Halloween theatre explores darkest fears

Rocky Horror writer Richard O'Brien reveals his top tips for a good horror story

The auditorium goes dark. Night black. Silence. A chair scrapes. Nervous laughter.

A disembodied voice speaks of murder, meat-hooks and maggots. Unseen things drop from above.

The screaming starts...

It's a Thursday night at the Soho Theatre, where the show Terror 2012: All in the Mind is reaching its climax - with the lights out.

The annual festival of horror, now in its ninth season, consists of four short plays linked by cabaret hosts Sarah-Louise Young and Desmond O'Connor.

Left frame: Sarah-Louise Young and Desmond O’Connor sing with a ouija board. Right frame: Shaun Stone and Victoria Lennox in the short play Representation at the Soho Theatre's Terror 2012: All in the Mind  Terror 2012: (left) Sarah-Louise Young and Desmond O'Connor host while (right) Shaun Stone gets it in the neck from Victoria Lennox in the play Representation

The playful pair probe audiences' phobias, sing with a Ouija board and perform a gory twist on Fifty Shades of Grey. It's all for over-18s only.

As Halloween brings its annual offering of theatrical shows around London that promise to chill the blood, what exactly is the secret of getting stage horror right?

Start Quote

In the original Grand-Guignol, they would judge the success of an evening by how many people threw up”

End Quote Sarah-Louise Young

"Anything to do with frightening people is like rehearsing comedy - until you get your audience you don't know if it works or not," explains Young.

The Terror 2012 show is largely inspired by the Parisian Theatre du Grand-Guignol, which staged horror shows from the late 19th Century until its post-war decline in the 1960s.

"In the original Grand-Guignol, they would judge the success of an evening by how many people threw up or had to leave - we haven't had too many people do that," says Young.

"You've got to remember that not so long ago people went to see public executions as entertainment. We think we live in the most violent times, but when you look back to the penny dreadfuls and the dime novels we've always been interested in horror and gore."

What scares Sarah-Louise Young?

Lack of control. Most of my nightmares are when you scream and no sound comes out or you run and you can't move. Powerlessness comes into all horror.

The actress and singer reveals that one play - about a real murder case in Ukraine - was dropped from the Terror 2012 show at a late stage.

Its use of internet footage of people reacting to the video of a killing was, she says, "a line that we couldn't cross... people would have probably walked out."

John Gregor as the head lighthouse-keeper George Roper and Abi Blears as Vicky in Drowning Rock John Gregor as the head lighthouse-keeper George Roper and Abi Blears as Vicky in Drowning Rock

A Gothic ghostly tale of the sea is the Halloween offering at the Camden People's Theatre.

Drowning Rock, written and directed by Matthew Wood, is inspired by shipwreck stories, Cornish legends and HP Lovecraft's 1931 novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Start Quote

I was trying to create that sense of dark things lurking in the corners of the known world”

End Quote Matthew Wood

"We are aiming for a slow build of atmospheric horror, " explains Wood. "We're not taking a hack and slash, Saw-film approach. It's much more in the vein of classic ghost story-telling."

The show is by Cyclopean Productions, a theatre company based in Surrey dedicated to new writing in a Gothic vein.

Set on the desolate lighthouse at Drowning Rock, the production makes the most of its intimate theatre setting.

"We rely on a number of technical effects, but the main element is the power of suggestion," Wood says.

"We had one girl who had to close her eyes through half of it, so that's always a good reaction."

The playwright's starting point was the true story of the disappearance of three keepers from the Flannan Isle Lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides in 1900.

What scares Matthew Wood?

The imagination is a powerful thing and what scares me tends to be "the night after" - once you've seen something scary and then it gets under your skin and your imagination starts playing with it.

But as well as the work of American author HP Lovecraft (1890-1937), Wood also notes the influence of the film Jaws.

"I think Jaws is one of those films that really gets into the collective unconscious. It is a primal fear of having something beneath you, hunting you. We are out of our depth in the sea.

"I was trying to create that sense of dark things lurking in the corners of the known world."

Kate Quinn and Alicia Bennett in Theatre of the Damned's The Horror! The Horror! at Wilton's Music Hall Kate Quinn and Alicia Bennett in Theatre of the Damned's The Horror! The Horror! at Wilton's Music Hall

How does Drowning Rock get its 15+ age recommendation? "There's no bad language or graphic violence," explains Wood. "But we were very conscious that we weren't writing a show that was child-friendly.

"The themes in Lovecraft are quite dark."

More gore is on offer at the London Horror Festival which mostly takes place at Camden's Etcetera Theatre.

Billed as "a three-week celebration of horror in the performing arts", it includes plays, comedy, puppetry and even a lecture on the history of the Grand-Guignol.

The programme includes Theatre of the Damned's immersive, Victorian promenade show The Horror! The Horror! at Wilton's Music Hall.

Start Quote

You can't just throw blood and guts at the audience”

End Quote Stewart Pringle

"The secret to good horror on stage is that it has be good drama," says Stewart Pringle, the festival's producer.

"You can't just throw blood and guts at the audience because they'll get bored. You've got to give them something real, and you've got to give them characters they care about."

Pringle compares watching a horror show to a rollercoaster ride.

"Audiences know that their heart rate is going to go up. They know that they can expect surprises.

What scares Stewart Pringle?

Most things. I am really easily scared. Particularly ghosts. I love ghost stories.

"The great thing about horror is that it can go anywhere. The dead can come back to life. Things that a normal play just doesn't have in its palette can happen in horror."

Terror 2012: All in the Mind is at Soho Theatre until 3 November. Drowning Rock is at Camden People's Theatre until 4 November. The London Horror Festival runs at the Etcetera Theatre, Camden and Wilton's Music Hall, Tower Hamlets until 7 November.

Video interview and additional reporting by Rachel Curtis.

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