For the first time in its history, Goodman Theatre dips a toe into the crimson waters of horror this fall with playwright Charise Castro Smith’s Feathers and Teeth. The play focuses on a family whose matriarch recently succumbed to cancer, but rather than taking the form of a taut emotional drama, Feathers and Teeth plumbs its emotional depths through a mysterious combination of humor and horror. In the play, the family home is invaded by someone or something that, like the family’s grief, threatens to eat them alive.
“There are people who think horror is too morbid,” says Scott T. Barsotti, a Chicago-based playwright known for curdling the blood of audiences with his eerie work, “but to me, closing yourself off to entire realms of the emotional spectrum is far more morbid than any ghost story.” Barsotti’s plays have been produced most frequently at WildClaw Theatre, a seven-year-old venture whose tagline boldly declares “storytelling is in our blood.” The company was formed by Charley Sherman to fill a void in Chicago’s robust theater scene: few theaters regularly produce horror plays. Barsotti, however, is convinced horror works are on the rise. “Playwrights are getting more and more comfortable straying away from traditional ideas of comedy and drama and experimenting with genre—not just horror but science fiction and fantasy as well.”
“There are people who think horror is too morbid, but to me, closing yourself off to entire realms of the emotional spectrum is far more morbid than any ghost story.”
Entries in the horror genre are much more common in literature and film, with rare sightings on stage. Horror traces its origins from folklore, religious traditions and cultures across the world focused on death and the possibility of an afterlife. Demons, werewolves, witches and other supernatural creatures made frequent appearances, giving forms and names to the deep-seated fears that lurk within us all. Western literature and theater are dotted with elements of horror, from the sword-wielding demons in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, to the ghost of Lord Banquo in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to the gigantic helmet that falls from the sky and crushes a character in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otrano. Horror however didn’t become a truly defined genre until the 19th century when writers like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe began penning stories and novels with chilling narratives involving elements like the reanimation of corpses or a heart that beats long after its owner has expired.
Even while horror literature grew in popularity, few theater artists embraced it fully. One notable exception was Max Maurey, who served as the artistic director of Paris’ Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol from 1898 to 1914. Under his leadership the theater earned a reputation for presenting horror plays that featured bleak worldviews and copious special effects. In many cases, Grand-Guignol playwrights created characters who suffered from insanity or underwent hypnosis; these altered mental states allowed them to commit unsavory acts, including torture and graphic murders. Evil characters in plays were traditionally punished or brought to justice in the end, but Grand-Guignol criminals were rarely taken to task; this invoked a frighteningly chaotic world for the audience. In one such play, André de Lorde’s Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations, a surgeon discovers his wife’s paramour on his operating table and renders him zombie-like in a gruesome brain surgery; when the patient awakes in a crazed state, he drives a nail through the doctor’s head. In another de Lorde play, L’Horrible Passion, a nanny strangles her young charges. De Lorde’s interest in such horrible acts was rooted in a burgeoning understanding of mental health, and he often collaborated with Alfred Binet, a psychologist best known for developing IQ tests. Patrons of Grand-Guignol likely saw little science in de Lorde’s work, however, and Maurey took pride in the number of audience members who fainted during performances—the average was two each night.
The Grand-Guignol closed its doors in 1962 after suffering a decline in audiences since the 1940s. The theater’s leaders chalked up its demise to the Holocaust. “Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible,” said its final director, Charles Nonon. “Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.” Yet, whatever toll the Holocaust might have taken, horror found an audience in the late 20th century on film. Inspired both by literature and ever-improving special effect techniques, filmmakers dominated the horror genre, addressing topics ranging from nature gone awry (Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds), to physical manifestation of the devil (Roman Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby), to cannibalism (Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). As a literary genre, horror held strong, with Stephen King selling 350 million (and counting) copies of his books.
Why, then, has such a prevalent genre enjoyed lesser popularity on stage? Barsotti offers his theory: “We see more horror in literature and film because horror is a genre primarily concerned with the imagination, and that makes it inherently more cerebral, introspective and reactive. Inner monologue and anxiety are much easier to depict in prose or through film editing than on stage, and of course visual effects can help a lot of the storytelling in cinema. That can be harder to pull off live.” Still, he is quick to point out, “Theater has a way of sucking us in, while film keeps us at a distance and reading happens at our own pace—we can put a book down if we start to get too creeped out. Nothing beats the empathic experience an audience has with live actors.”