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Blood on the Footlights: Horror and The Stage

I’ve never enjoyed fake haunted houses, the haunted attraction. You know the kind. The ones where you stand for hours to be guided through a corridor of hallways as ghastly puppets, actors, and props come flying at your face. As a kid, I kind of liked them. Or maybe after years of Chucky causing me daily nightmares I wanted to prove that I could handle them. Hell, in high school I even worked as a Haunt actor, receiving a modicum of praise for my witty “Atkins Diet” puns as I played a crazed masked cannibal. The first person that I tried to scare, a very large man, just casually walked through without giving me much attention. The second person, a tiny child, BOOKED IT out of my room before I barely had a chance to get a “Boo!” out. That’s when it clicked for me: people want live fear, the safe kind where you know you get to go home with your family at the end. Even this small child, strutting in like the baddest mother around ready for that monster, was gleeful when she ran out. Fear is a form of entertainment that forces us to feel alive. Which is why it’s always puzzled me that horror isn’t more prevalent in live theatre, an art form that has a pedigree in the macabre and supernatural all the way back to the moment that Oedipus gouged out his eyes.

So why is it? Is it because professional live theatre is too financially afraid to hitch their wagon to a genre piece that already is a risk in Hollywood? Or is it even more the constricting cultural definitions that are placed upon the horror genre that would make theatre professionals scoff at the idea, imagining that horror is the bottom of the barrel when it comes to artistic expression? These aren’t questions that have answers, but as the genre of horror has continually proved its cultural necessity in 2018, what is stopping theatre artists from bringing terror back to the stage?

The oldest surviving Greek play is The Persians, written by Aeschylus and first performed in 472 BC. Before Aeschylus, plays had one character (the protagonist) and a chorus to build the world and provide commentary. Naturally, this is where the term “Greek Chorus” comes from. Aeschylus, though, added the first secondary character, or the Antagonist, and greatly reduced the chorus. While his pupil Sophocles would add tertiary characters, Euripides employed the first prologue and Deus Ex Machina. Theatre is where narrative was born.

If narrative was born in these early text, Aristotle provided the first “How-To” guide with Poetics, the earliest work of dramatic theory, and in it the first historical moment for horror. “A work is a tragedy, only if it inspires pity and fear” Aristotle says. Joe Sachs, a professor at St. Johns College explains, “pity and fear are not themselves things subject to identification with pin-point precision, but that each refers to a range of feeling.” A tragedy that elicits mere pity without fear could be seen as a tear-jerker rom-com, while a tragedy that is all fear and no pity…well that’s the horror film. That dopamine hit we get every time we watch a scary movie, diametrically different than the enjoyment we have watching any other genre, is what Aristotle defines as the “tragic pleasure.”

As drama and live theatre developed, so did its horror genesis with it. Morality plays and medieval theatre, like Psychomachia, featured elements that we would come to find in what we consider modern horror, but it wouldn’t be until Shakespeare’s infamous play Titus Andronicus gave us a cast of characters that rape, torture, mutilate, murder, maim, and eventually bake people into pies that playwrights began putting the more extreme sides of human nature on stage. Twenty years later John Webster would shape that extremity of violence with his early revenge play The White Devil that features a climax with clear allusions to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 film Les Diaboliques.

The early desire for the tragic pleasure came to a head with Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, founded by Oscar Metenier in 1894. In 1898, the driving force behind the theatres’ horror roots was Max Maury, who’s play L’Atroce Volupté roughly translates to “The Atrocious Pleasure”, a clear reference back to Aristotle and his discovery of the theatres greatest playwright Andre De Lorde, who would write for Guignol for the next 25 years. The Grand Guignol would thrive through both World Wars, but by the 1960’s its audiences had dwindled after facing the atrocities of the Holocaust. Though without Grand Guignol’s plays, horror theatre wouldn’t have been able to make the leap into modern entertainment. Yet like a passing of the baton, while Grand Guignol closed its doors in 1962, a little over a decade later, Christopher Bond’s retelling of the Victorian penny dreadful, Sweeney Todd, would premiere and capture the imagination of acclaimed composer Stephen Sondheim who would adapt it into the worldwide phenomenon that is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Playing with ideas that were conceived in Grand Guignol, Sondheim’s musical gave a psychological profile to each slash that the Barber takes from his victims throats in cascade of blood red. Again, tragic pleasure takes over, as we understand and identify with Todd, formerly Benjamin Barker a man who was imprisoned in Australia after his wife is raped by a judge whom he seeks for revenge. Even in the second act when Barker-cum-Todd throws caution to the wind and decides to kill on the regular to supply his downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, with meat for her pies, we too recognize his impatient pain as he slides another body down a trapdoor. By 1979 horror theatre became not only effective, but critically acclaimed. Sweeney Todd walked away with eight out of nine of the Tony Awards it was nominated for including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score. Perhaps if not for Todd we would never have the eye-gouging, baby-eating madness of Sarah Kane’s Blasted or the infantile nightmare of Philip Ridley’s Pitchfork Disney.

