Theatre is not safe. Theatre has never been safe. And long before movies, TV, or the Internet were born, theatre was considered mass media and one of the the best ways to open dialogue about beliefs, controversies, and yes- politics. Today theatre is still a powerful tool for expression, even in the horror genre. Like all art forms it is meant to provoke thought, challenge belief systems, and at times make you angry. That is what good art does! It is a mirror showing us our own world, highlighting elements that incite inner turmoil. Below are several horror plays and musicals that come with larger social messages. Of course, they will terrify and upset, but they will also make you think.
(Play version performed in 1823)
Just a short time after Mary Shelley first published her novel, FRANKENSTEIN, a stage adaptation was shown at the English Opera House. Mary Shelley even attended the production. Another version was staged a few years after that and another a few years after that. The haunting tale of a scientist trying to create life has always been very popular source material for the theatre. Mary Shelley even wrote in her letters about how frightened the audience was during the first production, many folks gasping and cringing. But remember, amidst the terror, FRANKENSTEIN forces the audience to confront much larger issues of scientific advancements, the role of “god”, and our own tendencies to destroy anything unusual or unknown, no matter how harmless it may be.
REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA (Cover photo)
(First stage version performed in 2002)
Before REPO became a cult movie, it was a cult stage musical created by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich (who went on to play the Grave Robber in Darren Lynn Bousman’s film adaptation). Blended with the catchy tunes and gore there are powerful messages about debt, social classes, plastic surgery, and corporations controlling our lives.
THE TRAGICAL HISTORY OF THE LIFE AND DEATH OF DOCTOR FAUSTUS
(By Christopher Marlowe in the late 1500s)
Many of us were forced to read this in high school English class, and with all the heady Elizabethan phrasing and blank verse, it is easy to overlook that this is a horror story about a man who practices necromancy and sells his soul to the devil. Religious convictions aside, the play still has a lot to say about how far people are willing to sink in order to gain success. And at the time of the play’s release there was another layer of meaning. The play was a shocking jolt to period audiences, the majority of whom believed that our lives are preordained by a greater power and that individuals have no control over their own lives. God controls everything including what happens to us. It’s all fate. But Faustus makes his own decisions and determines his own fate, making the play highly controversial at the time.
(By Martin McDonagh, 2003)
This may well be the most disturbing theatrical experience I have ever had. It was gut-wrenching, terrifying, and shocking…just what the playwright likely intended. The plot focuses on a novelist who is interrogated about a string of unsolved child murders because several of his short stories resemble the killings. In addition to the horror mystery plot, the play is filled with short fable-like tales, all highly unnerving. THE PILLOWMAN also raises larger questions about art and the mind of the artist, the powers and rights of the police force, the long term effects of abuse, and much more.
(1891 play and a 2006 musical)
Both the play and the musical focus on a highly conservative, sexual-repressive town. The story follows a group of adolescents right as they hit puberty and become deeply confused about their new sexual feelings and changing bodies. Since these things are forbidden to discuss in their society, the youths’ lives spin into utter madness, ultimately leading to rape and murder. In addition to the clear message of the need for sexual awareness and education (remember this was written in the 1800s, and it is still topical today), the play and musical also push questions about the power of knowledge, the notion of natural instinct versus socially mandated repression, and the authoritative role of adults and belief systems in the lives of teenagers.
(First staged in 1998)
Though this may at first seem like just a musical version of the 1936 propaganda movie REEFER MADNESS, it isn’t at all. The 1936 movie was an overly-dramatic exploitive morality tale about not doing drugs. But the musical version functions in total opposition. It is a satire that seeks to make people realize how silly our marijuana fear was/is. It also attacks knowledge repression, social conservatism, paranoia, racism, and many other issues. There is a 2005 film version of the musical which is also awesome!
BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL
(First staged in 1997)
Back in 1992, Weekly World News published a questionably real article about a bat-like humanoid found living in a cave. The image of the “bat boy” became something of a joke through-out the 1990s, but by 1997 the story had transitioned into a musical. When I first heard about the staged version, I gathered that this must be a comedy making fun of the silly news story. Not quite. The staged musical is dark and comes with a very pointed social commentary taking aim at topics like religious exclusivism (the town’s religious hypocrisy to accept and love all, unless they are different from you), racism, and revenge. Though it is presented with a campy humorous style, the audience will feel the satirical stab of the actual meaning.