Features Essays Published 13 October 2012

Horror Theatre: Coping Without Cutting

Tom Richards is the co-artistic director of Theatre of the Damned, for whom he is directing The Horror! The Horror! at Wilton’s Music Hall between the 24th October and the 7th November as part of the 2012 London Horror Festival, which runs at Wilton’s and the Etcetera Theatre, Camden from the 15th October to the 7th November.
Tom Richards

For at least half a century, horror in dramatic fiction has been almost exclusively the preserve of the cinema. There are many reasons for this, but the most important are probably those which revolve around the tools which enable the film director to control what an audience can see in a way that his theatrical counterpart simply can’t.

Put simply: cuts, pans and close-ups.

The film director decides what to point the camera at, and his audience can’t look at anything else. In many case, even things that are in the shot actively repel the viewer’s attention by dint of being out of focus, forcing us back to what the director wants us to see. We can’t see what’s behind the camera, we can’t see what’s to the side of the camera, we can’t see what’s not lit and we can’t see what goes on in the minutes, hours or days between two shots, during which who knows what kind of tomfoolery may have gone on with make-up, prosthetics and the rest. We also all see the action from exactly the same angle, regardless of where in the cinema we may be sitting. The director is our god, and we see the world solely through the grace of His revelation.

The most visceral and basic of all genres. Photo: Anna Söderblom

The stage is a different animal. If Alice decides she wants to look at the dado rail on the upstage wall of the set, while Bob is perched on the far stage right end of the front row and fancies peering into the stage left wing to see if any actors are hanging around waiting to come on, there’s nothing Carol the director can do to stop them (though unless Alice and Bob are a rather unrepresentative sample of the audience, it may be a sign she’s staged a rather dull production and should resign/commit Seppuku/swear never to do Lope de Vega again, because that fucker engenders a kind of horror no-one wants).

This is doubly problematic when the material Carol is handling is horror. Horror is perhaps the most visceral and basic of all genres in the category of response it must elicit in its viewers. In its quest for dread, shock, revulsion, unease and sheer, outright terror, it has to engage the parts of our brains which were built to deal with lions bursting from long grass, dead animals rotting into waterholes, the lurking, impenetrable darkness at the back of the cave and invasions by ancient alien monsters which exist in more dimensions at once than they have tentacles – and not for want of tentacles. The engagement is pre-intellectual, and all the sophisticated, modern, Hamlet-reading, where-shall-we-have-lunch chunks of grey matter have to be bypassed before they start causing trouble. We have to access the hind-brain directly, and that means keeping the path to it open.

The creeping inevitability of doom.

To this end, Carol has to find ways of persuading or tricking her audience into doing for themselves what in the cinema a camera would do for them. She has to get them to focus their attention in the right place. On the one hand, this allows the creation of a sort of locus of dread – an object or person or place that becomes the centre of the audience’s awful suspicions of what is going to happen as they thrill to the creeping inevitability of doom. On the other, it facilitates the execution of shocks and effects: the sleight of hand required for a convincing live simulation of slaughter is far less likely to be noticed if the punters are gazing raptly at something else, while a sudden noise will do a better job of making them jump if it comes from a direction other than the one they’re looking in. But how to do it? Well, Carol has more tools at her disposal than you might at first suppose.




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