Jakop Ahlbom has created a monster. The Swedish theatre director grew up watching horror movies and was, he confesses, “a bit addicted to being scared – but in a safe way, in a cinema or a sitting room”. Two years ago, at the helm of an acclaimed physical theatre company in Amsterdam, he returned to horror “to see if it was possible to recreate that same feeling in live theatre”.
ghost stories, slashers, a touch of zombie, a little gothic, some hellraising, some “splatstick”
He devised a plot about a woman tormented by her family history, came up with a set of characters and mapped out a timeline (“to determine in what order they are going to die”). But Ahlbom’s mad-genius masterstroke was to stitch his creation together from all manner of subgenres – ghost stories, slashers, a touch of zombie, a little gothic, some hellraising, some “splatstick”. Then he let this monster mashup lumber into life to terrorise and thrill its audience.
The production, Horror, premiered in Holland in 2014 and returns next month to London. When I meet Ahlbom on his flying visit to the UK, he is softly spoken but beneath the surface of reserve there lurks a fascination with the grotesque and bizarre, as well as some endearing fanboy enthusiasms. He is a self-taught magician and relished the challenge of incorporating levitations, vanishings, apparitions and dislocations into his show. Some are classic illusions performed in time-honoured manner; others he adapted or invented. The gasps they elicit from audiences delight him.
Good horror, Ahlbom says, is “a surrealistic way of visualising thoughts or feelings. It has to have a basis in experience or emotion.” One theme he often encountered while binge-watching scary films was of horror as a response to some kind of trauma. In one of those movies, Oculus (2013), the narrative seamlessly merges scenes from a childhood past with an adult present. Ahlbom found that with clever lighting and scene-setting, he could theatrically recreate these cinematic devices of transition, flashback and superimposition – and dramatise horror’s typical emotional wringer of suspense, duplicity and revelation.
Audiences intuitively understand many of horror’s recurrent themes: the living haunted by the dead, normality as a mask, the perils of puberty and the terrors of transformation.
Horror-movie fans will have a ball spotting the many film references. But it’s a sign of how deeply the genre reaches into our culture – and how primal its touchpoints are – that general audiences also recognise these images, even if they can’t place them. Some scenes Ahlbom quotes have become iconic (The Exorcist’s head-spin and spider-walk, The Shining’s deranged door-chopping, the moment from Ring when the ghost is no longer in the machine). Audiences intuitively understand many of horror’s favoured subjects – the old, dark house, the newlyweds in the woods, the evil hand, the final girl – and its recurrent themes: the living haunted by the dead, normality as a mask, the perils of puberty and the terrors of transformation.
Ahlbom was very conscious of the differences between cliche, parody and homage. “I do use cliches,” he says, “because they can bring a lot to a story, very quickly. Used well, they can be very effective. But I was clear that I didn’t want to do parody. Yes, sometimes I want people to laugh. But not at the horror. Because of it.”
What gothic scholar Devendra Varma called “awful apprehension” and “sickening realisation” (or what I call “eek!” and “aargh!”)
As in many films, much of the horror happens in the soundtrack – a manipulative mix of nerve-shredding crashes, eerie echoes, creepy music-box chimes and a wicked appropriation of the Osmonds’ 1972 hit Crazy Horses. It also happens in the lighting, with its ominous blackouts, ghostly blooms and sudden reveals, and in the fiendishly clever set, designed by Ahlbom, that divides the stage into areas that can morph from ordinary room to nightmarish dreamscape, or switch between lived, remembered and fantasised scenes. It’s there, too, in the highly physical performers, a mix of dancers and actors who embody our visceral responses to horror – fight, flight, freeze – and act out its characteristic seesaw between what gothic scholar Devendra Varma called “awful apprehension” and “sickening realisation” (or what I call “eek!” and “aargh!”).
“It’s like a house of cards: if one thing goes wrong, it all falls apart,” says Ahlbom, a note of anxiety in his voice. I reassure him that I’d been spooked enough to suspect some malign tricks with the theatre’s air-conditioning (in fact, the chill on my neck turned out to be all my own).
Ahlbom’s achievement is not just about sensation and psychodrama, but about the relation between screen and stage. Early films had absorbed horror readily (and completely) from theatre: the stage illusions of 19th-century phantasmagoria were quickly surpassed by even the earliest silent movies, and the lurid body-shocks of Grand Guignol theatre were displaced by the advent of colour film. Ahlbom’s Horror is the first time I’ve seen that process convincingly reversed: screen horror transposed on to the stage. I think it’s no accident that his means are visual, aural and physical. In other words, non-verbal – just like silent cinema.
Ahlbom stares at me as if I’ve touched a nerve. It turns out that several potential theatre programmers have asked him to put dialogue into the piece, to make it less “arty” and more commercial. You mean, I say, they want a talkie? What are they so scared of? The show works not in spite of its wordlessness, but because of it. In the end, you can see horror, you can hear it and feel it, but if you ask what it actually is, the short answer is: unspeakable.
Horror is at the Peacock theatre, London, from 23 May to 10 June. Box office: 020-7863 8000.