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Matthew Smucker

The best most terrifying horror I've experienced on stage was "JERK" at On The Boards. (description here: http://www.seattlepi.com/ae/article/Troubling-Jerk-reveals-the-real-puppets-1290743.php) That show freaked me out and gave me nightmares. For real, no hyperbole. It was extremely disturbing in a way that fake blood and gore and movie style effects attempted (invariably unsatisfactorily) on stage will never be able to match. In fact that homicidal Panda bear puppet is making me tense (heart races, adrenaline pumps, must run away) just thinking about him 3 years later.

Paul Mullin

Thanks, Matthew.

That's awesome data to add to the collection. I hope others chime in with their successful horror in theatre stories.

Would I be right in assuming the way JERK induced horror for you would fall into the "psychic distortion" category?

Matthew Sweeney00

I don't know if this is relevant or not, but I can remember being told many times that violence on stage can't be too real or the audience will be distracted because they're worrying about the actors' safety. Pshhh. Personally, I've never seen it happen, but I have seen some half-assed violence in scripts where it was there for a purpose, and where its absence made the whole scene laughable.

Paul Mullin

Damn you, Matt Sweeney! You're going to wind up making me write a whole other essay on this subject, because I DO in fact feel like there are times when action on stage can make the audience worry about THEIR OWN safety. And then, all bets are off.

I remember I once watched a show in the Village in which at the end of it the actor pointed a gun at the audience and threatened them with it, waving it from person to person. At the time, I felt angry and irked, but did nothing. Now I'm pretty sure if it happened again, I would stand up and say, "If you don't stop pointing that gun at me and these other people I am going to come up there, take it away from you and slap your mouth."

One cowardly baseless threat deserves another.

Tom Elliott

Maybe this is what you mean by psychic distortion, but for theatre it seems to me you have to leverage the imagination of the audience - essentially leading them to scare themselves. Had to think about this a lot when directing Titus a couple years ago. The rape scene can either be laughable or horrifying, and I had to stage it ten feet away from the first row. Our solution was to rely on two flashlights for light, generally focused on Lavinia's face. The audience couldn't see everything that was happening to her, but they could see her reactions and hear it all. Same basic idea for cutting off Titus' hand - the sound of a Skilsaw and tight light on Titus' face. What the audience (especially a modern audience) can imagine is so much more frightening than what we can try to literally portray.

Paul Mullin

Tom, thanks for chiming in. Those are awesome examples. I'm sort of terrified just imagining them, based on your description.

And while "psychic distortion" is related, I think what you are talking about is something distinct and deserves its own term and its own exploration, perhaps yet ANOTHER essay. (I may have opened Pandora's box here.)

So what should we call it? "Auto-terrorizing audience collaboration". That's too wonky and long.

"Collaborative auto-response". Hmmmm not quite on the money.

Come one, folks. Help a brother out. What do we call the the technique Tom's describing?

Also, please offer any additional examples of this.

Matthew Sweeney00

Paul, I just want to be clear that my callousness was directed at actors, not innocent audience members.


Two caveats: (1) I can’t comment on the thrilling innovations currently happening in New York and London, especially with site-specific immersive theater, because my knowledge of them here in “flyover country” only comes from what I can read in the Times. (2) I regard theatrical violence and horror as two separate phenomena though they can be mutually inclusive. The Lieutenant of Inishmore (McDonagh) is one of the goriest, most violent plays ever produced, but not particularly “scary” in the traditional sense.

That said, a couple of thoughts…

Film vs theater

Fear is primal, our basest emotion and necessary for our survival. It’s also sensory. While we use our intellect and imagination to put 2 + 2 together to understand why a stimulus is horrifying, we’re dependent on good ol’ sight and sound to get to the “boo.”

