It's a simple question, in two parts:

  1. Is it possible to engender genuine horror in an audience through a live stage experience?
  2. If so, how?

I've been kicking this around for at least the last two years, maybe longer. Finally I decided to toss some of the issues out to some of the smartest people I know, i.e. youse guys.

First. . .

Some not so simple questions

What's the point?

What do we get out of it, this horror experience so prevalent and so profitable in movies and books? Is it the adrenaline kick? Studies have shown that regular doses of adrenaline can have both positive and negative health effects. (m_turner points out that one of the roles adrenaline plays is to enhance memory. This might provide a welcome side-benefit to the artistic experience, but I think it hardly accounts for the pervasiveness of the genre.) Certainly in the modern world-- occasional terrorist attacks and earthquakes notwithstanding-- we have fewer opportunities to cop our adrenaline fix than our forebears did swinging from branches or crouching in caves. Maybe we like being scared because it makes us feel more human – or rather, more animal. Then again, maybe we enjoy occasionally giving form to the inchoate fears commensurate with our modern existence. Maybe, in a nobler vein, the value of experiencing fear lies in conferring us some sympathy for those poor souls who, for whatever reasons, live their lives afraid. Or maybe there's a sort of psychic purge at work. And finally, maybe it's a combination of some or all of these factors, and perhaps many more

It's nearly impossible to dispute that there is indeed something about the horror experience that that keeps us coming back for more; and thus, as a playwright, I feel like it's incumbent upon me to explore it further, to see if it's possible for me to mine this vein so artistically and, what's more, financially lucrative.

What drives horror?

This is a larger question than just, "what scares us?" I want to go one stratum deeper and ask, "What is it that's inherent to our natures that makes us capable of getting scared in the first place?" Is it death? Or the apprehension of it? Or is it the broader apprehension of universal loss-- the fact that everything changes, and mostly for the worse? Does isolation drive horror? Or does its more evil twin, alienation, more urgently push the pedal?

A little over a year ago, Cletus the Foetus and I got into an on-going discussion about this very subject, and I believe he got at something very interesting indeed when he said: "Horror involves things beyond human comprehension, breaking down cherished notions about self-identity, memory, spatial relation, history and chronology, body, reference or representation, influence, reason – all the metaphysical categories according to which we situate our knowledge in the first place." I'm tempted to dub what CTF is talking about here something like "psychic distortion", but I balk just a bit. Is it quite the right term?* In any case, I'd like to show how theatre is uniquely suited to get at some of these notions he talks about breaking down

Why theatre?

After all, if other media like film and fiction do it so well, maybe theatre is out gunned. The challenge of frightening audience members in a live environment is certainly more arduous and complex. Ask yourself: have you ever been truly frightened by something you've seen on stage? For that matter, have you ever even been to the theatre? (A question for another node, perhaps, but still somewhat relevant, in that it points at theatre's dwindling scope as a medium for the masses.)

Obviously fiction can wrap a reader so tightly up in a world of mostly their own imagining that well-written horror can easily work its suffocating magic; but of course, there's always the option of putting the book down as well. The great horror writers create in their readers that wonderful tearing tension between not wanting to turn the next page and not being able to stop themselves. It's worth noting, however, that fiction is a lonely art, written by one to be read by one. Theatre, conversely, is created collaboratively and consumed that way as well.

Film creates palpable realities woven with special effects, compelling cinematography, and some of the best acting, directing and screenwriting talent gazillions of dollars can buy. Theatre just can't compete, at least not on film's turf. But mind you, it's a common mistake to think that the stage is nothing more than cinema's poorer, older, four-dimensional cousin. That extra dimension makes a true world of difference; if only theatre artists can allow themselves to trust in its power.

Psycho-social regression

I'm cocky enough to propose that theatre is capable of exploring types of horror that other art forms can't really touch. Carl Jung hints at this in Concerning Rebirth circa, 1940. . .

...You go to the theatre: glance meets glance, everybody observes everybody else, so that all those who are present are caught up in an invisible web of mutual unconscious relationship....

