Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Ghosts and gore promised in Horror play

Horror is described as "ingeniously gruesome and strangely poetic, sinister and chilling ..."
Horror is described as "ingeniously gruesome and strangely poetic, sinister and chilling ..."

On a dark and stormy night, a young woman arrives at her abandoned childhood home and soon realises the ravages of the weather are the least of her concerns.

The derelict dwelling is occupied by the demonically possessed and if the walls of this house could talk, they would reveal the terrible secrets of her sadistic childhood ...

And so another tale of horror begins - except this one is slightly different. It's not a film but a stage show.

Simply called Horror, it promises to fans of guaranteed-to-make-you-scream movies arterial splatter and genuine jump-out-of-your-seat, pee-your-pants moments.

So how does the team take horror off the silver screen and on to the stage to create the promised spine-chilling moments? And why don't we see "horror theatre"? Besides, why do we like being scared, anyway?

Jakop Ahlbom, Horror creator and director on how it's done:
"The mind can play tricks on people; it can make things seem especially intense.

"This is theatre where you can feel the tension and the suspense."

As a boy growing up in Sweden, Ahlbom liked to watch horror movies so it's not surprising the type of theatre he now makes pays homage to film classics such as The Exorcist, The Evil Dead and The Ring. There are plenty of ghosts, gore, demons and evil thrown in for a good old-fashioned fright.

He acknowledges it's a genre not often seen in theatre but says learn the tricks used by illusionists and magicians, play with technology - nothing too fancy - and the rules of theatre and you, too, can create heart-stopping tension.

There's a goodly helping of physical theatre in Horror and several special effects the team uses are mechanical - dismembered hands crawling across the floor, wailing as they go - while others involve projection and sinister, but never cliched, sound effects.

Ahlbom acknowledges it's difficult to do in a large space like a theatre, but says create a suspenseful atmosphere and scare a handful of those in the audience and, soon, the tension will spread like a zombie-inducing plague. Pretty soon, all will be on the edge of their seats.

Will he share any more secrets? Of course not!

Dr Mishva Kavka, University of Auckland associate dean in Media and Communication Studies and editor of Gothic NZ: The Darker Side of Kiwi Culture, on why we liked to be scared:
"There are a number of theories about this but the most persistent is that horror films give us an opportunity to safely test our boundaries in a space where we feel safe. So while we want to be scared out of our seats, at the same we want to know we are in our seats."

Kavka has spent years watching horror films and reckons they hold special appeal to those of us fond of transgressing boundaries. She gives an example of the door we've been told never to open being ajar and a light flickering in the room behind it; there are some of us who will do as we've been told and happily ignore it but an equal number - maybe more - who will give into temptation and push that door open.

But to be truly successful, she says a horror film - or play - can't be so real that we become so consumed and lose track of the fact we're in the safety of a cinema or theatre. It has to be real enough, though, that we can imagine ourselves in the same settings as the characters working out what we would do.

While Horror may sound like a new concept, it turns out that everything old is new again. Kavka says in the 19th century, the horror genre was one of the most popular in live theatre with the likes of Dracula author Bram Stoker earning a crust as a theatre producer.

"The impetus for the story came from his involvement with theatre. Why did it die out in the theatre? These shows were replaced by film where you could do the 'spooky stuff' better; it's a genre that really lends itself to film."

Shane Bosher, theatre director and producer of Spirit House on why horror is so difficult to do in live theatre:
"The tricky thing is that our knowledge of the genre has been built through cinema where you can better control what the audience sees."

During the years, notably when he was artistic director of Silo Theatre, Bosher has directed all kinds of plays but never a horror.

"Our relationship to sound and moving image has certainly changed theatrical vocabulary; you can more effectively shift an audience's focus using sound and that can now operate with more layers or be used directionally to change our perspective but it's still very time-consuming to get all the components needed to create an effective horror working together.

"Theatre has been far more successful with things that lampoon horror, like The Mystery of Irma Vep."

As producer of the spectral Spirit House, how has the team behind that production done it? Bosher says Theatre Stampede and Nightsong Productions, the companies who created Spirit House, have worked with special effects company Main Reactor for many years.

That relationship means they're good at discussing and devising effects that will work and returning to the drawing board when they're not.

"It's been about establishing a relationship as much as anything."

Would Bosher ever direct a horror?

"I'd do it as a challenge but it's not something I'm automatically drawn to. I am more inclined to go for horror which plays with our fears of the unknown. I like Alien but that's not a horror film per se; I've thought about doing Dracula but that's because of the dark romance of it."

Julia Tukiri, managing director of the Spookers' Haunted Attraction on when you get horror right:
"I'm not actually into horror movies, I like suspense ones rather than the gory ones and my husband, well, he gets really scared!"

It's a strange admission from the woman whose family founded New Zealand's only haunted attraction theme park at the disused psychiatric hospital Kingseat 12 years ago. Then again, a regular visitor to haunted attractions around the world, maybe Tukiri has, more or less, seen it all.

Like Kavka, she believes we like to explore and test boundaries, feel adrenalin coursing through our veins and enjoy a collective fright.

"There's something enjoyable about movies that make you scream one minute and then crack up the next and it's always funny to see your mates get scared and pretend they weren't really."

Spookers attracts visitors from all over the world, more than one million since it opened.

Tukiri says the secret to its success is using skilled actors and getting visitors to move through a series of rooms and corridors, never knowing what's coming next. Even the actors change "stations" on a regular basis so their performances don't become stale.

On top of that, there are "tactile and sound effects intended to scare the yell out of you".

"I'm really interested to see how the Horror team does it with an audience who don't move around the theatre."

What: Auckland Arts Festival - Horror
Where and when: Civic Theatre, March 21-26
What: Spirit House
Where and when: Herald Theatre, until March 5
What: Spookers
Where and when: See spookers.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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