The history of theatre is littered with ghosts and spirits. From Hamlet to ghost lights to Ancient Greeks to contemporary plays, theatre has always explored the nature of here and there, life and death, reality and unreality. They are one of the most used and accessible tropes there is.
But ghosts surround us all the time in life, too. We speak of “getting ghosted” when we don’t get a response from someone, as if they have disappeared into thin air. When we re-visit our home town after being away for months, we are haunted by ghosts: stores and buildings that have closed for an uncertain amount of time; memories of that street in the night; old songs that used to play on the radio. (There’s that scene towards the end of Before Sunrise, when the streets and locations that seemed so magical in the night suddenly look so mundane in the morning light — those too have ghosts.) Walking around New York City, you are surrounded by the ghost map of your experiences in the city, mingling with the ghosts of the city’s history. It might seem that ghosts and nostalgia are the same, but I don’t think they are: ghosts visit us, whereas nostalgia is a feeling, often unhelpful, that we get and indulge.
Of course, ghosts are also the most basic common unit of the fall classic: the scary movie.
Scary movies and scary television have had quite the renaissance in the past few years, with more “artistic” and “prestige” efforts behind them, supported by the likes of Netflix, A24, or Jordan Peele. Movies like Get Out, It Follows, The Witch, It, Hereditary, Us, A Quiet Place, or the 2019 Bong Joon-ho international hit Parasite. TV shows like Stranger Things, Twin Peaks, The Walking Dead, Black Mirror, or American Horror Story traffic in scares in different degrees as well.
The broad revelation for many of us was that ghosts and horror speak to our current climate perhaps more clearly than any other genre. In a world on the brink of collapse in many different forms, in a white supremacist country, stories that speak to both the obvious and repressed horrors of 21st century civilization feel, despite their fantastic or supernatural elements, like truth.
But while ghosts have been around theatre forever in different forms, you’re hard pressed to find truly scary theatre. Shakespeare’s bloody works, like Macbeth or Titus Andronicus, are not really “scary” by today’s standards, though certain productions can amp up the violence. The problem has a lot to do with scares being a micro form: the movie or TV director can control where we look. Theatre, however, cannot: the eye sees what it wants to see.
Earlier this year, however, I saw what I thought was perhaps the most successful scary theatre piece I’ve experienced (Lucas Hnath’s The Thin Place at the Humana Festival, which starts soon at Playwrights Horizons). And since then, I’ve experienced several pieces I would classify as horror theatre, ranging in form and success, but all speaking to something deep and true. It seems I was wrong: there is room for scary theatre, and it’s often even scarier than movies.
The Thin Place succeeded, for me, in part because of its consideration of theatre in three dimensional space. The fact that theatre exists in a room—and that there are many qualities to this room, as its lit by various lights—is such an obvious one that we sometimes forget that the most exciting theatre finds a way to sculpt energy in the space. Space is something that films cannot quite capture, in a visceral sense. Whereas at the movies we’re seeing pictures laced together, in theatre we’re not seeing pictures at all: we’re seeing bodies and words and energy in space.
Will Arbery’s explosive and terrifying Heroes of the Fourth Turning also uses space and darkness, with a prologue that forces us to strain our eyes to see what’s going on. Characters disappear into shadows, literally — it’s not a trick of the camera — and we half expect a ghost to pop out. Instead, we’re treated to sounds: the disturbing resonance of a real gunshot, and a horrifying screeching noise that a character says is from their generator.
Arbery’s work, though, is a different kind of scary: while it does use horror tropes, it’s more of an intellectual horror piece, in the literal sense. As a group of conservatives gather in Wyoming, we see incredibly specific and fully drawn out characters spit out some of the most revolting right-wing ideas New York liberals can hear. The sensation I felt was an odd mix of fear, anger and sadness I’ve never quite felt in a theatre before: like my blood was actually boiling. The scariest part, besides that these ideas are real and exist and people believe them, was how hyper-articulate and smart the characters are: they have such conviction that they are right, even as they argue and fret over the nuances and types of conservatism, quoting philosophers and literature, that you feel like your own ideas about the world are being assaulted. There’s no liberal character there to save you from these ideas, and the conservative characters aren’t cartoons. When they speak of the “war” that is coming, it’s as eerie and frightening as anything I experienced in Bong Joon-ho’s new movie Parasite. And there’s something magnetic and unnerving about plays that exist in real-time, building tension as we don’t know formally how they will unfold.
Heroes has been a bit of a polarizing show: on the one hand, it has been embraced by conservatives and catholics who finally feel “seen”, and on the other hand it’s been hailed by liberal critics as being a nightmarish horror play. Arbery is transposing his own catholic conservative upbringing to the stage in a work of incredible vulnerability — but it’s been fascinating to see how different people interpret and experience the play in wildly different ways.
In Alexis Scheer’s new play Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, ghosts and a seance are again on the table, like Hnath’s Thin Place. While I couldn’t ultimately vibe with the production completely, it does offer a thrilling ghost trick in its final twenty minutes that was surprising and exhilarating. These sorts of tricks that break our expectations of what theatre is supposed to be are always the most exciting; they are what make theatre unique — if a production is innovative enough, anything can happen. And that uneasiness and uncertainty is scary.