The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol

When Murder and Mayhem Took the Stage

Aug. 31, 2016
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The sickening splatter of Hostel or Texas Chainsaw Massacre has an ancestor. From 1890s through the 1960s, a small but notorious Paris theater called the Grand Guignol set the stage for plays shocking both thematically and visually. Blood, gore, murder, mayhem… not to mention sex, especially illicit varieties, were the little Guignol’s stock in trade.

The revised edition of Mel Gordon’s book, Theatre of Fear and Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris 1897-1962, doesn’t explore the connection between its subject and the movies, yet surely the earliest generation of horror movie stars and directors, the Lon Chaneys and Tod Brownings, were well aware of the Grand Guignol. Even compared to recent splatter flicks, the Guignol was disturbing for its depiction of mutilation live in the confined setting of a 300-seat theater. Actors were expected to “inhabit real characters with a full range of powerful and animalistic impulses” (not every movie can boast that) as they “manipulated the catches on fleshy prosthetic creations, intricate spring contraptions, and a host of blood-filled devices.”

Theatre of Fear and Horror is filled with stills from Guignol productions as well as full-color reproductions of show posters. According to Gordon, the Guignol’s audience played out “fantasies of victimization and retribution” while seeking to be “purged of pity and fear.” Except for the medium, little has changed.

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