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[Guest Interview] Talking Horror with Theatre of the Damned (Part 2/2)

2011 November 22

Tom Richards and Stewart Pringle are the co-artistic directors of Theatre of the Damned, creators of the London Horror Festival, and the co-directors and writers of The Revenge of the Grand Guignol, which is running until 27th November at London’s Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton.

Here guest blogger Lydia continues yesterday’s interview about representations of women in horror, and what it’s been like resurrecting Grand Guignol for a modern audience…

Block serif font in capitals spelling Theatre of the Damned against black - their logo. Copyright Theatre of the Damned

So, we’ve just got done talking about the rise of the ‘saw a woman in half’ phenomenon – seems like there are both political  and practical reasons why horror can fall into misogyny. Is this stuff as common as people think?

Tom: There’s tons of it. Tons and tons. We choose not to put on plays like that as they don’t interest us, but in the 1940s and 50s when the Grand Guignol was trying to compete with Hammer, they wrote pure exploitation crap. It’s true of all kinds of horror: you can tell a form is dying when it spills out pure sexualised violence. It doesn’t take much money or skill to produce, but it sells, so the lower end of the horror market is flooded with this kind of thing.

Stew: The nadir of all creative horror genres, periods of productivity, and exciting works always end with women being hacked up. Bad horror tends towards unthinking misogyny and ultraviolence.

Tom: The Friday the 13th sequels, for example, are aimed at teenage boys who want to see tits and gore. It’s not that they’re interested in sexualised violence itself, or damaging women; in fact anything emotionally realistic would probably upset or disturb them – they just want as much sex and as much violence as possible within a given time span.

Grand Guignol late period poster showing a woman in torn evening wear with a bloodied face screaming dramatically. Image from Wikipedia shared under fair use guidelines.Stew: For those cynical sequel makers, women are just a convenient vessel for both tits and blood. A lot of the women being killed are topless or have recently been topless, or are even mid-coitus. We’re seeing it again now in the torture porn genre – a term people argue with, but I think it’s completely accurate. In Hostel for example, all we’re seeing is girls chosen for their looks being chopped up.

Tom: More than that – they’re being chopped up in such a way that it’s clear it’s supposed to be a turn-on. Because the films have decent production values, it’s harder to spot. The people producing this stuff are far more competent with a camera and effects than whatever clown the studios hired to make Friday the 13th part 8. So instead of being a sequence of disjointed tat, it lovingly focuses on the bodies, on the violence, in a style that is erotic in and of itself.

Stew: What we’re refuting here, and in our theatre, is that these stereotypes are intrinsic to horror. It’s a lot more interesting than that. Horror is what occurs at the negative extremity of human experience: the points at which we don’t understand something, can’t cope with something, or are driven to actions that are well outside the boundaries of normal behaviour. That covers everything from hauntings to murder and massacres, death, and losing your mind. Anything that we are not fit to cope with can produce horror. It can go as far as Lovecraft and involve gods from beyond time, or it can be a woman killing her child. Violence can be a part of it, but it’s not necessary.

Tom: You can have extreme violence without horror. There are places the two cross over. You could have a legitimate discussion about whether, say, Rambo is a horror film, because it is undoubtedly a film that sets out to be horrific.

Stew: And then there are films which use the tropes of horror but are not horror. Shaun of the Dead is very gory, and terrible things happen, but really it’s not a horror film because it doesn’t exist to horrify.

Tom: There are a lot of horror comedies where horror provides a kind of desktop theme – the styles and shapes, but not the core. And then you have true horror comedies like Drag Me To Hell and almost all of Sam Raimi’s films: genuinely scary, genuinely unnerving and deeply funny.

Those cross-genre films are often the ones that freak me out the most – you get more involved and don’t know what to expect or what’s expected of you.

Tom: Grand Guignol scripts often work towards implicating an audience and making it disgusted with itself – it works you up so that you’re desperate for the payoff, so you want to see mayhem; you want to see everything destroyed. It reveals a lot about people and it’s fascinating, but you have to be careful not to be merely titillating – if they’re never revolted by it then they’ll never really face the facet of themselves that wanted it. When it’s successful, it exposes some fucked up inner feelings buried in the audience’s subconscious and assumptions.

