A search for a truly scream-worthy theatrical experience.
Truthfully speaking, I am not good with horror. Predictable jump-scares have caused me to flinch so violently injuries have been sustained. I am no longer invited to horror movie nights with friends as apparently screaming and hiding under the duvet isn’t appropriate behaviour from the “supervising adult”. However, even I cannot deny the thrill that accompanies a good old scary movie night; the nervous excitement as the tension builds; the rigid terror as the horror unfolds; and the giddying wave of relief as the credits roll. So as I ventured to my seat in the Fortune Theatre, its corridors adorned with images of a looming figure shrouded in mist, the excitement for what was to come was as consuming as the fear. I was about to experience The Woman in Black.
Mingled with this excitement and trepidation, however, was a great deal of skepticism. I doubted the ability of a play to invoke fear to the same extent that a film could. There couldn’t suddenly be a veiled figure appearing from nowhere in the middle of the scene; there couldn’t suddenly be a massively magnified ghostly face screaming in my own.
I should have known better.
I was cowering in my seat, gripping onto my friend’s arm so tight I imagine my handprint is now a permanent feature. What was astounding about the play was that through easy tricks such as the steady thump of a vacant rocking chair, the quiet tinkling of a music box, and the empty silence of a neglected nursery, we were transformed from individual theatergoers into a mass of nervous tension so volatile that one door slam was enough to set the whole place alight. I spent the whole play on edge waiting for the next appearance of the ghostly protagonist, yet having to immediately scrunch my eyes shut upon the briefest of glances because I simply could not look at her. And even hours after the lights lifted, my heart raced at an unnatural pace.
So now I know what I had once doubted: horror theatre works. Horror performed on stage, where the audience lacks the barrier of safety that is a television screen; where you can’t attribute seemingly paranormal happenings to camera trickery; where the mantra “it’s not real” doesn’t feel like it rings quite as true, makes for a horrifically thrilling experience.
So why isn’t there more choice out there?
There has been a vast history of horror on the big stage. The Ancient Greeks performed their murderous myths in gruesome detail; Shakespeare presented his audiences with tales of witches, torture, murder, rape, and cannibalism; in the 16th century Japanese Kabuki theatre, performers depicted scenes of murder, revenge, and suicide, with highly elaborate stagecraft allowing gruesome disfigurements to be displayed to the audiences. Then we have the Grand Guignol from Paris, where audiences were presented with scenes of violence so horrifically realistic that fainting and vomiting among audience members was not an uncommon occurrence. But in spite of so much history, The Woman in Black is currently the only piece of horror theatre playing on the West End.
As a big fan of musical theatre, I also find myself asking, where are the horror musicals? In The Rocky Horror Show, The Addams Family, Beetlejuice, and Little Shop of Horrors we see successful musicals that fall into the horror-comedy genre, but I can find no example of a successful musical that is genuinely scary. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and The Phantom of the Opera have their moments, but if I promised a friend horror and took them to either I wouldn’t blame them for feeling lied to. Jekyll & Hyde, Dracula, and Carrie perhaps all had the potential to make for genuinely scary musicals, but the three flopped, with Carrie notoriously being pulled after just five performances on Broadway and incurring a loss of more than $8m. In my opinion, the lack of successful horror musicals is not due to some inherent misalignment between music and horror, for I remember feeling genuinely horrified while watching a production of Gounod’s Faust – an opera. In a very different scenario, the first time I watched Billie Eilish’s unnervingly creepy Bury a Friend music video I was excited to realize the possibility of a horror pop music genre.
So I say this: the potential for new, exciting, innovative, and terrifying horror theatre is out there. The history of horror on stage, from cultures all around the globe, is plentiful. From Gounod to Billie Eilish, we can see that scary music is a very real phenomenon and one worthy of further exploration. History and culture has provided the foundations for an exhilaratingly new form of theatre, all we need is a pioneering hand to take on the task.