The 13th Floor

HORROR IN THE FLESH: A History of Horror Theatre

We’re thrilled to welcome back to guest contributor Graham Skipper, star of the films ALMOST HUMAN, TALES OF HALLOWEEN and the upcoming THE MIND’S EYE and BEYOND THE GATES, also known on stage as Herbert West in RE-ANIMATOR: THE MUSICAL.

When we discuss the horror genre, more often than not we are talking about horror films. And no wonder: movies are everywhere, and horror continues to be one of the most popular genres in the art form. But centuries before movies came into existence, the horror genre thrived live on stage, entertaining the masses around the world. For the entirety of its long and complicated history, horror has endured as one of the most popular forms of entertainment around the planet.

Below, I’m going to do my best to outline as comprehensively as I can a history of horror theatre, from its inception with the ancient Greeks through today, when we are seeing a resurrection of the form and a renewed interest in live horror spectacle. It’s a long history, and obviously some elements will have to be left out, but I’ll touch on all the major moments in horror theatre’s gruesome legacy. My hope is that this can be a jumping off point for horror fans looking to expand their horizons, and seek out some of these amazing, terrifying works.

Patricide, matricide, filicide, and the wrath of the gods…

While there are accounts of theatre dating back as far as the ancient Egyptians (mostly depictions of religious stories), the first place we begin to see theatre as we know it today is in Ancient Greece, around 700 BC. Many of these were tragedies that centered around myths that would have been famous to the people of the time. The murder of one’s own family members was commonplace, as was the swift and horrendous punishment of the gods against those who had angered them.

The more horrific elements of these plays were largely left off-stage, to be described by a character rushing on who had just witnessed some terrible event, who would then describe it in detail to the audience:

She was suffering a double agony –
around her head the golden diadem
shot out amazing molten streams of fire
burning everything, and the fine woven robe,
your children’s gift, consumed the poor girl’s flesh.
She jumped up from the chair and ran away,
all of her on fire, tossing her head, her hair,
this way and that, trying to shake off
her golden crown – but it was fixed in place,
and when she shook her hair, the fire blazed
twice as high. Then she fell down on the ground,
overcome by the disaster. No one
could recognize her, except her father.
Her eyes had lost their clear expression,
her face had changed. And there was blood
across her head, dripping down, mixed with fire.
The flesh was peeling from her bones, chewed off
by the poison’s secret jaws, just like resin
oozing from a pine tree. An appalling sight!
– Messenger, from Medea by Euripides

This sort of speech was common, and the horrors they recalled were truly magnificent. This describes some witchcraft done on an unfortunate bride, but of course the play Medea ends with the terrible murder of Medea’s young children by their own mother.

medea pic
[Pictured: Fiona Shaw in an incredible 2001 production of Medea]

Below are a few great examples of some of the most horrific plays the Greeks had to offer…

Medea by Euripides

As quoted above, Medea tells the story of the titular woman, a witch and jealous wife who not only curses her former husband’s new bride with black magic, but then murders her own two children to spite him.

Oedipus the King by Sophocles

Perhaps the most well known of the Greek tragedies, it tells the story of Oedipus, who becomes king of Thebes and fulfills a prophecy that he will murder his father and marry his mother. In penitence for these horrible deeds, he stabs his own eyes out.

The Bacchae by Euripides

A tale of the god Dionysus, who drives the women of a kingdom mad, using them as an army of savages to punish a group of mortals. The women literally tear a herd of cattle limb from limb, and go on to dismember their loved ones in their insanity.

Graphic violence, black magic, and deals with the Devil…

We’re jumping ahead about 2000 years, and in that time theatre consisted mostly of either the Romans copying the Greeks (as they so often did), or morality plays about religious figures or people repenting their sins to get into Heaven during the Middle Ages. There was also comedy and slapstick of commedia dell’arte in Italy, but it’s not until we get to London in the 1500s that we start to see real horror on stage.

While there were certainly lots of playwrights during this time, we’ll focus on Shakespeare and Marlowe. You all certainly know the former, and you may recognize the name Christopher Marlowe from his most famous work, Doctor Faustus. In it, the titular doctor makes a deal with the devil, which of course ends very badly for him. Even more grotesque is Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus which tells the horrific tale of General Andronicus, whose daughter is raped by his enemies and her tongue cut out and hands severed so she can never tell who perpetrated the crime. Titus finds out, and ends up cooking and feeding the culprits’ remains to their father!