Yet even with the resounding effectiveness of horror on stage, it still is an enigma that many are too afraid to try and crack. Recently Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories found success bringing the paranormal to the West End, a feat that will never match the runaway success of Woman In Black which has enjoyed a continuous run since 1987. What connects both Ghost Stories and Woman In Black is their clever use of sound and lighting to amplify the shared audience experience, even tricking some into believing that it may be more that just a play. In Ghost Stories the premise is that you are attending a lecture on the paranormal that will contain first hand experiences. These first hand experiences are told through elaborate monologues, not dissimilar to how puppetry told the stories that populate Martin McDonagh’s chilling The Pillowman, with stereos being hidden around the theatre so sounds can come from the most unforeseen places causing the audience to question their own reality, however minutely. This questioning of reality has been pushed even further with the popularity of “Immersive Theatre” — the most well-known being Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an experience where you don a mask and are given permission to roam freely in an intricately-detailed environment, coming into contact with actors and dancers performing Shakespeare’s Macbeth. At one moment you will be watching a beautiful partnered dance between Macbeth and Lady M, and then you may be spirited away by another actor to have a scene or experience by yourself. This is further played with in Darren Lynn Bousman’s The Tension Experience which blurs the lines between reality and fiction even more as the action gets involved in your own life, becoming almost an alternate-reality role-playing game that culminates in an elaborate immersive experience.

While the genesis for horror as a narrative tool in live performance began in Ancient Greece, there is no argument that the genre’s true and proper home is in the cinema. No amount of theatrical trickery will ever rival the type of suspension of disbelief watching a film can, so in a genre that relies so heavily on that suspension as we follow stories about ghosts and goblins, film is the preferred artistic mode. Yet despite this distinction some of the most infamous subgenres of horror owe quite a bit to live theatre, both directly and indirectly.

These past two decades saw the rise of the torture porn film. The subgenre’s early beginnings can be traced back to the Mondo Films of the 1960s, a popular blend of exploitation and documentary with names like Mondo Cane (1962), Ultime Grida Dalla Savana (1975), and eventually, the most well-known, Faces of Death (1978). The primary purpose of these early films were to peel back the veneer of modesty and expose a wide audience to a seedy underbelly of the world that many may have shielded themselves from by the early 1960s. By the early 1980s, images of the Holocaust that had initially sunk the famed Grand Guignol had all but been relegated to textbooks, so audiences were craving proof that humanity is as visibly cruel as we know it to be.

This of course led to the large slasher boom and spate of video nasties, waxing and waning over time until a worldwide tragedy struck yet again: September 11th, 2001. After the terrorist attacks decimated the Manhattan skyline, the world was left numb. Beyond the parallels to real-life torture that was happening within the United States government during post-9/11 pandemonium and the oncoming War In Iraq, the torture porn subgenre was born out of a country devoid of emotion. We had to feel something, no matter what it was. And the easiest, safest form of self-harm is watching a violent film. This, at its core, is one of the primary principals of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty which he explains in his singular published work The Theatre And Its Double: “..a theatre in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theatre as by a whirlwind of higher forces.” Jane Goodall wrote in her book, The Text And Its Double, on Artaud’s adaptation of Percy Shelley’s work The Cenci, “suggestive of extreme atmospheric turbulence, with wind-blown drapes, waves of suddenly amplified sound, and crowds of figures engaged in ‘furious orgy’”, accompanied by “a chorus of church bells”, as well as the presence of numerous large mannequins.” Artaud’s intentions were to physically spark a reaction from the audience, keeping them slightly off their balance, while also exploring the foreboding physical presence of the titular character. “The predominance of action over reflection accelerates the development of events…the monologues…are cut in favor of sudden, jarring transitions…so that a spasmodic effect is created. Extreme fluctuations in pace, pitch, and tone heighten sensory awareness intensify…the here and now of performance.” Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty was an early mode designed to test the limits audiences were willing to go in search for truth in art, or even more simply, macabre entertainment.

