“Harry likes to study the emotions he elicits in other people.” – Housemate’s theory on why I took a module last year on the history of British horror films.
Terror, according to my housemate’s boyfriend’s etymological dictionary – they’re a thing apparently – comes from (albeit after much deviation) the root ‘tres-,‘ which meant ‘to tremble.’ What I understood from that, is that terror is a concept inherently linked to a physical sensation. I think – though I am by no means certain – that really great theatre is linked with a physical sensation too. When whatever it is you’re watching has affected you so deeply that you can feel it in your gut. That’s certainly what I like; when it bypasses your intellect – though staying there to be unpacked later – and hits your physical self, your cells actually reacting to it. It can’t be faked.
It is surprising then that terror – or horror, which has slightly different implications – is not engaged with in the theatre more regularly, probably because terror tends to involve genre, and genre and theatre… something something never the twain shall meet.
So it was strange to see two plays engage with it in fairly quick succession. Both on over Christmas, no less. Festive.
Belleville is a play about American couple Zack and Abby, living in a trendy part of Paris due to Zack’s job. He works for Médecins Sans Frontières. Abby is an actress and a yoga teacher. She has less to do.
It essentially starts with a scream; Abby arrives home one afternoon to find Zack also home, watching porn. Considering she’s expecting him to be at work, it’s a shock. He’s embarrassed, she’s embarrassed, it’s awkward.
The whole thing is based on a terrible lie.
[terrible. (F. = L.) F. terrible. = L. terribilis, causing terror = L. terrere, to frighten.]
And slowly, we watch this relationship unravel. We see two lonely people, both with their own shit to deal with; she’s trying to get off some meds, he can’t do anything without weed because he’s too restless. When that kind of dependency rests on a lie, then it’s gonna give. It’s only a matter of time.
Audience gasps are great. I think it’s actually pretty hard to surprise an audience. But when Abby, drunk and alone, reaches for a knife and starts hacking away at her foot that we’re far away from Virginia Woolf territory. These aren’t people who spar, they don’t go on long booze-fuelled rants, throwing insults across the room at each other. They actually hurt each other. They remember that they’re flesh and blood. Malleable, even.
By the time they do talk, and Zack finally confesses that he failed medical school and his job and assistant aren’t real, the damage is long done. The psychological effect of discovering your circumstances are a complete fabrication is somehow secondary to the fact that your body is somewhere it shouldn’t be, in a state it wouldn’t have been in had that lie not existed.
Belleville’s terror is visceral and bloody, but it’s about two people, relatively a tiny relationship in a vast city on a vast planet. It’s about an entire world collapsing around them – and then how the mess is left to be dealt with by those less privileged than them. Lying, or delusion (if that’s even a distinction worth making) about your circumstances is probably a sign of high privilege, because the people that come to clear up can’t afford to have illusions. There are bills to pay.
Maybe existential terror is a luxury.
The Twilight Zone is not tiny. It’s vast and unwieldy and bits fall off and things don’t finish and things barely start and things bang into each other. It never quite gets to the end of itself. It’s messy terror. Cosmic, Lovecraftian, shtick-ier terror. With a great big streak of humour running through it. It’s sort of not about people at all.
It shows us worlds we do not inhabit and experiences we almost certainly would not want to experience ourselves – basically, it’s quintessential horror. We want to watch people go through trauma in order to assure ourselves that we are not going through them. We watch The Twilight Zone to remind ourselves that we are not actually in The Twilight Zone, no matter the shit that the Tangerine Nightmare is spewing.
It doesn’t take itself seriously. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Jokey-genre isn’t really my thing. But as the play unfurls, and as the scale of the thing, and the ludicrousness of that production makes itself clear, it expresses its sense of terror in a different way. The fact that it is so ludicrous, the fact that it seems at times utterly impenetrable, is what gives it an edge. It’s what stops it slipping into farce. When it forbids itself a centre you have to watch the peripheries instead, and the peripheries are strange.
[Strange; see Exterior.
Exterior, outward. estrange, to make strange. (F. = L.) F. extraneum, foreign, on the outside.]
Cigarettes appear from nowhere, people vanish into thin air, the idea of beauty is inversed; it’s not nonsensical, rather it may be asensical (is that a word?) for it abandons the idea of sense completely. There’s a random musical number for no discernible reason which is EXCELLENT. I don’t think it’s poking fun, certainly not in a mean-spirited way, but it is incredibly campy, but to dismiss camp is to ignore the subversiveness of camp; the way it exaggerates to avoid censorship – it’s another distraction. But a distraction from what? (Sidenote: cast Matthew Needham as the Emcee in Cabaret already.)
The only narrative that we get in anything resembling a linear narrative is The Shelter, a self-contained playlet. It’s utterly contemporary, an argument over who might get to survive a nuclear attack. Everyone’s prejudices come out, the panic igniting all the hatred and the fear underlying those relationships. It’s the one occasion the play settles, when it finds a centre, however briefly. Possibly because the centre of a play is when it’s most immediate, most present.
The Twilight Zone uses that need to look out into the strange to avoid looking at reality, and of course it has that strange, wonderful, paradoxical effect of doing the opposite. The need to ensure our own senses of self and reality provoke us into obsessing over that which is not recognisable. We all to some extent have a compulsive need to reassure our physical selves that they are not subject to the same rules of logic.
What actually scares us, and what our bodies seem to need are often so closely linked. We need, to whatever extent, to see strangeness in order to recognise that we are comparatively not strange. We need to be scared by fiction to remind ourselves that our own lives are perhaps comparatively not so scary.
Except there are people that live with a terror under their skin all the time, people for whom life is genuinely scary. What kind of a gesture does terror make to them, when perhaps the self is not as cleanly removed from the play?
Terror and its physicality suddenly feel rather different.
Photos by Marc Brenner