The celebration of Halloween is a surprisingly recent arrival on the English cultural scene. Other Britons, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, have long observed the traditional date at which the year’s decline becomes definitive. This is partly because the alternative English festivities on November 5, commemorating the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, have little meaning elsewhere. But in the last generation or two, US cultural hegemony has blended with the return of an older cultural awareness, and Fawkes has diminished to little more than the basis for the V For Vendetta mask, while youthful ghoulies and ghosties now go trick-or-treating even in inappropriate neighbourhoods for such activity.
Theatres, too, are increasingly going dark in late October – not in the conventional sense, meaning that no show is being presented, but rather in offering seasonally chilling dramatic fare. Around this Halloween, London theatre-goers can choose among a brace of HP Lovecraft-inspired offerings, a couple of packages or event strands, and even some high-end fashionable international horror as Poland’s TR Warszawa brings its adaptation of Nosferatu to the Barbican. It all looks, as Lovecraft would say, most eldritch.
Horror is almost entirely absent from the theatrical landscape throughout the rest of the year. There is The Woman In Black in the West End, but that is now part of a different ecology, deriving much of its custom from being one of those long-running shows (nearly 24 years) that serve as theatrical landmarks regardless of their content. Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s collection Ghost Stories ran for a year in the West End in 2010-11 but set no precedent for similar shows to follow in its wake. For the most part, connoisseurs of gore remain dependent upon subsidised companies’ revivals of Jacobean revenge tragedies.
The very notion of gore can be problematic. The more successful examples tend to rely on the building of suspense punctuated with sharp “reveals” rather than necessarily graphic ones. In Ghost Stories, for example, the sudden glimpse of what appeared to be a gigantic “weresquirrel” proved an absurd anti-climax, while one of the most potent moments came from discreetly wafting the smell of bleach through the venue’s ventilation system. Dyson and Nyman knew how to work their audience too. I remember being surprised how often the crowd around me was screaming – before noticing that the screams tended to begin at a particular position. The ushers had evidently been briefed to “seed” the audience’s responses.
Conversely, explicit portrayals may not be satisfactorily described as “horror” at all. Adam Megiddo’s company The Sticking Place is now in its ninth year of presenting a package of short dramatic chillers (this year at Soho Theatre). Yet Megiddo favours the heading Terror over the H-word. “Terror,” he explains, “is the most definitive word that’s stamped itself on the 21st century so far. We were interested to explore how terror had become this thing outside everyone, rather than that sense when a man suddenly finds his place in the universe or realises how chaotic it is, his isolation and madness.”
The Terror package is consciously in the Grand Guignol tradition. “A lot of it in the early days was to do with pure realism, and showing things onstage that no one else was daring to,” Megiddo says. “A murder would be committed and reported in the papers, and within four or five days they’d have put it up on the stage. So you have writers spurred by the news. And as we started asking writers to come up with things that were happening right now, and to investigate a kind of reality that they don’t always get to explore, that became a lot harder but way more provocative.”
Megiddo also favours the original Grand Guignol’s “hot and cold shower” strategy. “They’d present a comedy next to something incredibly visceral and bloody, alternating these things with each other,” he says. “Should we be driving the nail further home, or should we be cleansing the palate? Instead of leaving the audience dumped in the most horrifying realisation, maybe we have a responsibility to help them go through the journey and come out the other side.” Of course, that combination of terror, creeping moral unease and grim comedy was a staple of Jacobean tragedy. More recently, it was the infernal marriage of repellent evil with puckish wise-cracking that grounded the popularity of Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare On Elm Street.
Even the work of HP Lovecraft, perhaps the most influential writer in horror literature, contained humour – albeit sometimes unintentional. This summer, one of the big venues on the Edinburgh Fringe presented a stage musical based on Re-Animator, the 1985 movie adaptation of Lovecraft’s novella Herbert West: Re-Animator, and it is unlikely that the brooding, otherworldly master ever imagined such disconcerting spectacles as George Wendt, of Cheers fame, in drag. Although he had firm conceptions regarding the chilling things he wrote about, Lovecraft’s writing itself tends to work more through suggestion. The profound alienness of his subjects, extending even to unimaginable colours and hellishly non-Euclidean geometries, may be difficult to represent effectively onstage, but that has not stopped a number of companies from trying.
This autumn’s offerings include an adaptation of Lovecraft’s story The Shadow Over Innsmouth, re-titled Drowning Rock and presented by a company that has, in deference to one of the author’s favourite weird descriptors, called itself Cyclopean Productions; and, as the centrepiece of the London Horror Festival, a presentation called simply The Horror! The Horror! in the atmospheric surroundings of Wilton’s Music Hall, which aims to blend Lovecraft with Victoriana.
And why, ultimately, are we so enticed by material that rekindles our most primal feelings of active discomfort? “Scientists and sociologists have looked into why we’re so drawn to horror, and the upshot of all that research is that they just don’t know – they are completely stumped,” Megiddo says. “There are people who come to the Terror season looking for a particular kind of thrill, and those people will probably be disappointed. There are other people who don’t quite know why they’re there, and they get rattled shitless.”
Terror 2012, Soho Theatre, until November 3, www.sohotheatre.com London Horror Festival, various venues, until November 7, www.londonhorrorfestival.com ‘Nosferatu’, Barbican, from October 31, www.barbican.org.uk; ‘Drowning Rock’, Camden People’s Theatre, until November 4, www.cptheatre.co.uk