Horror Theatre- an introduction
Updated: Feb 24, 2020
I want to share with you the first step of my journey into the world of horror theatre. If you have never considered watching or creating horror for the stage, allow me to give you my first impressions of the genre and my initial understanding of this rather complicated dramaturgical problem.
In 2018 I saw Jacob Ahlbom’s work Horror with a friend and fellow theatre maker who had a spare ticket. I’m usually not one to pass up on a free theatre experience no matter what the subject matter is, but this play in particular piqued my interest. My friend and I had discussed often what horror on a stage would look like- there are very few prominent examples of horror theatre that have cracked into mainstream consciousness, and the examples that do exist can often be difficult to find and even more difficult to experience in scripts or recording. Live horror was a novelty to us, but also seemed to hold some answers to our practical dramaturgical problems- how do you stage horror? What kinds of stories can you even tell? How does the magic of live performance help or hinder horror effects? We wondered if horror was even possible at all. And so, not having read any reviews or programmes, my friend and I embarked on an often confusing yet eye-opening journey into horror theatre.
That was two years ago, and I can now say (after a few years of research and a minor thesis in the subject) that horror is a careful fusion of and tension between aesthetic and narrative. Horror was a fun but deeply flawed work, and one that reveals a lot about the dramaturgical problems that directors and designers face when creating horror for the stage. The aesthetic aspects of the work were very well conceived. The set, a creepy and clearly haunted house, was detailed and lively, with moving furniture and malicious intent. This was well supported by tricky lighting and masterful sound design. The performers were also excellent, with certain possessed characters able to contort and crack their bodies with unsettling precision. The gore was well executed, particularly a sequence in which a possessed newlywed bride eats her husband’s tongue before our very eyes. However, the problem with Horror is that the plot alternates between incomprehensible and non-existent. This tongue-eating sequence plays out about half way through the work, with no explanation or build up. The story begins with three young people arriving at the house for no apparent reason, with the only woman in the group then seemingly haunted by a ghost or a demon that is identical to her. If my plot synopsis makes little sense, it is not for my lack of trying. Despite the visual appeal and technical prowess of this show, the aesthetic triumphs can only carry Horror so far before an audience witnesses a little girl wordlessly pulling on skimpy red underpants in the woods, followed by a sequences where six to eight besuited men step effortlessly out of a bottomless bathtub, and any effective horror is lost in the confusion. How is an audience member supposed to concentrate on their fluctuating and terrifying mental state if their heads are filled with basic questions like- where are we? Are those characters lovers or siblings? Why are they still in the house even when pictures move by themselves and a demonic woman has appeared in the same wardrobe several times?
Effective horror, in film and theatre, is a complex operation. It requires a careful appreciation and technical command of the visual, and a clear conceptual approach to narrative. When one of these aspects is abandoned, the result can be a very different audience experience to the one that was intended. I enjoyed watching Horror- not because it left me screaming and questioning my own morality, but because it left me laughing and wanting for something more profound. I knew there had to be a way to exploit the tension of a live audience to create a truly masterful horror play, one that forces the viewer to question not only the highfalutin abstractions of a complex narrative, but also their own safety as they sit in their seats, listening to the screaming and witnessing the grotesque and unimaginable.
This is my very first post, so please come back again to read more of my thoughts on horror theatre. And stay tuned for more musings on all things dramaturgical.
Photograph © Prudence Upton