grand guignolThroughout the ages, horror and theatre have possessed a relationship unlike any other genre to grace the stage. Reaching as far back as the Greeks, tales of murder and the macabre have captivated audiences.  Many of the most famous and well-known plays historically contain scenes of graphic violence, dismemberment, and death.

As time passed, these scenes and plays grew even darker and more graphic. While there have been ebb and flows of horror’s history on stage, it has always returned more vicious than ever.  Violent acts once only implied were now demanded by the public to be seen; audiences now chose stories of madmen and murderers, over ghosts and gods.

There are more types of horror productions now than at any other time in the history of theatre, and this growing trend does not seem to be weaning at all. How did we get to this new age of horror theatre?  What can it tell us about the future of horror as a theatrical art form?


Horror is a genre engraved into our species.  We desire stories that shock and thrill us; tales that captivate the dark recesses of our mind, and the characters that haunt our dreams. It only makes sense that early theatre clung to horror and developed plays that possessed many macabre elements.  Oftentimes these elements were used to teach moral lessons of some kind.  Early Greek plays presented characters that broke decorum and taboos of the time, upsetting the gods.  Thus the characters had to be punished, sometimes in horrific ways.  Oedipus was forced to gouge out his own eyes as consequence for murdering his father and sleeping with his own mother. Medea slaughtered her own children.  Greek theatre, as researchers have discovered, often had very violent endings.  In fact some believe that certain shows were so violent that they caused women to miscarry.

The Medieval period saw the fall of theater and then the subsequent rise of “morality plays,” short productions produced by the church to help tell lessons or sermons.  Almost all of these plays ended with a “Hell Mouth,” essentially a portrayal of what would happen to the poor souls if they did not heed the lessons of the morality plays.  Modern day Christian groups have made their own spin on this by creating the popularized “Hell Houses” where they take individuals through a typical haunted house scenario while demonstrating how sinful acts affect their lives and the consequences they face if they do not change their ways.

With Shakespeare, the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, theatre started reverting back to stories of murder and the paranormal. In the play Macbeth, a series of events are foretold by witch sisters who use magic, Banquoa’s ghost is portrayed, and there are scenes of implied violence. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth also appear on stage at various points with their hands caked in blood.  These are all horror elements that remain constant throughout history.

It wasn’t until Andre Antoine created the idea of the in the 1880’s that horror really started to develop its own culture and genre of theatre.  People’s interest (and subsequent concern) in the content was at a peek between the rise of Jack the Ripper as well as the publications of penny dreadfuls. Antoine followed the naturalist idea that theatre was to be as real as possible or it should be “nothing at all” (Gordon 11).   He developed many short plays at the time revolving around the seedy underground Paris and extremely violent situations acted out on stage.  These “rosse” plays quickly became all about shock value and that is where our real story picks up.


Nearly ten years after Theatre Libre took rise, Oscar Metenier, co-founder of Libre, opened up the Grand Guignol theatre in 1897, during the height of the naturalist movement.  The name guignol comes from the French word for puppet.  Grand, as it alludes to, simply refers to the large scale.  Theatrical puppet shows at the time were meant for children, and often depicted violent actions between the characters.  The new Grand Guignol theatre was going to be a puppet show, but for adults.  Everything, including the violence, would be on a much grander scale.

The entrance to the theatre would be through a brick alleyway.    The tone of the evening would already be set for the patrons as they made the journey towards the theatre doors.  Inside, the large angels of the religious architecture became hollow spirits staring down at viewers… judging the souls of the visitors as they watched the events on stage take place.  The actual stage space itself was only 23 feet by 23 feet (around 7 x 7 meters).  The intimate and tight setting allowed for patrons to be fully submersed in the storytelling.

The man behind the scenes of the Grand Guignol was Paul Ratineau.  He was in charge of helping create many of the practical effects that occurred on stage, as well as the lighting, both key elements for every play produced by the theatre.  How did Ratineau light the stage?  Guignol theatre deals with a lot of concealed action, as well as a tense and dark tone (since they are mostly horror plays after all).  The various acts of horror, be it a slit throat or a gouged eye, had to be concealed from the public.  Many times those actions could be hidden within the blocking of actors, but lighting helped a great amount as well.  Shadows and a dimly lit set helped hide the action taking place, but these also had a second purpose: setting the mood.  Dark areas are mysterious and foreboding.  The darker the set the harder it was to see who or where the evil was, thus building the tension within the audience.  This trick is still used in horror theatre and films today as well as haunted houses.

