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Richard Jordan: It’s scary how bad at horror theatre is

The Woman in Black at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Photo: Tony Bartholomew The Woman in Black at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. one of theatre's horror success stories. Photo: Tony Bartholomew
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Hollywood’s annual big-screen serving of fear, suspense and horror is once again upon us as we marked Halloween this week.

But while film has enjoyed a long and successful track record in the genre, theatre’s success rate has been mixed, frequently verging into high-camp with musicals such as Evil Dead the Musical and Little Shop of Horrors.

Vampires have been tried on numerous occasions: Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Lestat, Frank Wildhorn and Don Black’s Dracula the Musical, and Jim Steinman and Michael Kunze’s Dance of the Vampires. (The latter two musicals have seen more successful productions in Europe, to be fair.) Frank Langella’s 1977 stage performance in the play Dracula is still heralded as legendary, but elsewhere the success rate of vampire plays has been chequered.

Playwright Conor McPherson 1997’s modern vampire solo play St Nicholas is arguably one of the more successful undertakings, principally perhaps because all the supernatural activity occurs off stage. There is no biting of necks or characters asleep in coffins.

Victorian ghost plays used to terrify audiences, but these days no play or musical can compete with the special effects of a movie studio, so theatre must rely on language and suspense.

That is the enduring success of The Woman in Black, adapted from Susan Hill’s novel by Stephen Mallatratt, who adapted it into a taut, long-running two-actor play long before there was a film. Its stagecraft is drawn from the work of Victorian authors such as Mary Louisa Molesworth.

Creating fear on stage night after night is a tall order for a director or actor. There is a a fine line to walk between creating belief in the surreal and creating parody

Fear is a universal emotion. We have all experienced it, and sometimes crave it in controlled circumstances. Many people thrive on it, enjoying the adrenaline see-saw of risk and reward. Indeed, that is the role of the horror genre.

Yet theatre – despite a smattering of notable successes – has not had a strong track record with horror. Suspense, yes: Arnold Ridley’s The Ghost Train and Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton were brilliant examples of theatrical thrillers. But the trajectory of commercial horror films (led by the likes of Wes Craven, M Night Shyamalan and Tim Burton) veered towards realism – if theatre tried to follow, it frequently risked falling short.

Consistently creating fear and suspense on stage night after night is a tall order for a director or an actor. There is a a fine line to walk between creating belief in the surreal and creating parody. The writing, too, needs to contain those moments of stillness vital to the tension that leads to fear. Done right, the experience for a theatre audience is electrifying.

In recent years, one of the great artists to understand these techniques is mentalist Derren Brown. His on stage technique is rooted in that of Victorian melodrama but presented with a contemporary twist. At its heart is pure theatre. Brown’s success is rooted in a single understanding: that imagination is a more powerful force for fear than staged reality.

Theatre should put away its ghosts and biting vampires. That’s not the way to scare an audience.

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