of horror theatre. For 80 minutes, the audience is taken on a heart-pounding journey into the depths of human psyche, aided by incredible sound and production design. The show displays a clever juxtaposition of theatrical styles with a tightly-honed script, an ingenious twist and a surprisingly emotional subtext. On top of that, it’s hide-under-your-jacket scary. Put simply, it’s one of the best theatrical experiences an audience member could have.

Yet the reviews were mixed. “It’s as if the desire to recreate the thrills of the fairground Ghost Train got entangled with the wish to investigate ghosts” said The Independent. “At their best, these experiences offer the thrill of a fairground ride” griped The Guardian. This emphasis on the ‘fairground’ experience of Ghost Stories is a misjudged criticism. If a ‘fairground’ approach works, then how is that a bad thing?



[Photo courtesy of The Independent]


Because that’s what’s so wonderful about theatre. It’s immersive and, in the case of good horror theatre, inescapable. There’s little as thrilling as the rocking chair in The Woman in Black or the moment where the titular character walks down the aisle, her dress brushing past our elbows. Like a good haunted house or ghost train, the thrill is that the horror is taking place all around us; there’s no protective barrier of a television or cinema screen. If there really is an unseen entity causing the chair to rock so violently, we are in the same room as it.

Ghost Stories takes this to a whole new level, the theatre draped in police tape with scratched numbers on the walls. You get the feeling that the theatre’s cleverly stylised safety curtain is barely keeping the monstrosities at bay. You can’t turn down the volume or hide behind the sofa – there’s not even the respite of an interval. As the lights go down, you realise there is no escape. While critics may compare the experience to a haunted house, they’re ignoring the imagination and verve that goes into creating a successful haunted house experience. Theatre makers are without the tools that make horror films so scary; they have no camera angles, no clever editing, no creepy locations or visual effects, so they must use every technique at their disposal.



[Photo Credit: Chris Kullstroem]


And it’s not just horror theatre that’s reaching out to the audience in this way. Theatregoers are less and less thrilled by the pure spectator experience, staring stiffly at an open curtain. Whether it’s humans dressed as cats prowling down the aisles or a man dressed as a spider swooping above our heads, audience expectations are changing – for better or for worse. Singing in the Rain doused us with water, the NT’s Swallows and Amazons sailed a ship over our heads and Once the Musical even invited us on stage for a drink. The Woman in Black’s immersive experience isn’t a gimmick – it’s ahead of the curve.

Amidst the carefully orchestrated scares, it mustn’t be forgotten how much fun a good horror play can be. There’s more laughter than you might get at a comedy show, each scream followed by nervous chuckles. There’s a sense of community, a ‘we’re all in this together’ mentality, particularly as audience hysteria reaches its peak. The experience is almost cathartic.

So this is my little shout-out to good horror theatre and a cry for more to come. Leeds’s own Slung Low, a theatre group who perform in unconventional performance spaces, contributed to the cause with their vampire trilogy They Only Come at Night, but this was dismissed by the Guardian as, you guessed it, ‘a fairground thrill’. No matter what the critics say, horror theatre is about so much more than fairground scares. It requires good storytelling, great acting, clever pacing, technical precision and, above all, an inventive approach to theatre. As The Woman in Black and Ghost Stories showed, fear can be so much fun, so give us more scares please!

Joe Saxon