In the Middle Ages theatre artists used the body parts of animals in stage plays requiring mutilations or acts of violence (Gordon 4). This carried over onto the Grand Guignol stage where it was not abnormal to see a cow eye or a bit of pig intestine on stage.  These elements mixed with specialized props, as well as the different kinds of blood created the illusion of violence on stage.  Seven to nine different kinds of blood were made and used by different directors of the Grand Guignol at any given time (Young). Each type of blood would be used for the different kinds of wounds inflicted and would range in viscosity and shades of red depending on the location and age of the wound.

When staging the acts of violence, directors took into account the blocking of the actors.  Directors would place the actors purposefully in front of the action on stage so as to hide a gag that would require some sleight of hand (such as the gouging of an eye in Crime in the Madhouse).   If they had a prop weapon that could make it seem as though it was cutting into real flesh they would openly show it to the audience so that each patron could see in plain view what was going on.  As time went on in the Grand Guignol, audiences would expect to see more of the action taking place on stage rather than leaving it to the imagination.

André de Lorde (or as he was also known, “Le Prince de la Terreur”), was the primary playwright for the Grand Guignol  (Hands, Wilson 13).   It is assumed that in his tenure he wrote nearly a hundred plays for the theatre, all mainly horror plays.  When researchers look back into Guignol theatre, it is de Lorde’s work that they see most often.  Grand Guignol, being the first theatre of its kind, offered a lot of opportunities for de Lorde and other playwrights to see work produced.  The only catch was that it had to be horrific enough! Many of these plays, due to the nature of the material, came under harsh criticism.  Yet the public flocked to this back alley theatre every show night to see the macabre take place on stage.

In the early 1900’s, the uprising of film started competing with the world of theatre arts.  Grand Guignol especially, felt the pressure of the big screen.  Both the Grand Guignol and film were trying to produce very naturalistic plays for people to see.  Film was capturing and replicating real life or at least it seemed to be.  There was no asides, or cut away moment that shielded the violence in horror films.  It was all edited together nicely.  In order to compensate, the Grand Guignol started to produce more uber violent plays, and as previously mentioned, this led to safety issues both physically and mentally for actors.  Even with these new effects on stage, attendance rates were slowly declining for the once infamous theatre.

When World War II occurred people were learning just how evil the human race could really be.  The horror inflicted during the war by the Nazi rank is considered the main reason for closing of the Grand Guignol.  Charles Nonon, the director of the theatre at the time, is quoted as saying that Grand Guignol could “never equal Buchenwald.” The Grand Guignol Theatre closed its doors in 1962.   Today, the International Visual Theatre–a theatre company devoted to producing plays in sign language–owns and produces plays on a stage that was once caked in blood.

WereAllGuignol-Submission.docx-.jpg Evolution

Soon after the closing of the Grand Guignol there was an uprising of a new kind of horror performance: haunted houses.  The actual beginnings of what we call a “haunted house” or a “haunted attraction” are rather vague.  Rooms and games designed to scare people during the Autumn months have been around for centuries, almost as long as horror has been in the theatre itself.  An example of this can be found in the popular television series, American Horror Story: Coven.   One episode of the horror series has a flashback to the 1800’s, in which a character named Madam LaLaurie  had a ‘Chamber of Horrors’ where she used different body parts as props to scare patrons of her Halloween party.  There are also funhouses and the like that have been in fairs and carnivals for a long time as well.  But the actual beginnings of the traditional haunted house seemed to start in the mid 1900’s when groups of people began to create haunted houses for fundraising opportunities during the Halloween season.

While not exactly taking place on a stage, haunted houses use a range of theatrical techniques such as the lighting and staging of violence.  As the years passed the haunted house industry grew immensely, and is now a $300 million industry (White).  With over 2,500 haunted attractions worldwide (keeping in mind that those are just the professional attractions being counted) the industry has exploded into a phenomenon that can no longer be contained within a month.  Many stores now start to sell Halloween merchandise in August or sooner, and many houses themselves run from late September to the first week of November.  Among these houses and event is Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights.

