The history of horror in theatre: Why on-stage scares can be more chilling than the cinema

Horror film Paranormal Activity is heading to Broadway, but scary shows are few and far between at the theatre

Horror at the theatre brings the audience closer to the 'danger' in ways that cinema cannot. Getty
Powered by automated translation

Horror has proven to be one of cinema’s most enduring genres. Often produced on a shoestring budget, the films rake in millions at the box office and have spawned an array of sub-genres such as paranormal, monster, slasher, zombie, and so on. While niche horror has long failed to earn mainstream recognition, the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, Get Out, Misery, The Omen and An American Werewolf in London all won Oscars.

When it comes to the stage, however, the list of theatrical horror shows is short. A rare success story is The Woman in Black, based on the book by Susan Hill, which is currently the second longest-running play in London’s West End.

Other celebrated plays in the horror genre include Ghost Stories by British playwright Andy Nyman, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde based on the 1886 novella by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and the Laurence Olivier Award nominee 2:22 A Ghost Story by playwright Danny Robins.

Since it was announced that theatre producer Simon Friend has licensed the 2007 horror film Paranormal Activity, hoping to replicating its success on Broadway, we look at the history of horror in theatre.

From Greek tragedy to Macbeth

Horror-themed plays have been around as long as theatre. The supernatural, as well as myths and monsters were a central theme of ancient Greek theatre with Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy famously portraying murder, curses and cannibalism.

Shakespeare's plays Macbeth and Titus Andronicus are often cited as examples of the genre. The former deals with death and mayhem, revenge, ghosts and witches as the Macbeths murder their way to the top. The latter, thought to have been written between 1588 and 1593, is one of the Bard’s goriest plays, so much so that it fell out of favour in Victorian England thanks to the high body count of severed heads, tongues and hands.

A few years prior, Elizabethan playwright Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, filled with murder and a vengeful ghost, was a huge success. The plot would later be replicated in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Paris theatre’s ‘Prince of Fear’

Kabuki, a classical form of Japanese theatre, is thought to have originated between 1603 and 1868 and frequently touched on horror themes in plays and performances that would often last all day.

Along with Noh, another form of traditional Japanese theatre, plays would feature horror elements including ghosts and supernatural appearances, murder and vengeance. In his thesis Stage and Scream: The Influence of Traditional Japanese Theater, Culture, and Aesthetics on Japan's Cinema of the Fantastic, academic John Petty states that these plays continue to influence modern Japanese horror films.

In Europe, Le Theatre du Grand-Guignol in Paris became synonymous with the genre. From its opening in 1897 to 1962, the theatre specialised in graphic horror performances with naturalistic leanings that today would be dubbed “splatter” films in cinematic parlance.

One of its most popular playwrights, Andre de Latour, the theatre’s main author between 1901 and 1926, was dubbed Prince de la Terreur (Prince of Fear) for his horror output.

Making the danger real for audiences

Writer Joe Saxon dubs horror as “theatre’s most unloved genre" in a post on The State of the Arts website. Ghost Stories co-creator Nyman agrees, telling The Guardian: “There isn't a lot of horror on stage, especially the type that truly unsettles an audience and plays on their deepest fears.”

Horror plays based on films have often failed to make the transition from screen to stage including Evil Dead The Musical and The Exorcist. Carrie became one of Broadway’s biggest flops, closing after just three days and losing $7 million.

Elsewhere, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, based on the Salem Witch Trials, and William Archibald’s The Innocents, based on the 1898 novel The Turn of the Screw have both proved to be Broadway hits.

“Horror in the theatre carries a wallop that is acutely amplified because it is live," said Nyman. “What a clever horror stage production does is to remind the audience that the sense of danger is as real to you as it is to the people on stage.”

Updated: September 20, 2023, 5:31 AM