In his own words,“[it’s a] communion between actor and audience in a magic exorcism…superior to words, that can be used to subvert thought and logic and to shock the spectator into seeing the baseness of his world. This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid.”

And never is that more self-evident in the post-9/11 torture porn boom started by the likes of the Saw franchise and Eli Roth’s Hostel films. What these films may lack in complex character development and unique narrative structure, they far make up for in the shock that audiences were desperate to get. Rob Zombie’s House of a 1000 Corpses was released in 2003, but it would be his follow up The Devils Rejects (2005) that would feel the most connection to Artaud’s ideals. Following a trio of brutal murderers as they paint the long stretches of highway being pursued by the brother of the sheriff from the first film, they took a more naturalistic approach to the cartoonish source material with Cinematographer Phil Parmet (Harlan County, USA) to blur the lines of the fourth wall. The visceral blood letting of the opening act is in direct harmony with the poetic dialogue from Otis (Bill Moseley) to create a delicate synthesis of Aristotles tragic pleasure and Artaud’s Cruelty principal of shocking the spectator to illuminate the depravity of modern society. In Hostel: Part 2, as we watch the diverging paths of two men when they are exposed to rhapsodic torture, the violent narrative propels us to question our own morality. What would we do if we were told there are no repercussion for our darkest urges? How would that affect us? Do we identify with Stuart (Roger Bart), the mild mannered Beta male turned Alpha when confronted with the extent of his own toxic masculinity?

These films scare us because it turns every man into a monster, offering us a metaphor for the dangerous shadow of “good” political intentions during times of foreign warfare. These questions would be too hard for popular entertainment to tackle in the wake of a tragedy of the magnitude of 9/11, but for these Artaudian horror films its excesses are the casing for the brutal bullet of emotional honesty.

Japanese film, like its culture, is heavily influenced by its heritage. Even as a westerner with only general knowledge of its storied past, it’s hard to not recognize the countries connection to its spiritual history in the endlessly cinematic Shinto Shrines meant to house the Kami, the supernatural entities recognized in traditional Shinto religion. After the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the end of World War II the citizens of Japan were trying to process the atrocities through their art: cinematically we saw nuclear horrors run amok as Gojira (1954) decimated Tokyo, but physically the grotesqueries of the world were being embodied in a new form of Japanese dance theatre called Butoh. Turning away from Western forms of dance to return to “the natural movements of the common folk”, Ankoku Butō, or “The Dance of Darkness” was born. Butoh is often defined by its undefinability, held together by aesthetic and environmental similarities. Butoh, an extreme physical embodiment of the human condition, is typically performed in the extremities of human society. Butoh performances are meant for places like Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, post-Katrina New Orleans, and, of course, the nuclear fallout of Hiroshima. When the form made its New York debut in 1987, the Times wrote: “Butoh is not for the frail…[it]does not aim to charm. Instead, it sets out to assault the senses. The hallmarks of this theater of protest include full body paint (white or dark or gold), near or complete nudity, shaved heads, grotesque costumes, clawed hands, rolled-up eyes and mouths opened in silent screams.”

