Investing in the Aesthetics of Horror as a Theatrical Genre

Jolene Noelle Richardson
Jolene Noelle Richardson

Historically, horror has been a persistently favourite genre across a variety of artistic media. Since at least the eighteenth-century, with the rise of the gothic novel, horror has had a permanent place in literary fiction.

In the film, horror has been an intensely profitable genre-spawning myriad iterations and styles and the stirring up of a good deal of scholarly discourse. Horror has withstood numerous premonitions of its impending demise, reviving each time with new tricks and tactics for arousing terror.

From the early twentieth-century German Expressionist films like ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ to the mainstream box office success of William Friedkinʼs 1973 film version of ‘The Exorcist’, horror has consistently been a staple of the film industry.

Stephen King, Clive Barker, and other authors of horror fiction continue to fill household bookshelves with grisly and gory stories.

As of late, there has also been a nearly endless number of horror-themed television shows, including ‘Bates Motel’ (the latest retelling of the classic horror film ‘Psycho’), the widely popular ‘American Horror Story’ series, and the zombie-themed ‘The Walking Dead’.

In the theatre, however, horror as a full-scale genre has remained suspiciously absent. There have been a few short-lived spurts of interest in theatrical horror, namely the early twentieth-century Parisian theatre of the Grand Guignol and, in the United States, a few very popular early modern monster plays. The theatre is certainly no stranger to gruesome, frightening, and disturbing moments of horror. However, by and large, few plays are created that accurately identify as horror theatre.

Ghost stories and other tales of the macabre are as old as storytelling itself. On stage, ghosts and other monsters are rarely the primary subjects of plays. Ghosts may, as in Shakespeareʼs ‘Hamlet’ or David Rabeʼs ‘Sticks and Bones’, serve as intermediary characters, present to propel the action of the protagonists. However, these ghosts are rarely presented with the intention of frightening spectators and are rarely grotesque or monstrous.

Why is horror so absent from the American stage? How can contemporary theatre makers go about creating a respectable and vibrant horror theatre? What, if anything, is to be gained by doing so? Here, I will be arguing for an artistic investment in the aesthetics of a contemporary horror theatre.

To do so, I will examine how horror has been successfully staged in the past and will pull from the vast critical discourse on contemporary horror film to investigate what the theatre may be missing out on by ignoring this popular form; by committing to the ethics and aesthetics of horror the theatre community has an opportunity to widen its audience base, to create new fans of live performance, and to examine the human condition from new and thrilling angles.

Ostensibly, horror is simple to define. It is a feeling of fear or dread, or a term defining something that inspires feelings of fear or dread. Simply put, horror is a general term for all things scary. We do not, however, use the terms “horrifying” and “scary” interchangeably in common speech.

Locking myself into a twisting roller coaster may inspire me with feelings of fear and dread, but it is not an event I would describe as “horrific.” Clearly, a more detailed analysis of horror will require a more detailed definition.

When we call something a “horror,” we are typically describing the way it makes us feel. Or, at least, the way we believe it is intended to make us feel. It is something that is supposed to draw out a sense of fear, apprehension, disgust, anxiety, or any combination of these negative emotions.

While the level of success or failure for each work of horror may be a matter of personal taste, familiarity with the genre, or innate squeamishness, it is the storyʼs intended effects that are most important to its classification.

Etymologically, the word horror is derived from the same root as “horripilation,” the bristling of the hair on the skin most commonly referred to as goosebumps. The Latin word horrere means to stand erect, shiver, or bristle with fear.

From these origins, it seems clear that horror is a word related to a physiological response. In addition to the emotional component to horror, it contains a strong connection to bodily behaviour.

An effective horror will make you shiver, cover your eyes, shrink back, stand erect, or jump out of your seat. Horror inspires dramatic, and often involuntary, physical responses.

As it applies to works of art, the term “horror” is distinguishable from the way we utilize the word in everyday colloquial speech. For instance, when one says, “I am horrified at the thought of genocide,” this horror is not identical to the feelings aroused when one thinks about zombies or vampires.

In perhaps the most influential and comprehensive study of the horror genre, ‘The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart’, philosopher Noël Carroll distinguishes between “natural horror” and what he terms “art-horror.”

While natural horrors occur in the real world, apart from any contrived artistic setting, “art-horror” is a particular emotional and physical response evoked by horror fictions. The current discussion will refer to horror as something similar to Carrollʼs art-horror. This horror is an emotion produced by works of fiction; it is not the same horror as one feels after, say, hearing about a large-scale natural disaster.

In addition to excising natural horrors from the current discussion, it is necessary to draw a distinction between moments of horror and horror as a genre. Moments of horror can and do occur frequently in plays, movies, and novels, even when the work itself falls outside the horror genre.

These moments are brief, contained scenes intended to startle, nauseate, terrify, or otherwise disturb viewers and readers. An example might be when Woltz discovers his prized horseʼs severed head within his bed sheets in ‘The Godfather’ or when Cornwall digs out Gloucesterʼs eyes in ‘King Lear’.

These horrific moments may be useful examples for the study of horror technique (as well as gripping bits of entertainment), however, in this article, I will be primarily referring to horror as a term for categorizing entire artworks. I will be considering horror as a label that distinguishes certain novels, plays, and films from other genres, such as comedies, tragedies, westerns and the like.

What then is it that fits something into the horror genre? How do audiences recognize that they are watching a horror film or reading a horror novel? Of course, some works, primarily films, are explicitly advertised as horror and are marketed toward viewers that already identify as horror fans.

In the theatre, however, contemporary plays are very rarely advertised and sold as “horror plays.” They are nearly never marketed toward the same horror fans, even though, as Brigid Cherry points out, “fans of horror film are likely to consume it in […] other media” (Cherry, 13). What are the common characteristics that horror fans seek out across forms of entertainment?

By reviewing the components of horror as it exists in film, literature, and other art, we can begin to find a definition of horror as is describes the artistic genre.

These defining characteristics would presumably also define a horror theatre. Certainly, there are no incontrovertible rules about how to categorize artworks into particular genres.

As Mark Jancovich has shown, films like Silence of the Lambs can be described by one viewer as drama, but another will call it a horror, and yet another a thriller (Jancovich 2002). Genre definitions are often malleable and even a single film or novel can be marketed under more than one generic label in order to appeal to various audiences or to account for generic ambiguity.

In her book, concisely titled ‘Horror’, Brigid Cherry dedicates significant space to the problems that horror presents to genre theorists.

Genre classification becomes increasingly complicated when one considers the multitude of sub-genres of horror, such as slashers, torture porn, comedy-horror, or supernatural horror.

Despite the inherent complexities of generic classification, there are a handful of recognizable characteristics of horror that can be outlined here. While this list is in no way definitive, or even universally agreed upon, it will give us a starting place for identifying what horror theatre is, or may be.

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