How British theater became compromised by horror

You are sitting in the dark, watching a scary story. Maybe the hairs on your neck stand up. Maybe you’re on the edge of your seat – and maybe it’s a slightly tired red velvet seat, next to a stranger nursing an overpriced plastic wine glass. in a theater as in the cinema or on your sofa. Horror is coming back to life on stage.

Paranormal Activity, an adaptation of the 2007 horror film, is about to open at Leeds Playhouse, while a version of the 2019 thriller Saint Maud opens at Newcastle Live Theater in October. Black comedy film Inside No.

Meanwhile. Several theaters are turning to classic stories: Punchdrunk’s latest, Viola’s Room, is inspired by Barry Pain’s 1901 Gothic short story, while Room 13 at the Barn Theater in Cirencester offers a modern riff on MR James’s ghost, which opens in September. .

This sudden rush of shows is notable as horror is often under-represented on the British stage – certainly The Woman in Black, which ran for 30 years in the West End. Ghost Stories has haunted stages, on and off, since 2010, and The Exorcist was adapted a few years ago. But for the most part, the genre remains in the shadows – certainly compared to its continued dominance on the screen.

So why the reanimation now? One answer – the cynical one – is that the trend exists simply because of the hope that such shows will convert tickets. And this confidence is no doubt driven by the success of one particular drama: 2:22 – A Ghost Story.

'Until recently, horror has often been underrepresented on the British stage'

‘Until recently, the horror of being underrepresented on the British stage was often overlooked’ – Helen Murray

The story of Danny Robins’ woman is convinced that her house is haunted opened in the West End in 2021, and broke box office records as the best-selling play of all time at the Noel Coward Theatre, then at the Gielgud, and then as a UK tour. It’s now licensed worldwide, and a fast-turnover casting stunt – Lily Allen, Cheryl, Stacey Dooley – helped it get wider appeal.

“It’s a beautiful example of taking a risk on something new and having the public catch up with your taste,” says Tristan Baker, one half of Runaway Entertainment, which produces the show. Although it would be equally accurate to say that he was getting the theater in line with wider pop-culture tastes – recognizing the success of ghost stories across film, TV and podcasts, and bringing that magic to the stage.

Baker thought that audiences coming out of the pandemic might want to see a show like The Woman in Black. 2.22 was one of eight to open in the West End in the summer of 2021, but Baker’s view was that 2:22 would connect with younger audiences who were comfortable returning to theatres. “We got a lot of people who were going to the theater for the first time, who wanted to have a great night out, have a drink and chat about it,” he says.

It’s no wonder that producers across the country are now trying to take advantage of that market. But box office receipts may not be the only reason for the stage horror revival: Richard Hand, a UEA Professor specializing in horror studies, believes the underlying reason is deeper – we are in a “Gothic age new”, together turning to horror to process the horror of the world around us.

One Cartridge Place has a Viola RoomOne Cartridge Place has a Viola Room

Viola Room at Cartridge One – Julian Abrams

The pandemic was her own experience like a horror movie: the terror of a mysterious illness, a confrontation with mortality, green locks that were like being caught in a nightmare. And since then, we have been bombarded with images of the most brutal conflicts imaginable.

“It’s a zeitgeist thing,” Hand points out, pointing out that interest in the Gothic often grows in turbulent times in society. “When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, there was anxiety about the coming of a new age, paranoia about migration. Or Frankenstein and the industrial revolution. I can’t help thinking that there are similarities in the 2020s: perhaps it reflects a kind of anxiety we have.”

This theory is also echoed by Felix Barrett, founder of immersive theater pioneers Punchdrunk, who is now directing Paranormal Activity. “The world is a very bumpy place at the moment, there is so much conflict and instability. I think we need these pieces to be able to release the tension we have in our day-to-day lives.”

Of course, Paranormal Activity will probably sell tickets too because of brand recognition. It’s not that they’re doing a faithful repetition – it’ll be “a new story in the same world”, promises Barrett, if they’re still showing a couple haunted by demons, both metaphorical and literal. But it was important, he says, that the audience did not know what was going to happen, to dampen the nervous anticipation.

“I love the idea of ​​making theater dangerous,” says Barrett, cheerfully. “That long suspension is really exciting.” And he believes the theater is the perfect medium for such nail-biting stuff: whether it’s in the close-up of Punchdrunk’s latest work – Viola’s Room takes small groups right inside a dark festival about a reluctant bride – or in an adaptation main stage on which the film, the theater is able to viscerally affect an audience.

“The wonder of live theater is that it has that electricity – of all the art forms, theater is the one that gives you that tension, that it’s happening now,” he says.

Fear can also be self-inflicted – so the collective experience of watching a show surrounded by other affected people helps amplify the story for everyone. Theater is the “ultimate 3D form” that Hand points out: “you’re in that shared space, that shared moment… that’s what’s really exciting about it.”

So why, then, did horror fall out of fashion on the stage in the second half of the 20th century? Hand points out that theater has a rich history – from violent Greek dramas to Elizabethan revenge tragedies, to moral ghost stories on the Victorian stage, to the ultra-violent grand Guignol in 20th– century Paris. The latter was a huge influence on the early silent films – and at that point, horror seemed to be making its way to the screen.

Ella Schrey-Yeats and David Threlfall in The Enfield HauntingElla Schrey-Yeats and David Threlfall in The Enfield Haunting

Ella Schrey-Yeats and David Threlfall in The Enfield Haunting – Marc Brenner

And that’s where it stayed, for the most part. Hand suggests that this neglect of the stage may have something to do with the theatrical carve-up against the mass popularity of horror films. “I think there’s something shameful about the horror,” he said. “It’s not intellectual form – it works with your lower body, it’s ‘unsophisticated’.”

It also produces pretty black-or-white bodily reactions: the audience is either scared, or they aren’t. And when a fright-fest was … not scary, it can be cringe-inducing, or even unintentionally funny. Witness The Enfield Haunting, based on a true story, has recently received an awful lot of damning reviews for being unscary, boring, and accidentally snigger-inducing. When horror goes wrong, it seems to go very, very wrong.

However, it is a risk that many theaters – and many audiences – are increasingly willing to take. And when it works, stage horror has a unique ability to bring the audience together, and provide a collective release valve: it’s scary, but it’s delicious. As Baker says, “you can’t beat a thousand people in the same room jumping and screaming at the same time.”

2:22: A Ghost Story is at the Gielgud until August 4 (; Paranormal Activity is at Leeds Playhouse until August 3 (; The Viola Room is at One Cartridge Place until August 18 (

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