There’s something terribly exciting about the success of Ghost Stories. Having recently extended its run at the Duke of York’s Theatre, and currently readying itself for the introduction of creator Jeremy Dyson’s League of Gentleman cohort Reece Shearsmith into the fold, it shows all the signs of continuing to scare the living shit out of audiences for some time to come. It’s not a cod-Victorian melodrama in the key of The Woman in Black, nor a gothic or grisly musical in the Phantom of the Opera or Sweeney Todd vein, but a slice of classic British horror primarily devised to make ‘em jump.

Ghost Stories is deeply, lovingly indebted to a vast intertext of horror cinema. It is, in many ways, a crystallisation of everything The League of Gentlemen have paid tribute to throughout their existence. It opens with the score of Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso, it owes its structure to Ealing Studios’ classic anthology Dead of Night and the three stories it presents are filled with smaller references, allusions and exultantly shameless lifts. Even its marketing materials resemble film posters, with a faux-BBFC certificate nestled provocatively in the lower-right corner. Maybe this shouldn’t be too surprising. The history of horror in the 20th century is essentially a cinematic one. More visible than even the most popular horror literature, it is the silver screen which has monopolised monsters, murderers and all things blood-curdling.

It was the cinema, in fact, which drew the curtain on stage horror in the 1960’s, as the Parisian Théâtre du Grand-Guignol found itself incapable of keeping up with the full-blooded horrors of Hammer Studios. As the public demanded increasingly graphic fare, the first true theatre of the macabre found its audiences dwindling, and onstage horror all but disappeared from view. To see Ghost Stories finally turn this dominance on its head, and to re-deploy the finest tricks and tropes of horror cinema on an unsuspecting theatre-going public is a wonderful vindication of the potential of live horror performance.

Ghost Stories, however, represents only the most visible tip of what appears to be a burgeoning trend for this form of theatre. Over the past five years,an ever-increasing number of shows have explored the concept of horror theatre, and sought to drag it back from the dead and away from its camp reputation. It would hardly be the Edinburgh Fringe without a slew of zombie-themed comedies, and the success of last year’s promenade horror show, The Institute, created by key-figures from The Penny Dreadfuls and Pappy’s Fun Club, has demonstrated the potential for frightening and immersive horror theatre with a real sense of playfulness and fun. Even experimental darlings Punchdrunk are heavily indebted to the history of horror, with their Poe-derived Masque of the Red Death, and earlier Faust, which owed as much to Stephen King as to Marlowe or Goethe.

Horror theatre is most definitely on the rise. My own company, Theatre of the Damned, are currently working on a revival of the Grand Guignol, and it is wonderful to be working in such illustrious company. The Sticking Place return to the Southwark Playhouse this week with Terror 2010: Death and Resurrection, an evening of horror plays including the premiers of specially commissioned scripts by Mark Ravenhill, Neil LaBute and April DeAngelis – three of the most significant playwrights currently working in Britain. Their willingness to contribute new work to an explicitly horror-themed production demonstrates their awareness of the possibilities of the genre, and the freedom it grants a writer or director.

Performing horror onstage exploits the intimate proximity of the audience to acts of violence or frightening predicaments. It allows for the creation of an atmosphere of real threat and menace without allowing an audience to pause their DVD, close their book or reassure themselves with awareness of camera trickery and judicious editing. A well performed horror play erodes the barrier between the real and the unreal, and reignites an audience’s participation in the horrors which are unfolding. The original Grand Guignol theatre understood this, and worked to draw their audience into collaboration with the onstage murderers or identification with their victims. The new practitioners who are turning their attention to re-exploring the power of these techniques have a considerable heritage to draw from, and as Halloween draws close, it seems the perfect time for new audiences to experience live horror for themselves.

5 Recommendations for a Winter of Horror

  • Ghost Stories, Duke of York’s Theatre – Fantastic shock-show with some sharp writing and plenty of twists and turns. Can only get better with addition of Reece Shearsmith to the cast from November 9th. http://www.ghoststoriestheshow.co.uk
  • Terror 2010, Southwark Playhouse, 12th-31st October – The Sticking Place returns with their acclaimed season of horror dramas. Following a sell-out run last year, this year’s programme includes new work by Mark Ravenhill, Neil LaBute and April DeAngelis, together with an adaptation of H P Lovecraft’s classic Herbert West: Re-Animator. http://www.terrorseason.com
  • The Insti2ute, Pleasance Islington, 20th – 31st October – Site-specific zombie horror sequel which promises to be both bloody funny and properly scary. http://www.pleasance.co.uk/islington/events/the-insti2ute
  • A Night of Nouveau Guignol – Old Red Lion Theatre, 25th October – One-off performance of 3 classic Grand Guignol plays by a new London company, ‘a night of horror, fear and gore sprinkled with laughter and lust’. http://www.nouveau-guignol.co.uk/latest_news.php
  • Grand Guignol – Etcetera Theatre, 23rd November – 12th December – (shameless plug…) Theatre of the Damned return with an evening of Grand Guignol horror old and new following a sell-out run at the 2010 Camden Fringe. http://www.theatreofthedamned.com/