In 1991, Universal Studios Orlando created the Halloween event, Fright Nights, which would later become known as Halloween Horror Nights (HHN).  Both the Orlando and Hollywood Universal locations are dedicated to making HHN a completely immersive and terrifying experience for guests.   They not only have haunted houses scattered throughout the park, but also larger areas called “scare zones” which break the park up into different sections where scare-actors freely roam the streets terrorizing guests.  This allows for maximum scaring at the event both in the houses and within the park itself.  HHN is one of Universal Studio’s biggest seasonal events each year– bringing thousands of people to the park each night.  With Universal Singapore and Japan now hosting Halloween Horror Nights, the event is now international.

WereAllGuignol-Submission.docx-.jpgThe creative team at Universal Orlando typically designs the event around a central theme, while the Hollywood park tends to be looser with their overall structure.  In Orlando, the theme often dictates what kinds of houses and Independent Properties (or IPs) they go after.  Each year marketing for the event begins in the summer, around May or June.  The HHN website is updated as a tease of what is to come.  For the next few months, Universal regularly updates the site with new information forming the story for the year’s event.  Depending on how “loyal” fans are to the event and the updates, they’ll get more of the story.   This story is designed by Universal to drive the event.  In recent years themes have been used to bring back an overarching storyline that began in 2008 (“Reflections of Fear”) with the Legendary Truth: “The Collective”, which is an in-park and online game that follows a story that guests can play during the event.  Legendary Truth allows for the public to join a specific team or “legion” and while you are in the park you have specific goals and clues to obtain and riddles to answer in order to get points for your legion.

Original themes and ideas for houses are staples in HHN’s history.  Universal HHN creative teams have made houses out of iconic rock groups such as Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper, urban legends such as La Llorona, as well as original characters and houses from their own demented minds.  The process for such houses starts with a script treatment, according to John Murdy at Universal Studios Hollywood.   The creative team springboards from an initial concept or idea and gives it a treatment, like with a script, which goes room by room, establishing where each scene takes place and describing it.  A single treatment can be between fifty and a hundred pages alone, just for one of the houses.  Typically, there are up to 6 houses at Hollywood, and up to 8 in Orlando.  Often original houses (specifically in Orlando) have their narrative to tell, which connects with the arching theme of the year.  Once again, interaction and how in depth you get with these stories depends on how much time you devote to looking up information in the parks and online.  

Original material is just as important to these events as IPs.  With the goal to make faithful houses that are essentially “living horror movies” the creative teams work hard year round for Halloween Horror Nights.   Research begins with collaboration; HHN creative teams head over to movie studios and look at photos taken from the set of the films they are turning.  Thousands of images and videos are reviewed to make sure that there is a clear cohesion between the world of the IP (be it a film, book, TV property, or even a video game) and the world of the haunted house or scare zone.  The HHN teams meticulously design and build realistic replica sets and even use props directly from the films/ shows that the attractions are based on.   The same process is carried out when they are creating characters, creatures, or makeups that are a part of the properties.  Every detail is mulled over frame by frame to make sure that the houses are exactly the same as the films, in order to fulfill the desires of die-hard fans as well as to create a completely immersive experience for all visitors.

While sets and atmosphere are cornerstones that hold up the event, the actors are arguably the ones who bring it all together.  The process of casting actors, or “scareactors” as Universal calls them, begins the summer prior to the event.  The audition process is precise and the creative team looks for individuals who are in control of themselves as well as aware of their environment.  Being a part of what HHN is what John Murdy calls “the most dangerous form of theatre on the planet.” Actors need to be disciplined enough in their skills and abilities to have control and also must have the endurance to make it through an entire night.  In the haunted houses it is a new scene “every ten seconds” and out on the streets there constant movement and interaction.  On top of acting you have to be able to anticipate reactions from the guests, and make split second judgement calls.

