Terror is one of the strongest primal reactions that any creature is born with. That feeling of utter alertness and an expectance of a immediate threat to your safety is all-consuming when presented with danger, and very rightly so. But, as a notoriously ridiculous species, when faced with such terror, we often do what we’re rather infamous for: we decidedly laugh in the face of this sensible reaction.
In fact, a vast portion of us seem to enjoy throwing a massive middle finger up at evolution and our most basic survival instincts by deliberately seeking it out. The most obvious examples of this would be things such as rollercoasters, bungee jumps and skydives; all artificial activities designed to provide that addictive rush of adrenaline craved by many. However, these things are little more than outlets that cannot provide possibly the most affecting and genuine category of fear: that of complete and immersive psychological terror.
The key to this particular type of fear lies within one simple thing: reality. In order for our brains to register something as being scary, it has to be real enough to inspire a truly genuine, instinctive reaction. For that, there is one resource that works without fail. Theatre. Thorough and contrived acting is an undeniably, uniquely human trait, and it is through this medium that we can almost trick our brains into thinking that we’re truly in danger. Seeing other people in horrific situations flips a certain primal switch in our brain, born of the desire to keep each other, but mainly oneself, safe. So-called “horror mazes”, for example, make use of this to the extreme. There’s nothing quite like trying to convince yourself that there’s not really anything to be afraid of when a bloodied, zombified little girl leaps around a corner and shrieks in your face.
During York Theatre Royal’s TakeOver Festival this October, a (rather topically) main focus has been on horror within the theatre. An all-female production of Titus Andronicus received rave reviews as Shakespeare’s “bloodiest foray into Roman society”, and The Night of the Berghast was labelled as “horrifically disconcerting”.
On reflection, it does strike a chord as being incredibly odd how these reviews are considered as praising a performance, as opposed to being negative. A real-life “bloody foray” or something that is “horrifically disconcerting” would probably be something that sane people actively avoid in their day to day lives.
As something that is being shown to an audience sitting in the comfort and safety of a theatre seat, where one can even get up, walk around and get an ice cream, it takes a very meticulous, particular kind of expression to successfully imbue that sense of genuinely deep-rooted fear into an audience. In other words, when horror is done in a theatrical environment, it needs to be done damn well, and the TakeOver festival was an undeniable success story in terms of this goal.
Successes in the genre are almost always down to the acting abilities of each cast. If a performer isn’t convincing in conveying the sense of danger and terror, an audience will ultimately fail to relate to the attempt at all. However, there can be and often are more drastic measures taken; The Night of the Berghast, for example, was a play that was performed not on a single stage, but across many sets spanning the entirety of York Brewery, with the audience surrounding each of the scenes from various positions. This tactic was chosen to rid the audience of any sense of the ‘safety’ of spectating by effectively bringing them as close as possible to immersing them within the play itself.
Ultimately, it all comes down to just that: immersion. Whether it be through the extraordinary acting abilities of people present before you on stage, or through actually being within the scene itself, it is only the medium of theatre that truly comes closest to a satisfying fulfilment of that bizarre human desire to fear. Once the doors slam shut and you’re trapped in the auditorium, for that period of time you give yourself over fully to that loss of control; it’s truly electrifying. More than any other medium, you can lose yourself in the moment and succumb for an hour or two to the prospect of danger and exhilaration. For the truest experience of that exciting danger without the rather undesirable reality of it, theatre is clearly in a class of its own.