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Honour Bayes: Horror on stage? A chilling thought

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When I read that the National Theatre of Scotland was to do a staged version of Swedish horror film Let The Right One In I got chills down my spine for all the wrong reasons. Horror is notoriously difficult to do on stage and even with the formidable partnership of John Tiffany and Jack Thorne at the helm it seemed a doomed prospect - after all the NTS turned The Wicker Man into a musical earlier this year.

But after my initial period of fretting I’ve come to the conclusion that if anyone can crack this traditionally tough genre it’s this director and this writer. Thorne’s chilling series The Fades - outrageously cancelled from BBC3 - was a master class in suspense and down beat horror whilst Tiffany’s visceral and inventive Black Watch hit its audience right in the gut.

Both are interested in the human psyche, not simply things that go bump in the night. To find out what makes successful theatrical horror you need to look at work that feeds into the psychology of audiences, not that which relies on the magic tricks of theatre practitioners.

Ghost Stories succeeded in making its audience jump but was seen more as a technically brilliant and even ‘entertaining’ ride than a properly scary one. Meanwhile the more sedate The Woman In Black only has to rely on “a well-timed slamming of a door to send an audience out of its wits”.

For me the less I see the more my imagination leads me into dark places that producers never could. In the genuinely creepy As Yes Sow it was the delicate, barely there, soundtrack and video design that spooked me. Whilst in Punchdrunk’s It Felt Like A kiss I was much more disturbed by the experience of walking through eerie rooms haunted by the violent breakdown of the American Dream than I was by the chainsaw wielding man who chased me out of the building.

Of course this feeds into ideas of horror and what it means to us – to scare seems to be the aim of most of these productions (though not I think the unsettling It Felt Like A Kiss). But are those jolts and gasps just an adrenalin kick; should we be searching for something more psychologically piercing from our stage horror?

The closest I’ve ever been to feeling genuinely shaken at the theatre was when I watched a small child led upstairs by his sexually predatory father in Romeo Castellucci’s terrifying Purgatorio. Though this part of the show wasn’t supernatural it was horror none-the-less.

Perhaps then horror is as its best when it affects a ‘psychic distortion’ in us. When it, as Paul Mullin's blog eloquently argues, “involves things beyond human comprehension, breaking down cherished notions about self-identity, memory, spatial relation, history and chronology, body, reference or representation, influence, reason – all the metaphysical categories according to which we situate our knowledge in the first place.”

It is hard to scare people in the theatre (particularly in a world where everyone is so ironic no one believes even the axe murderer in front of them is in earnest) and to touch on something that is more than just thrills and chills is even more so. But it’s also, I think, much more interesting and potentially more effective.


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