When I close a mirrored cabinet, I am convinced there will be someone standing behind me. If a shower has a curtain instead of a door, I can’t use it and that room is getting soaked. I’m hopeless at swimming backstroke because I’m certain I’m going to bump into a floating corpse. I watched The Blair Witch Project in broad daylight and still got nightmares. I cried after Paranormal Activity. The other day before bed, I thought of that scene in The Orphan where she takes out her sister’s hearing aids, and had to turn the light on to check she wasn’t hiding at the end of my bed.
All this fear comes from films. Theatre has never managed to scare me in the same way.
I’ve been unnerved by theatre, I’ve felt dread, I’ve been grossed out, I’ve been anxious and I’ve felt shock. I’ve even been sick once because of a show. But I’ve never had that fear that buries itself into you and re-emerges as a shiver months later, making you check behind or underneath you, a story that pumps fear into your veins so thick that it stays with you for years. The last decade of filmmaking has seen an extraordinary expansion of what horror can do, say and tackle, while the most exciting horror we’ve had on stage has been a high school production of Alien. Scary stories are an oral storytelling medium; it’s almost shameful that theatre is lagging so behind.
Ghost Stories is written by League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson and Derren Brown’s writing partner Andy Nyman. The show is coming up to its tenth birthday, having started development at the Lyric Hammersmith where it’s currently playing. It has generally aired to so-so reviews, but prides itself on being a cult phenomenon, having flown around the world and performed in the US and Japan. It also prides itself on being utterly terrifying.
I’ve long been obsessed with Brown’s work and reckon his best stuff was co-written with Nyman. They have a beautifully delicate way of dangling the paranormal in front of you, tempting you to believe whilst ardently telling you not to. Presented as a lecture on the history of ghost stories, this show attempts something similar. Professor Goodman (Simon Lipkin, performed in the original production by Nyman), offers three ghoulish tales. He unpicks each one, demonstrating the psychological pressures on each storyteller, linking their fears to their own guilt. See, he says, here’s the logic, this is why you shouldn’t believe. Then along comes a fourth story. This one’s darker, closer to reality, harder to dismiss. This one’s his.
In the moment, yes: Ghost Stories is scary. Each story is met with satisfying screams and gasps from the audience. We’re all cowering, gripping at each other as the tension builds up to the moment of reveal, where the torchlight falls just so. The friend I took – braver than me; his favourite movie is The Thing – screamed louder than I did. Each collective cry falls into relieved laughter as the creatures are shown, revealed even in the briefest of glimpses as something quite goofy – perhaps so short for fear of showing quite how unscary they actually are – then the lights come back on and the lecture resumes.
We are a generation raised on X-Factor pauses; we know how to wait out a beat, we know how long to hold our breath, we know to be excited for the imminent release. Ghost Stories plays to all of that brilliantly. It toys with perspective, throwing sound so that the whole audience sinks into their seats as a whisper of “daddy” calls out from behind us.
It’s a giddy rush, this kind of fear, and makes for a fun night out, but it’s all easy. It’s fright made of waving a torch through heavy darkness, light falling on a figure in the corner, moving away for a fraction of a second before we whizz back and the figure’s gone. It’s a face up against a window and a whisper in the dark. It’s a paint-by-numbers kind of shock. It’s jokey and silly and creepy and utterly generic. We know the score and we play along because it’s fun. And then we leave and go to the pub and the fear has slid off before our pints are poured.
In 2014 Nyman wrote an article about the lack of horror shows in the theatre. He wrote: “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.” Here, it has an advantage over film. But by his own standards, Ghost Stories falls short. The four stories are all told by white men, with the monsters the manifestation of their fears and feelings of guilt. No spoilers, but really, women aren’t that scary. The characters become more parodic as we go on, the monsters more rubbery and the screams less intense. The danger never feels ours, and it never feels real enough to follow us out of the theatre.
I think what I really want is for a show so scary that I can’t sleep without checking under the bed, just to know that it is possible, that this medium is powerful enough. However grim the remainders of horror movies are, there’s a thrill to them too. I admire any story that can stay with you so long, the fear still visceral years later. But that night after Ghost Stories, I slept soundly, not a whisper of a ghoul in sight. The liveness of theatre is perfectly suited as a platform for fear, and ghost stories are meant to be told out loud, so why does film still tell them so much better?