Horror is not a Hollywood invention. The plays of the ancient Greeks were often sagas of madness and murder, with bloody curses spanning generations. Aristotle wrote that these great tragedies create catharsis in the audience. We purge ourselves of the pain and terror of our lives, because we pity these characters who confront our own deepest fears.
And if you'd rather put aside that façade of high culture, there's always the adrenaline rush of the forbidden.
"There are some tongues that get ripped out," says Charlie Smith, a local producer, and scenic and costume designer. "We burn some faces on hot plates, I think there are some throats slit, and a couple of eyes are gouged out."
Smith is one of the producers putting on the new play, Grand Guignol (October 30 - November 3, Z Space, SF). It's a kind of horror parody about the original Parisian theater that thrived from 1897 until 1962. The theater featured stories of madness and mayhem so graphic that audience members, usually men, often fainted. Smith hopes this new play about the theatre company, "will be funny and traumatic."
A more faithful recreation of the Grand Guignol comes from Thrillpeddlers, which specializes in drag theatre and horror. The company is now performing a fresh translation, on a fog-filled stage, of the play Jack the Ripper, co-authored by one of the original Grand Guignol's artistic directors Andre de Lorde and last performed in 1934.
I asked Russell Blackwood, the producing artistic director for Thrillpeddlers, what he thinks audiences love about such gruesome tales. "Personally I'm very timid about these things," Blackwood says, "I'm even needle phobic."
Blackwood does seems a mild-mannered sort of fellow, though he buys his stage blood by the gallon at this time of year. And his Jack the Ripper features not just stabbings, but a disemboweling on the stage.
"Part of it is seeing these types of things that may seem horrific to us in real life, enacted on the stage." Blackwood says, "[It] becomes almost an Aristotelian sacrament, of breaking taboo and spilling blood."
Sexual taboos as well. Thrillpeddlers' 14th annual "Shocktoberfest" (September 26 - November 23, Hypnodrome, SF) teams the one-act about Jack with a Victorian spanking drama, and with a new play about San Francisco serial killer Theodore Durant, hanged at San Quentin, though he always pledged his innocence.
Women are often the victims in these tales that draw on the fetishes of male writers. But the heroines sometimes surprise their oppressors in the gothic horror of the opera stage. Eileen Meredith is among the singers for West Edge Opera, singing a program of spooky arias on Saturday (Something Wicked..., Saturday, October 26, Piedmont Center for the Arts, Piedmont), including "Regnava nel Silencio" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.
"Lucia is telling a story about a ghost that lives under a fountain. And then she says how she's seen that ghost, and the water in the fountain turns to blood, and it's pretty scary." Lucia seems like a frail girl, but -- spoiler alert -- the opera ends with her getting a kind of revenge on the men who've ruined her life. Covered in blood, she stabs to death the husband she's been forced to marry over the man she loves.
Meanwhile, San Francisco Opera is staging The Flying Dutchman, Wagner's take on the ancient mariner's tale of a ghost captain doomed to sail the seas forever. That opera ends with the ghost freed from his curse by a good woman, who (spoiler alert again), has to throw herself into the sea to prove her undying love. There's a performance Halloween night, and the opera is encouraging audience members to come in costume.
No one put women in peril, or built tension better than the team of film director Alfred Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann. The San Francisco Symphony is presenting a series of Hitchcock films next week (October 30 - November 2, Davies Symphony Hall, SF), with the score played live by the orchestra. Among them, Psycho, Hitchcock's one real horror flick, with its terrifying shower scene.
"You know what really makes that music work, is the fact that there's no music leading up to [the scene]." Herrmann biographer Steven Smith lectures next week at the symphony. "There's silence, there's silence, there's silence, and then suddenly, there's this harsh terrifying, loud piercing sound on the soundtrack. The music is saying 'Boo' at that moment. And movie-goers in the sixties jumped out of their seats at that moment and they've been doing so ever since."
If you can uncover your eyes at these shows, and when your heart stops racing, keep in mind what Aristotle said about our need for these horrifying stories. He said theatrical tragedy helps us keep our sanity in real life, because we learn we can overcome our terror, that we can face our fears and act in spite of them.