Shakespeare’s plays are chock full of horror elements: necromancy, witchcraft, murder, torture…in almost every one of Shakespeare’s tragedies (and even some of the histories) there is at least some element of the supernatural or extreme violence that guides the plot. Even in the historical drama Henry VI part 2, Gloucester’s wife practices necromancy, summoning a demon to tell her a prophecy.

macbeth pic[Pictured: The Weird Sisters from the Queensland Theatre Company’s production of Macbeth, 2014]

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

As described above, Doctor Faustus makes a deal with Lucifer in exchange for magical powers. The doctor wastes these powers on parlor tricks, and in refusing to revoke his oath to the devil, is carried off to hell to suffer for eternity.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

Easily the most violent of Shakespeare’s plays, it includes rape, torture, murder, cannibalism, and so much more that we only see in the most extreme films even today. Julie Taymor directed an excellent film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

One of his most famous plays, it tells the story of a Scottish king who resists a prophecy told him by three witches that he will die. His wife helps him murder anyone he deems a challenge, but she slowly goes insane with guilt while Macbeth himself is haunted by ghastly visages. Eventually, the prophecy is fulfilled as Macbeth is decapitated and Lady Macbeth kills herself.

Vengeful spirits, Demons, and ghostly girls with long black hair…

Japan had its own journey with horror theatre separate from the rest of the world. Starting in the 14th century, Noh theatre emerged as a highly-stylized presentation of supernatural stories often involving demons or spirits transforming into human form. They’d often also incorporate stories of angry spirits seeking violent vengeance on the living. It was performed in a very specific style and used intricately-carved masks depicting the characters being played. Noh has been performed continuously in Japan from the 14th century to present day.

noh mask[Pictured: A traditional Noh mask]

Kabuki started in the 1600s and involved dance, music, and highly stylized costumes depicting famous stories of the time. Often these stories would involve murder, suicide, revenge, or ghostly interactions. One of the most famous plays is Yotsuya Kaidan, or Ghost Story of Yotsuya by Tsuruya Nanboku IV.

The play tells the story of Tamiya Iemon, a ronin, who murders his father-in-law in a fit of rage. Shortly after this, another woman falls madly in love with him, and disfigures his wife Oiwa so that he will leave her. Her disfigurement would have been carried out on-stage, using elaborate – and gruesome – stagecraft. Tamiya – so disgusted by his wife’s hideous appearance – hires a man to rape his wife so that he will have basis for divorce, but when the man refuses he simply shows the woman her reflection, causing her to slice her own throat and die. Her spirit then returns to convince her widowed husband to murder his new bride on their wedding night.

And that’s just the first half! All manner of other horrible things transpire, but you can see the influence such work must have had on modern Japanese horror. Even down to the traditional costuming of the Yurei, or vengeful spirit. They would often be depicted as women, wearing a white kimono, with long, stringy black hair covering their face. Sound familiar? This all started in the 1600s, and persists in almost its exact form today in films like The Ring and The Grudge.

A couple of other Japanese horror theatre forms of note: Bunraku puppet theatre used 4-foot-tall puppets to depict intense tales, including those of suicide pacts. Butoh is a form of dance theatre born in the chaos following Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and World War II, and characterized by insane facial expressions and bodily contortions to depict a “dance of darkness.” The performances are disturbing, and often involve themes of “grotesquerie, darkness, and decay.” Look up some performances on Youtube, it’s pretty remarkable stuff.

butoh pic[Pictured: World famous Butoh company Dairakudakan]

Yotsuya Kaidan by Tsuruya Nanboku IV

An infamous play of betrayal, lust, and vengeful spirits, as described above. It’s been adapted into over 30 film versions, most notably 1959’s Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan.

The Love Suicides at Amijima by Chikamatsu

A tragic story of two lovers who, due to social and political turmoil, can never be together. So saddened by this fact, they commit suicide together. Oddly, this play also has a lot of humor in it, and being a Bunraku piece, was told through the use of puppets. It’s a landmark play in Japanese theatre history.

Lady Aoi – Traditional Noh Play

The story of a woman so scorned by her lover (himself an adulterous husband) that her living spirit leaves her body and possesses the wife of his lover. An intense exorcism follows that results in the death of the host.

Realistic Horror, Surrealistic Madness, Famous Monsters, and Visceral Gore

The true precursors to modern horror can be found in the latter years of the 1800s, extending into the first half of the 20th century. What’s most interesting is the vastly different styles of horror on display.