Prep and makeup begin hours before the event actually opens each night.  Universal hires industry professionals to create and apply hundreds of makeup applications to the actors as well as the costumes each actor wears.  Often times there are multiples of the same character so that different “casts” can change out throughout the night in shifts.  That way no one actor is working an entire night without a break.  The houses use a variety of theatre techniques to make the macabre, paranormal, and psychotic come to life.  Many of these tricks date back to the days of Grand Guignol.  Lighting is carefully planned out to bring the atmospheres to life.  While the sets themselves are spectacular, even a good set can be ruined with bad lighting.  Darker tones, shadows, and even darkness (like in guignol) are used to disorient and distract the audience.  The lighting also conceals actors who are hiding as well as violent actions taking place.   Universal also uses a variety of projection techniques in their event.  For example, at HHN 21 in Orlando the scare zone Acid Assault utilized projections to create the effect of buildings literally crumbling down right in front of you.

Many props and effects used at HHN as well as other haunted attractions are updated guignol techniques of misdirection and illusion.   Blood knives (or various other weapons) and bladdered makeup effects are used to create the illusion that skin is being cut into, or is bleeding.  The difference between the effects of an event like HHN (and even other haunted attractions) and guignol theatre is that these HHN attractions are interactive and create more of a visceral experience with the audience on a level that is not always found in traditional guignol theatre.  Patrons to an event like HHN are thrust into these environments; the interaction is more than just a spectator’s point of view, like it would be in a theatre setting.   Effects that create the illusion of guests being doused in blood.  Scents are pumped into the houses to create a more authentic experience, and technical effects such as lighting, sound, and even set pieces are used to cause misdirection, and tension.

haunted houseUpping The Ante

Haunted houses were part of a resurgence of horror theatre between the 1960’s and 70’s.  Along with haunts, horror was taking over a lot of the film industry (with some of what many consider the most influential films in the genre being released at this time) and even Disneyland was getting in on the action, opening The Haunted Mansion in 1969.

Much like the original Grand Guignol, horror films and haunted houses found their selves in a struggle… with themselves.  The productions kept trying to outdo the ones that came before it.  While in film it’s seemingly easy to up the level of violence and gore, how do you do that with a live production on stage or in a haunt?

Rumors of HHN implementing one of the first “extreme houses” have circulated in the late 90’s into 2000.  However, the 9/11 attacks caused Universal to dial back the level of violence in 2001, and many diehard fans believe that it is because of this that Universal still has yet to have an extreme house (although speculation is still abundant as to if it will ever come in to fruition.)

Other groups have created extreme houses, shows or haunts where guests must sign a waiver to enter.  Characters are allowed to touch patrons, unlike in typical house interactions.  It takes the experience to a whole other level, allowing the actors to actually physically interact with the audience.  ALONE, Delusion, and BLACKOUT are shows that market themselves as theatrical productions (not haunted houses), and offer a completely visceral experience.  In these shows the patron is subjected to horrific scenarios that torment the senses and psyche.  This new breed of horror theatre takes the basic theatrical elements that made the original guignol style scary and amplifies it by making the viewer a key component of the action in the space.  Unlike stage performances, which are unspooled over time, this new breed is unspooled over space; moving the participant into disparate locations.  These productions range from thirty minutes to over an hour.

Productions such as Delusion and ALONE hammer into their actors’ minds during the audition and rehearsal process that this is not a typical haunted house production, and want to steer clear of those traditional notions.  In fact, during the audition process they are weary of those who bring up Halloween or haunted houses.  Instead they want their actors to realize that instead of playing characters they are actually supposed to be more of an entity or archetype; a part of the darkness and patron’s mind.

The fact that the patron is physically involved and interacting in these experiences adds a whole new level of staging issues for the directors and actors to figure out and each production goes about it in different ways depending on their primary mission.  The ALONE group members pride themselves in being able to internally and mentally assault the patron.  In order to achieve this, the creative team works with all of their actors individually on defining each of their roles.  The actor needs to not only understand the mission and objectives but also know how to deal with the public.  While being aggressive with the public, the talent also needs to constantly be aware of the line that cannot be crossed. ALONE sets certain boundaries; they do not want to stray into the sexual nor injure any participant for their production.  BLACKOUT, on the other hand, has no qualms with straying into the taboo and seemingly harmful content with graphically depicted rape scenes, waterboarding, and other intense scenarios meant to assault the patron mentally and physically.  Both of these productions, and all others like them, try to bring their own originality to the table- each claiming to have an experience you won’t encounter anywhere else.