Promo image for Theatre of the Damned, used with permission. In soft candlelight, two women appear to be restraining a third on a bed, though it is not clear if this is for some sort of ritual or because she is a victim.So that old helpless innocent woman trope shows what people want in gender relations?

Tom: I think that’s actually become rather dated. It was never important that she was innocent, more that she was sympathetic. Back in 1890, even 1950, that meant virginal and naïve. That was the woman men wanted to be with and male writers thought women wanted to be. But those same cynical reasons are why in more modern stuff – not just horror – female characters are becoming more sophisticated, interesting and independent. It just reflects the kind of person the majority of men want to be with.

Cynical, but it rings true. What do these tropes say about men?

Tom: Men seem to be pretty blasé about male characters in horror. They just want them to die
interestingly. Unless it’s the killer, and even then, it’s just hoping for more killing.

Stew: There are very few strong male heroes in horror. Maybe Ash, but he’s a buffoon who happens to save the day. Shaun, in Shaun of the Dead, has toughness about him, but again is buffoonish. There aren’t a lot of great male characters running around in horror as a contrast for the problems with women.

Tom: A lot of men die too, it’s just that their deaths aren’t lingered over. In horror films where there’s a long series of victims being killed off sequentially, perhaps the numbers will be split equally male/female, but the last one is almost always a young woman.

Stew: She has survived to the end because she displayed a level of ingenuity that the others – male and female – were incapable of. It harks back to the resourceful gothic heroine.

Tom: So now we have a combination of factors: women are more likely to sympathise with a resourceful, interesting woman, and men are more likely to feel emotional involvement and protectiveness towards a young, attractive, likeable female character. It lacks subtlety, but for a form which doesn’t focus on character development it often turns out like that.

I see an interesting link to the politics of violence, and in particular sexual violence. There’s still a deeply entrenched assumption that male victims should somehow have been able to fight off their attacker; by being defeated you have been proved not to be a proper man, whatever that means. And the shame related to that can be felt to be worse than the crime itself.

Stew: Well, the killers in cheap slasher films, after hacking up topless women, will taunt male victims about their lack of manliness. Freddie and Chucky will always make wisecracks concerning the masculinity of their male victims. They bully and humiliate them before killing them. And then Jason, who has a hockey mask, massive weapon and is all muscles: he’s kind of an ur-male; masculinity pushed to a horrific extreme.

Tom: Of course, this is in slashers, one of the lowest forms of horror; it doesn’t really go anywhere interesting with those ideas.

It’s kind of interesting that even in it’s most simplistic form, people are so addicted to these ideas – the miseryporn biography stories about horrific child abuse that my elderly female relatives are addicted to have so many of the same tropes.

Tom: I think it’s an urge that is common, if not to everyone, then to the vast majority of people, to vicariously experience the negative extremes of human possibilities. To understand somehow what that feels like. The forms in which people enjoy or find it acceptable to explore that differ, but it’s not exclusive to 16-24 year old men.

Lydia: So in fact we have ended up with several distinct things which go by the name ‘horror’. There’s the inherited tropes and structures – the kind of desktop theme that you describe horror comedies playing with, all capes and bats and fainting virgins. Then there’s the market – primarily made up of teenage boys – for unsophisticated tits and violence served up as concentrated as possible, so they sometimes end up overlapping and confused. And then, finally, we have various approaches to the exploration of the negative extremes of human experience. Since the latter plays on the audience’s deeply help assumptions and fears, in its weaker forms it can slip into mere titillation and reinforce stereotypes, but when elevated to an art from, it can shake and move you, reveal yourself to yourself.

Stew: And be fucking scary, yeah.

All images used with permission, copyright Theatre of the Damned, or under Fair Use guidelines

One Response leave one →
  1. November 22, 2011

    Thank you for this interview. I never looked at horror genres through this lens, and it’s been fascinating.

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