In Russia there was the birth of naturalistic theatre, and while the supernatural was rarely to blame, humanity’s cruelty gave cause for depression, suicide, and death. Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness deals with murder, incest, and infanticide, all within a very real world setting. Similarly, Eastern Europe dealt with real world problems like sexual violence and murder in more abstract ways, with plays like Woyzeck by Georg Buchner, or Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind. Both are haunting reads, even today. Lots of theatre in Germany during this time was also defined by its use of Expressionism, whose surreal, jagged angles influenced German film, leading to such iconic horror cinema as Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

In the early-to-mid 1800s, both London and the U.S. saw a boom in horror theatre, most notably adaptations of Mary Shelley’s popular book Frankenstein. Henry Milner’s adaptation – The Man and The Monster – was perhaps the most influential of all of them, introducing the concept of a silent Monster, as well as pivotal scenes like the birth of the monster (previously it had always been an off-stage event) and the famous line, “It lives!” The Broadway production of Milner’s play became the basis for Universal’s take on the story. Similarly, Hamilton Deane’s adaptation of Dracula was a huge success, opening on Broadway in 1927. Introducing actor Bela Lugosi as Dracula and inspiring the structure of Universal’s film, you don’t need me to tell you how important this play was to the horror genre. (For an in-depth account of these early Broadway productions and the crazy way they found their way to the big screen, you should pick up David J. Skal’s book The Monster Show – probably my favorite book on the subject)

Meanwhile, in France, lots of craziness was going on. First was the surrealism movement spearheaded by Antonin Artaud and his “Theatre of Cruelty.” Less about actual physical cruelty, Artaud’s interpretation was a pure assault on the senses. He and his surrealist contemporaries would use unconventional theatre spaces, bright lights and loud sounds to unnerve the audiences at a core level, with or without a narrative.

And of course, the GRAND GUIGNOL. Perhaps the most famous horror theatre throughout history. Founded in 1894 in a former chapel in Paris, audiences would come to witness a series of short plays that routinely ended in incredible, realistic, on-stage violence. Audience members fainting and vomiting during shows were commonplace, as were couples becoming so aroused by the sexual action on-stage that they would rent a booth (actually a former confessional!) to have sex in during the show! The Grand Guignol became so famous that in its peak, dignitaries, celebrities, and royalty from around the globe would attend performances.

The Power of Darkness by Leo Tolstoy

A story of a woman who murders her husband in order to marry another man, who then impregnates his new stepdaughter and – at his wife’s behest – murders the baby.

The Plays of Andre de Lorde

One of the more famous authors of many plays of the Grand Guignol, he has 150 plays to his name, most centering around the themes of insanity, medical horror, and ghastly, visceral violence.

Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind

You may know the modern musical based on this play, but the original work is staggeringly dark for something written in 1890. It tells the story of several young men and women growing up in a sexually oppressive society, and as a result of never being properly taught about sex, a girl is raped and beaten – she later dies after getting an illegal abortion – and a young man commits suicide when his elders won’t help him understand his blooming sexuality. In the end, we witness a frightening, surreal scene in a graveyard where the protagonist meets the headless ghost of his dead friend, and a mysterious “Masked Man” who prevents the living child from joining his friend in death.

grand guignol pic[Pictured: An unfortunate victim of the Grand Guignol, circa 1947 – photograph by Hans Wild]

Cannibalism, hauntings, full immersion…and singing!

Several years ago I had the great honor of playing Herbert West in Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of his own film, Re-Animator The Musical. The show has run on and off in many different venues and cities across the globe, and the love shown to us by the fans has demonstrated that horror theatre is not only alive and well – it is thriving.

re-animator pic[Pictured: Jesse Merlin and yours truly in Re-Animator the Musical – Singing with a mouth full of blood is fun!]

In 1973 The Rocky Horror Show opened in London and began its long history that continues today. Its riff on cheeseball horror films found a cult audience that followed it to New York, and eventually to the big screen.

In 1979 Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opened on Broadway, and was a massive success. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical, as well as Best Book and Score, and starred Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou, Victor Garber, and Sarah Rice. The story is based on an old Penny Dreadful which itself was loosely based on the story of the Sawney Bean clan in Scotland. Essentially, it tells of a barber (Sweeney Todd) who returns from Australia after having been wrongfully exiled by a lecherous judge. The judge raped and humiliated the barber’s wife, and raises his daughter as his own with the intent to marry her. Sweeney returns, seeking vengeance, and as he loses his sanity and begins murdering innocents, gains the help of his neighbor Mrs. Lovett to bake the corpses of his victims into meat pies, which they then sell to the public. The whole gruesome affair descends into madness and violent murder, in a loving homage to the Grand Guignol spectacle of the early 20th century.

The dark humor of Sweeney Todd is a clear influence on shows like Re-Animator The Musical, Little Shop of Horrors (itself based on a Roger Corman film), Evil Dead: The Musical, or Carrie: The Musical (which despite a checkered history has found a recent – and excellent – revival).