As such, I would argue that simply by the nature of the mediums, film will always have an advantage in being able to frighten. At the risk of committing theatrical heresy, film is simply a more intimate form of storytelling. In watching a great film, we can be hypnotically transported inside a character’s reality and thus inside a character’s horror. However, even watching a great play we rarely lose awareness that we are watching actors “up there” or “down there” recreate or represent a reality with a backdrop and some hand props.

Utter isolation with no apparent means of escape from a threat is often at the heart of any story’s fright. On film, we believe we are trapped along with the character. On stage, we watch an actor as a character pretend to be in jeopardy, but we always know he could get a stagehand’s help or run up the aisle and out the door if the threat were really that serious.

Additionally, by controlling our field of vision, a film director can force us to see or hear something at the moment of his choosing…

•Rosemary’s Baby – Rosemary has managed to outrun her husband and doctor and barricade herself within the safety of her apartment…or so we think. Just over Rosemary’s shoulder, one of the elderly witches silently scampers across the doorway. A total throwaway in half a second, yet, at that instant, we know Rosemary is doomed.

•The Changeling – John sees a ball once owned by his dead daughter rolling past his doorway. Anxious to dispose of the bad memory, he drives out to a bridge and tosses the ball into the river. He returns home, shuts the door behind him, and the very same ball bounces down the stairs straight toward him.

•Paranormal Activity 3 – The camera is secured on the base of an oscillating fan that smoothly pans left to right and back again. It captures Julie in the kitchen when she hears a noise in the living room and follows her where she finds nothing. Without cutting, the camera follows her back into the kitchen where she finds every single object, including the furniture, missing…only to then come crashing down on the floor as if it had been floating against the ceiling.

No dialogue. Pure sight and sound. And only achievable on film.

I have seen an effective “jolt” once on stage…

The Alley Theatre produced The Pillowman (McDonagh) in their small theater surrounded by seats on all fours sides. In two of the corners were large elevated glass booths whose contents were hidden. When Katurian recounts how his parents tortured his brother with electricity, one of the glass booths was suddenly illuminated to reveal gruesomely gothic parents and their shaking son while electrical sparks blasted a deafening shower of sparks. (Note: the director forced us to see only the booth and it was close enough to be touched by half the audience.)

Types of Theatrical Scares

To paraphrase Stephen King, “Terror arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking. It’s what the mind sees, the unpleasant speculation of what could be there. Horror actually shows us the thing we don’t want to see, but in the showing we are relieved that it wasn’t something worse. Revulsion just grosses us out.”

To extend this distinction to the theatrical world, “horror” would most likely be achieved on stage by a monologues, where storyteller/s allows our minds to imagine endless dreadful possibilities. The Woman in Black (Mallatratt), St. Nicholas (McPherson) and Jerk (Cooper) take such an approach.

Other plays go for "horror" -

“Boo!” or The Startle

•Voices in the Dark (Pielmeier) – Lil is fighting a bad guy when the lights go out and all is in darkness. She sweeps the beam to where the attacker lies, but he‘s gone. Suddenly, he leaps out from behind her. She grabs a gun and shoots him. She then suspects she’s not alone. She sweeps the light to reveal that the front door has been opened. She slams it shut and bolts it. She sweeps her light again, slowly up the stairs to the loft immediately above her to see the face of the real killer!

The “Spectacle”

•Quills (Wright) – During a brief bolt of lightning during a storm, we see the mutilated corpse of Madeleine hung suspended from the rafters and spinning wildly.

•Sweeney Todd (Sondheim) - Sweeney slices the throats of his victims and drops them down the chute to the bakery below.

The “Realization”

•Sleuth (Shaffer) – After a lighthearted romp of wicked banter and insults, we realize it’s all been a setup for Andrew to murder Milo.

•Boy Get Girl (Gilman) – Over the course of the play it is revealed how truly disturbed Theresa’s stalker really is and the lengths he will go to punish her for her rejection.

Paul Mullin

Raymond, I'll go ahead and remove your first three comments. And thank you for your thoughts!



Victor Axelsen

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