Mankind has always formed groups which made collective experiences of transformation—often of an ecstatic nature—possible. The regressive identification with lower and more primitive states of consciousness is invariably accompanied by a heightened sense of life... .The inevitable psychosocial regression within the group is partially counteracted by ritual, that is to say through a cult ceremony which makes the solemn performance of sacred events the centre of group activity and prevents the crowd from relapsing into unconscious instinctuality...
The ritual makes it possible for him to have a comparatively individual experience even within the group and so remain more or less conscious. But if there is no relation to a centre which expresses the unconscious through its symbolism, the mass psyche inevitably becomes the hypnotic focus of fascination, drawing everyone under its spell. That is why masses are always breeding-grounds of psychic epidemics, the events in Germany being a classic example of this.

But of course, this leads to certain safety concerns unique to theatre that I will touch upon in another node.

I suspect, in the final analysis, we'll find that theatre is not outgunned by its cousin art forms, given that it possesses weapons in its arsenal and cards up its sleeve that only deeply experienced show people can begin to suspect; but I also believe only careful experimental evidence can truly prove otherwise. That's why I so very much want to create an evening of horror, ideally a collection of small pieces at first, to see what does and does not achieve the goal of terrifying a goodly portion of the audience. Horror, like laughter, is a verifiable, repeatable experimental result in the theatre.

Now . . .

How do we do it?

Suspension of Disbelief

A lot of lip service is given to the idea of suspension of disbelief both in regards to horror and drama. Indeed, Cletus told me once that he wondered if it was possible to engender without it on stage. But I beg to differ. Frankly, I've always thought SOD had far lesser importance in the theatre than most believe, and judging from the works of my favorite playwrights: Shakespeare, Brecht, Wilder, I'd say they'd probably agree. Far from suspending disbelief, I'd say good theatre's about expanding belief, enriching and perhaps even exploding it.

On a pragmatic level, I'd say SOD is hardly even an achievable, or for that matter legitimate, goal vis-à-vis modern audiences. Today's theatre-goer is far too sophisticated and hiply inured to every possible shock to blithely suspend their disbelief. Still, I'd like to experiment with finding smaller points and/or zones of disbelief suspension. I propose it's possible to use the technique almost surgically, like a painter adding a bit of pointilism in a small field of an otherwise much more expressionistic canvas. I'd call this Tactical Suspension of Disbelief. (It's important to note, however, that within this area of exploration, it's utterly incumbent upon theatre artists to have a frank discussion of safety and liability issues that arise when a theatre starts messing with people's idea of what's really happening: there's a fine and all too often broken line between disbelief suspension and hoax; and, while hoax may or may not be an effective form of expression, I remain unconvinced that this is the best method for true theatrical madness. Hoax locks people up more often than it frees them.)


An alternative to SOD is something I call theatrical proximity. It's the notion that something that happens on stage, especially on a smaller fringe-scale stage, is inherently more effecting than the same event on film, regardless of whether the audience suspends their disbelief, for the very reason that theatre adds entirely new dimensions, not only spatially but psychologically. I remember a particular production of Julius Caesar I saw at the Public Theatre oh so many years ago. The cast boasted Al Pacino as Marc Antony and Martin Sheen as Brutus, and it sucked. But, boy, I tell ya: when those knives came out my heart pounded in my chest all the same. The knowledge that violence-- even fake violence in a badly acted play-- is about to happen feet from your face is something that makes an end-run right around your cerebral cortex and leaps instead right into your reptile brain.

Bottom Line

I think theatre holds unique opportunities for engendering horror in an audience, but this can't be achieved by trying to do what film and fiction do better. The trick will lie in finding what theatre does best: right now I'm looking at psychosocial regression, tactical-- rather than strategic-- suspension of disbelief, heightened proximity and psychic distortion as my key targets of investigation; then using these techniques masterfully to achieve the wonderfully simple and experimentally verifiable goal of frightening the fuck out of people.

*I welcome your suggestions in this regard, gentle reader.

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