Just as in Grand Guignol, lighting is one of the biggest elements for extreme houses such as ALONE.  In fact, for the creative team, lighting isn’t even thought of as a separate element from the set and props.  Each space is to be designed and sculpted; the lighting and subsequent darkness are a key factor to that process.  Along with the rigged lighting, each participant is given a flashlight for their passage through the experience.  This allows for a false sense of security.  However, this trick presents a problem for the creative team, as too much light flooded areas that the designer’s didn’t want brightened. They had to orchestrate a complex dance wherein the participant would receive and lose the light of the flashlight several times over the course of the experience.


Several other theatres have also adapted a visceral style of storytelling.  Theatres like Punchdrunk and Emursive have adapted a style in which they tell some of the most famous plays in history while the audience is actually a part of the story.  In productions like Sleep No More (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth), audience members travel through warehouses all the while being able to choose which storylines and characters they want to follow.  Depending on who you follow, you get different pieces of the story.  There are also items and props that the audience can find and interact with in order to get more of the story.

Between all of these different forms of more visceral horror theatre experiences, there has been a resurgence of traditional guignol storytelling in theatres around the world in the last few decades.   Theatres such as WildClaw, Molotov, Theatre of Blood, and Thrillpeddlers are bringing the horror genre to the stage for a new era.  Just like the extreme houses and events, more and more of these theatres continue to pop up around the world, and more companies are starting to produce horror plays.  Many of these plays still center on the guignol principles themes: suspense, gore, and sex.

While keeping with the traditional ideals and staging of guignol theatre, todays’ audiences expect more.  Makeup and sets have grown more elaborate than they once were, and today’s guignol theatres are not afraid to step into the paranormal, something original Grand Guignol would have frowned upon.  Modern audiences allow for more of a suspension of disbelief than what was found during the Naturalist movement, upon which the original Grand Guignol was founded.  Plays like WildClaw’s production of H.P.  Lovecraft’s Dream in the Witch’s House which includes scenes involving witchcraft, ghosts, and monsters including the infamous Cthulhu.

WildClaw had their first season in 2008.  The Chicago based group uses newly adapted and original material as well as creating intimate spaces for their productions.  Their 2013-14 production of H.P Lovecraft’s Shadow over Innsmouth was staged at the Athenaeum Theatre’s studio theatre, a small black box like stage space.  The claustrophobic confines and tight staging were used to figuratively grasp on to the audience much like Grand Guignol.

Staging for many of these theatres are in small tight spaces.  Lighting techniques used in traditional Grand Guignol are the same found here.  The less light the better for more intense scenes in which suspense and tension is being built up as the viewer watches the action taking place on set.

Still intended for adult audiences, these theatres don’t hold anything back when it comes of violence and sex on stage.  Ritualistic throat slashing and mutilations occur regularly.  With plays such as Theatre of Blood’s (an Australian based guignol company) Orgy in the Lighthouse, it doesn’t take much to assume what the patrons might see during the show.

While practical staging techniques are relatively similar to how they were during Grand Guignol (like previously stated about in HHN, ALONE, etc.) the violent acts that happen on stage have gotten a lot safer and more perfected over time.  Techniques in makeup effects have also made great leaps and bounds.  Silicon appliances, as well as new mask and prosthetic effects create less stress on the skin as create less of a hindrance for the actor while they are on stage.

WereAllGuignol-Submission.docx-.jpgThe Final Cut

What does it say about us that our thirst for horror seems to be hardwired into our minds? It’s an interesting question, and one that I’m sure many have spent sleepless nights over.  Horror is something that we cannot avoid.  The genre is growing wildly and rapidly.  Horror shows on television are now getting more attention than televised events like football, while horror themed video games and films have become some of the hottest award winning properties.

Different genre’s flux in popularity with culture and civilizations.  Today, horror is on a massive upwards spike.  New theatres like WildClaw and Molotov are opening, extreme theatrical productions like ALONE keep popping up, and events like Halloween Horror Nights are getting bigger each year.  It has gotten to the point where some of these “experiences” are now year round traveling productions.  The year of 2013-14 saw BLACKOUT visiting LA, New York, and Chicago and in the summer of 2014 Blumhouse productions produced a traveling experience based off of the motion picture The Purge called The Purge: Breakout.

