Sinister Stages 2.0

Last year, my first article appeared in print for the University of Surrey newspaper, the Stag. I had a by-line, and it was the first piece on the page. Entitled ‘Sinister Stages’, it was an interest piece into the world of horror theatre, and what the arts have to offer at this most spooky of holidays. This year, I’m inundated with editing tasks, and have little time to write much of my own right now, so thought I’d pull this out of my files, dust it down, tweak it a little, and reprint it (for the first time) on my blog. Enjoy.
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It’s that time of year again when pumpkins are a-plenty, white sheets get attacked by children with scissors, and the shelves bubble purple, green, and orange. Then there is all the blood, severed limbs, undead, screams, and shivers down spines. But how has theatre harnessed this most commercialised and feared week of our calendar? Bringing that same feeling of terror onstage may seem impossible without attacking the audience, but many companies have succeeded in some truly terrifying spectacles.

I have seen very few scary performances, the most notable being The Woman In Black which has actually chilled me twice. The key to horror theatre is simplicity – whereas on the big screen you can have lots of effects and multitudes of traipsing CGI corpses, on stage too much ‘stuff’ can turn it into farce. The Woman In Black is a story within a story; an old man haunted by the memories of a haunted house, retold by a young director keen to get his tale out. The simplicity of the set, the imaginary horse and trap, and the recognition of the theatre immerse the audience in their world whilst drawing almost entirely on the actors’ abilities to keep us engaged. Suspense and a sense of the unknown reach numerous points of climax at which the audience either scream, or laugh with relief. It is easy to see why this show has been successful for the last 23years and continues at the Fortune Theatre.

In 2010, theatre-goers were lured to see Ghost Stories, promising to be so terrifying that warning labels plastered their website. Very little was revealed about this show, its trailer showing only night-vision footage of audience members gasping and cowering at whatever dreadful thing was gracing the stage. Even just this hype and tension around the marketing drew people in, so it ran for just over a year to packed theatres.

Last year the horror shows seem somewhat hidden, lurking in the corners, their posters seeking out those who are curious; I managed to unearth two such performances. Terror 2011: Love Me To Death at the Soho Theatre brings together short plays by new writers, and creepy cabaret for a night of strange, macabre theatre. Another company who cater solely for the grisly and morbid crowd is Theatre for the Damned, specialising in twisted and forgotten horror classics, this year with four gruesome tales ready to test your wits. The Soho Theatre is once again bedecked with ghoulish antics as Terror 2012: All in the Mind comes back for more anxious audiences, and Thorpe Park’s Fright Nights are still just as popular as ever, with live-action mazes and the thrill of roller coasters in the dark – a different but still incredible form of theatre. This year, the Old Vic Tunnels are hosting their Zombie Horror Camp, three nights of terrifying Vaudeville and ‘how to’ workshops.

Theatre is not just for upper-class rich folk to while away hours peering through opera glasses. It can be a place of nightmares and reach-out-and-touch-it terror, the kind we now see at theme parks and Halloween houses. If you think you’re man enough, or have someone big enough to hide behind, delve a little deeper and see what terrors you can uncover this Halloween. I dare you.

© John Althouse Cohen
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