In its 8th ghoulish and gory year, the London Horror Festival opens on 7 Oct at the Old Red Lion Theatre and I sat down with producer Katy Danbury to get the low down on what to expect.
First and foremost, enjoyment. The festival gives you a chance to escape from and purge yourself of the real-life horrors happening outside of the theatre.
You are united with your fellow audience members in an intimate space and together you enter an imaginary world where you can shiver, scream, laugh or spew (please don’t!) out your fears.
I like to think that the festival acts as a gateway for those who don’t often (or never) go to the theatre but want a spooky, fun Halloween experience.
Grand Guignol was popular in the early 20th Century but horror isn’t a genre that is often seen on stage these days, why do you think that is?
To be honest, it is a tricky genre to perform well. People don’t want to see the actor clumsily place the blood capsule in their mouth or accidentally expose the vomit hose or see the string that’s pulling the floating chair.
You break the illusion, you break the suspense and it all unravels quickly from there as the audience lose interest.
Sadly, I have seen large-scale productions on the West End stage get it very wrong – this can do a lot of damage to the reputation of the genre within the theatre world.
Plus there are often misconceptions about horror itself that cause it to be overlooked. Dare I say, a snobbery towards it.
People forget that Shakespeare and the Ancient Greeks had some hardcore horror tropes at the centre of their plays.
Thankfully, recent large-scale productions, such as Woman in Black, Ghost Stories and Let the Right One In have helped bring it back on top form.
Subsequently, we have seen a resurgence in theatre companies grappling with the genre, which has enabled me to extend the festival to a whole month this year.
Essentially, it’s where it all began. Before we could read or write or make films, humans told each other scary stories, perhaps to encourage belief in the supernatural, to frighten people away from breaking the rules or simply to entertain.
Horror is an extremely cathartic genre – it invokes a huge variety of feelings and emotions.
Nothing compares to seeing it all unravel right in front of you in the same space.
It’s like a religious experience: your spine tingles, a cacophony of audible gasps, groans and shrieks erupt all around as you share scares with a gathering of people both fictional and non-fictional.
Oh, there’s definitely something for everyone. It’s a good introduction to the genre.
I absolutely love a good bit of horror comedy and you will find plenty of this in the programme, from spoofs of classic British horror films like Mistress to the Midnight, to comedy panel shows Werewolf: Live and What’s the Bloody Question! (the latter featuring myself as one of the team captains (it’s very silly indeed with games, play-doh monsters and ridiculously bad film clips).
If you want to leave the theatre in pain from laughing too much then I highly recommend the completely loveable Fred Strangebone – he looks like Lurch and he’s funny as hell.
Following his previous success Freakshow, he now brings us Frankenstein … in the bin. My parents are big fans and I always travel up from Devon to see him.
Alternatively, if you’re a fan of musicals, you can see one improvised before your very eyes by critically-acclaimed The Maydays in Happily Never After, with inspiration from Tim Burton and the Brothers Grimm.
What is a good entry level production for the uninitiated?
Ooof. Tricky one. Hermetic Arts are always brilliant. Their new show April will premiere at this year’s festival and, going by their previous productions B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) and Unburied, it is going to be epic.
One thing to bear in mind is that they have a big following and always a sell-out so you need to book quick.
If you do manage to get a ticket though you will see how lovingly they (co-creators Carrie Marx – performer and Chris Lince – director) weave the genre to the stage in brilliantly smart ways.
Or if you just fancy some spooky storytelling then Blackshaw Theatre’s Scare Slam is always a fun, spine-tingling evening out.
Why are you a horror fan?
I have loved horror for as long as I can remember.
In the library as a child, I was instantly drawn to any book that had ghosts, vampires and macabre themes in the title or on the cover.
I waited eagerly until I was old enough to get a Stephen King book from the school library. I recall the thrill of catching a horror film on TV and daring my friends to watch it with me at sleepovers.
My dad would record them off the TV on to his VHS tapes – he kept a book that listed all the tapes by number and content.
He would then show me the page numbers with a jovial warning “these films are not for you to watch”. I responded by memorizing the numbers for The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hellraiser, Evil Dead II, Poltergeist, the list goes on …
I watched each and every one over and over again with utter joy and excitement as soon as I got home from school.
My mum often jokes “she was always a deranged child” – I guess I was.
But I’m proud to continue bringing together two of my greatest passions – horror and theatre – and providing a platform for future fans to simultaneously discover and fall in love with both.
Theatre serves as both a mirror of and an escape from the world.
Horror tackles the ugliness of it all head on and intensifies our reaction to it. It allows us to see humanity through an alternative lens – some people can handle it, others would rather not.
I think it’s an important lens to look through and gain some perspective.
For more details about the London Horror Festival programme at the Old Red Lion Theatre check out the official website.
Other stuff you might enjoy:
From the fringe: The Other Place, Park Theatre - finding truth in imagined memories
From the archives: Colin Morgan's stage debut in Vernon God Little