The terrifying legacy of The Grand-Guignol

Richard J Hand and Michael Wilson

Learn all about the infamous Parisian theatre that inspired modern horror...  

Hidden amongst the decadence and sleaze of the Parisian district of Pigalle with its roughnecks and whores, in the shadows of a quiet, cobbled alleyway, stands a little theatre.

The spectators take up their seats in the auditorium eager for the show to begin, if only to escape the eerie mood of their surroundings. At last the curtain rises… But this is no ordinary theatre, this is the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol: A prostitute is trapped in a bedroom with a psychopathic killer… A doctor replaces medicine with poison and injects his unsuspecting patient… A man embraces his daughter before blowing out her brains … Another father strangles his son to death… A woman’s face smokes and melts as it is covered in vitriol… A man amputates his own hand with an axe… A woman is skinned alive while another watches in sexual ecstasy… Members of the audience begin to lose consciousness while a desperate house doctor attempts to revive them… Our innocent spectators feel light-headed, morally outraged and yet guiltily stimulated as they stagger out of the theatre to join other people vomiting in the alleyway to the sounds of violent sex emanating from the darkest corners of the street…


A 1937 scene from Grand Guignol. Image via wikipedia.org 

Such is the sensationalistic myth of the Grand-Guignol—Paris’s (in)famous “Theatre of Horror”—an extreme and unique mixture of the horrific and the erotic, of the graphic and the morally dubious, of sang, sperme et suer (blood, sperm and sweat). Although an examination of the facts proves the Grand-Guignol to be less colourful than its reputation, the legend has a basis in truth: all the horrific stage episodes outlined above—and more besides—occur in some of this unique and now long-lost theatre’s extraordinary repertoire.

Although known as the “Theatre of Horror”, there was nothing supernatural in the theatre’s terrifying plays. The Grand-Guignol shocked its audience with brutal reality and to this end drew its inspiration from, among other things, the fait divers of the Parisian popular press. These were short items of news (usually involving violent crime), gory and colourful illustrations of which often graced the front and back pages of Le Petit Journal and Le Petit Parisien. Here were documentary illustrations of vitriol attacks on former lovers and brutal murders by delinquent youths and other tales of true terror.

The Grand-Guignol’s stage effects were as real as its narratives. Much time, effort and expense was invested in creating effects that were as realistic as possible: whilst a victim may die a melodramatic death, the means by which they met that death were as naturalistic as possible. A key figure in this was Paul Ratineau.

It is Ratineau who usually receives the greatest credit for developing the repertoire of stage trickery, special effects and sleight-of-hand sequences, which made the audiences at the Rue Chaptal gasp and faint. It is testament to his technical skill and creativity that he was able to develop devices and props that were undetectable to audiences in this small and intimate theatre space. This was achieved, in part, through the ingenious use of stage lighting and shadows, and a great deal of credit must also go to the virtuosity and artistry of the actors themselves in successfully executing the special effects.

The Théâtre du Grand-Guignol closed its doors forever in 1962. But in the finest tradition of popular horror, it has never been fully destroyed. The legacy of the Grand-Guignol is alive in the widest range of contemporary horror theatre and performance and, above all, on the screen: from the 1960s onwards, many modern horror films have learnt much about ultra-realistic special effects, blood-curdling shocks and dark playfulness from that remarkable little theatre at the end of a Parisian cul de sac.

 

Extract from Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror (University of Exeter Press, 2002)

To book your spot at Richard J Hand's class on the Grand-Guignol and horror cinema, please visit miskatonicinstitute.com

Named for the fictional university in H P Lovecraft’s literary mythos, the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies is an international organisation that offers university-level history, theory and production-based masterclasses for people of all ages