Eventually we may see this trending popularity wean slightly.  Yet, unlike most other trends, the love for horror and the macabre is something that seems to be ingrained into our species.  It will always return, like Michael Myers.  There is no escaping it.  Horror is an addiction.  It is in our entertainment.  It’s in our holidays.  It’s in our religions.  It is in us.



I would like to personally thank everyone who has been so very helpful to me and this project. Special thanks to John Murdy and Universal Studios; Aly Greaves Amidei and WildClaw Theatre; Lawrence Lewis, Devon Paulson, Lewis Tice and the rest of the ALONE team; Steve Hopley and The Theatre of Blood; Jon Braver and Delusion.  You all have confided in me secrets and information and experiences that have been invaluable to this project.  This work literally could not have been done without all of you, so thank you.

I also want to thank Augustana College Theatre and Augie Choice for the backing needed for this research.  Jennifer Popple for being the best advisor I could have ever asked for.

My entire family, Jaime, and the Perpich family for listening to me constantly drowning on about people being eviscerated on stage and how joyful that seemed to make me as well as supporting me in my endeavors.  No matter how odd things got, or how much I was struggling with other things you guys were always there for me.

Works Cited

“Burn, Witch, Burn.” American Horror Story.  FX.  6 Nov 2013.  Television.

Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition.  Eric Neal Young.  Warner Home Video.  2008.  DVD.

Gordon, Mel.  The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror.  Amok Press: New York.  1988.  Print

Hand, Richard and Michael Wilson.  Grand Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror.  University of Exeter Press: Exeter, Devon.  2002.  Print.

Universal Orlando’s Horror Nights: The Art of the Scare.  Travel Channel.  2003.  Television.

White, Martha C.  “It’s Alive: Haunted House Industry Scares Big Money.” NBCNews.  2013.  Web.  March 30, 2014.


[1] *‘The Eumenides performance causing children to die and pregnant women to miscarry.’ (Gordon 4) The Eumenides was the third part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy.

[2] Penny Dreadfuls were fictional stories released each week at newsstands.  Often times these stories had elements of the fantastical and horror.  The String of Pearls if probably one of the most famous penny dreadfuls of the time, being that it is the first story revolving around the character of Sweeney Todd, or the infamous “demon barber of fleet street” in London.

[3] Guignol actually produced a lot of short, off beat comedies as well.   These plays would be put on in between the horror plays that were usually the pain pull for the public so that it was not constantly horrific things happening on stage all the time.  There was some kind of “relief.”

[4] Oscar Metenier, Max Maurey, Camille Choisy, Jack Jouvin, Eva Berkson, Charles Nonon (under Denis and Michel Maurey’s ownership,) Raymonde Machard, Fred Pasquale, and Nonon again were all the major directors to stage plays on the Grand Guignol stage.  (Gordon)

[5] This would eventually lead to some problems of actual harm being done to actors and actresses on stage.  At one point in the history of the theatre an actress was almost hung on stage, and another was badly burnt.  (Gordon, 33)

[6] There is a report of an actress actually having a mental breakdown on stage during a performance.  This along with these bad accidents were seen by some as publicity stunts merely to bring in more attendees.  (Gordon 33)

[7] Attractions/events which charge admission are considered “professional.” Alongside these there are many, many amateur houses that spring up every year during Halloween that are non-profit.

[8] For HHN 2015 Universal Orlando there were actually a total of 9 houses!

[9] Bladder effects are blood/ooze makeup effects that allow for the depiction of actual bleeding wounds.  This is done by attaching the bladder, filled with the liquid, to a tube that is applied to the makeup.  An opening in the makeup allows for the liquid to seep through once the bladder is squeezed.

[10] Many people recall a time of early haunted houses where touching and physically interacting with guests was okay.  Now a days it is illegal for this kind of interaction to take place without signed consent by the patron- and most “extreme” houses require you to be over 18 years old.

[11] They also produce horror radio dramas, which were originally a big hit between the 1930’s-60’s (which ironically enough was during the decline of the original Grand Guignol.) Shows like the original Orson Well’s broadcast of War of the Worlds captured the public’s imagination in another way that needed no visuals what so ever.

Each year WildClaw holds what they call a “Deathscribe” contest, where they allow for submissions of new horror works to possibly be produced as radio dramas/plays.