If this look of near nude bodies clad in dark or grey paint, “mouths opened in silent screams” rings bells, it’s because the nightmare fuel butoh birthed lit aflame in the J-Horror boom of the late 90s/early 2000s. The first quasi-horror film to use the butoh form was in Teruo Ishii’s notorious Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), an Ero-Guro pink film from the production company Toei. Its cast included founder of butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata, in the predominantly dancing role of Jogoro, a Moreau-esque doctor who is creating his ideal society of deformed monsters. Critic Tom Mes wrote, “[…]scurrying across the rocky island coast in a crablike fashion, Ishii’s jump cuts making his choreographed movements seem even more erratic. Dressed in a skintight silver dress, his mad eyes peering through a shroud of long black hair[…]” The earthbound crawling of Sadako from Hideo Nakata’s The Ring (1998) is butoh for the masses, offering a minute glimpse of the form to amplify our terror of this unknown force. This was further explored in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s cyber-normal masterpiece Kairo (2001), casting butoh dancers to portray the horrifying ghostly visions appearing across Tokyo. Butoh was used to its probable maximum potential in Ju-On (2000) in its two primary antagonists: Kayako (Takako Fuji ) and Takeo (Takashi Matsuyama). From the gravity-rooted movement, at times fluid and staccato, Takashi Shimizu understood and utilized the power behind the visual aesthetic of butoh, exposing the globe to those terrifying grey faces. Butoh has even been used as recently as in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal series as a source of inspiration for Richard Armitage’s physicality as villain Francis Dolarhyde, most famously portrayed by Tom Noonan in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986).

Horror’s current place in the theatre, not surprisingly, is back where it began: the American musical. While having a healthy pedigree supported by worldwide sensations like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors, the musical and the horror films go happily hand-in-hand from structure to pleasure. As in the horror film as we wait patiently between each phantasmagorical murder set-piece, so to are we waiting for each new song and dance number to delight our senses in a musical. From blockbusters like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde, who have enjoyed numerous mounts on Broadway and a neverending cast of worldwide touring pictures, to most recently the likes of Evil Dead: The Musical, Silence!: The Musical, Carrie, The Toxic Avenger, and Re-Animator, the horror musical has proven to be quite an audience pleasing cash-cow despite their cinematic histories in schlock and gore. And it makes sense, because these shows are fun. Mostly all of them will have a Gallagher-esque “Splash Zone” so the actors can spray the audience with gallons of goopy fake blood, giving them an opportunity to revel in an “immersive” experience without the dreaded “actors coming into the audience” feeling many theatre professionals (myself include) absolutely despise. It’s a campy, quick 90 minute show that’smeant as a breezy night at the theatre, ticking off a gorehound’s desire to see live performance. The major detracting factor with these shows, though, is the camp. This intentional fun isn’t necessarily what drew us to these properties in the first place. Films like 1985’s Re-Animator and 1987’s Evil Dead II (which the musical derives most of its plot from) are hilarious because, while they are aware of the comedic undercurrent in their narrative, they are also intentionally playing against the comedy. In the simplest term, the films play it straight while their musical counterparts are winking at you before they even make their way to the proscenium. It’s a categorical misunderstanding of the tragic pleasure that horror films give their audiences in the first place. We can only fully experience the humor, the macabre, the grotesque when our leading man or woman is nonplussed by the ludicrous, unaware of the ridiculousness, and simply living each bonkers scenario moment to moment.

On first glance there isn’t a crossover for horror and theatre, an art form that has incorrectly been placed upon a pedestal with symphonies, operas, fine art, and ballet. Unlike those art forms, theatre has always been for the common class. Theatre is a blue-collar art form, and horror is the cinematic thrill-seeking of the working class. But by placing theatre into a spectrum of art that is typically seen as inaccessible, we lose what makes live performance so necessary: the commonality of the human experience. And if we are to believe Aristotle in that all comedy derives from the Phallic Songs, making “The Dick Joke” proto-humor, then we must also believe that all drama comes from the over-abundance or lack thereof of horror. The pedigree of this genric art form will always begin with the birth of dramatic narrative. For without horror, how do we feel?

About Jacob Trussell

Jacob Trussell is a Brooklyn based writer and actor who moonlights as the Managing Editor for Ghastly Grinning. He saw John Carpenter's The Thing at a terribly young age, and it continues to make a profound impact on his life. He's really quite new to this. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter for pictures of his cat: @JE_TRUSSELL

One comment

  1. Horror is alive and well in the UK’s fringe theatre circuit with annual Horror festivals in London, Edinburgh and Brighton to name but a few, plus representation at the Edinburgh Fringe (where I saw the glorious Reanimator musical) and the London Vault festival.

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