In the 1970s and 80s horror auteur Clive Barker started his writing career with his theatre company, the Hydra Theatre, along with longtime friend and collaborator Doug Bradley (Pinhead!). They eventually moved to London and became a professional company called the Dog Company, writing and producing works such as Barker’s The History of the Devil, The Day of the Dog, and Frankenstein in Love – all of which deal with very “Barker-ian” themes of sex, violence, metaphysics, and alternate universes. Similarly, horror director Stuart Gordon played with lots of horror elements, as well as graphic violence, in the productions of the Organic Theatre Company in Chicago in the 70s. One of the more notable productions from this time was Bloody Bess: A Tale of Piracy and Revenge, which fused swashbuckling adventure with extreme graphic violence and bloodletting.

The current longest running play in the West End in London is The Woman in Black by Stephen Mallatratt, adapted from the book by Susan Hill. Using clever stage trickery and the device of a “play within a play,” the show follows Arthur Kipps as he journeys to remote Crythin Gifford to sort through the papers of a deceased widow. There he encounters terrible sights and a malevolent spirit that tries to kill him, and all who dare approach her house. In the end, the curse of the Woman in Black follows Kipps back home to London, and then eventually to the performers of the play itself, whose depiction of these events has brought the evil spirit into the theatre where the play is being performed! This play was recently turned into a feature film starring Daniel Radcliffe, and while the film has some eerie moments and captures the brooding atmosphere of Crythin Gifford well, it’s impossible not to feel like something’s missing in the film version. There’s an intangible terror that arises from hearing a slamming door or a wheezing breath from a dark stage, rather than a speaker. It affects the same part of our brain as when we read a scary story: due to the nature of the medium, some amount of imagination is required to connect the dots. Lacking expensive locations or “realistic” special effects, we must give in to the conceit more than if it were presented in a film. Theatre’s magical charm is in that heavy lifting the audience does – just like the Greeks imagined the terrible deeds the actors described on-stage, so too do we accept the notion that tonight, in this dark space, something real and terrifying is here with us.

sweeney todd pic[Pictured: Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone in the 2005 Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd]

I could go on and on. Sleep No More in New York City is an incredible night of immersive theatre based on Macbeth. Numerous film adaptations have also recently found their way to Broadway, Off-Broadway, and the West End, such as Misery, The Toxic Avenger: The Musical, and Let The Right One In. Stuart Gordon has recently returned to the theatre directing the revelatory one-man show Nevermore starring Jeffrey Combs and written by Dennis Paoli, as well as the gruesome based-on-a-true-story Taste by Benjamin Brand.

All around the globe Live Haunted Attractions bring in millions during the Halloween season. These “Haunted Houses” have started evolving into new and avant garde forms, all aimed at terrifying you in a myriad of ways. Shows like Alone: The Existential Haunting, Blackout, Delusion, The Great Horror Campout, or Zombie Joe’s Urban Death harken back to the Grand Guignol and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, frightening us in new, experimental, and unexpected ways.

And there is so much more exciting theatre happening currently around the world, as well as other modern horror plays to check out, that the list could go on and on! The plays of Clive Barker are a great – and weird – read. Poland is doing some really incredible work: Biuro Podrozy’s Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? is an intense, surreal outdoor spectacle that truly shocks the senses. And every Halloween in Los Angeles, Wicked Lit produces excellent, fully immersive classic horror tales in and around an actual mausoleum and cemetery. A few other excellent plays you should read are:

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

Two police investigators interrogate a horror fiction writer when a string of gruesome child murders start happening around town that mirror his short stories. The play goes to some shockingly dark places, telling dark fables and re-enacting the horrific murders in an almost storybook quality.

The Weir by Conor McPherson

A group of men and one woman in a pub in Ireland recall a series of ghost stories over the course of a dark and stormy night. Each character shares an intense, haunting monologue that chronicles their personal experiences with the supernatural, culminating in the sole female sharing a twist that changes everyone in the group forever.

Play Dead by Todd Robbins and Teller

Yes, Teller, as in Penn & Teller! A one-man show starring Robbins – himself an actual Coney Island sideshow legend – wherein he recreates old “spook show” techniques from the turn of the century, using magic and stagecraft, as well as actual sideshow stunts like eating a lightbulb on stage. It’s scary, gruesome, and bleeds love for the genre and for the dark underbelly of the circus that is the sideshow, from which many early horror filmmakers like Tod Browning got their own first taste of the frightening and the forbidden.

sleep no more nyc[Pictured: The all-immersive Sleep No More in NYC]

So go read some plays! Or better yet, buy a ticket and go see something! Or even better yet: make some new theatre! There will never be anything quite like sharing a physical space with something haunting, breathing the same air as a monster on the stage, or checking behind you to see if the icy hand of something sinister might be about to clasp your shoulder…


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