How British Theatre Became Obsessed with Horror

You’re sitting in the dark, watching a scary story unfold. Maybe the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Maybe you’re on the edge of your seat – and maybe it’s a slightly tired, slightly cramped red velvet chair, next to a stranger drinking an overpriced plastic glass of wine… Because these days, you’re just as likely to encounter a ghost story in a theatre as you are in a cinema or on your sofa. Horror is coming back to life on stage.

Paranormal Activity, an adaptation of the terrifying 2007 film, will soon open at Leeds Playhouse, while a version of the disturbing 2019 film Saint Maud will open at Newcastle’s Live Theatre in October. Black comedy TV series Inside No. 9 will transfer to the West End from January, while hit play Ghost Stories returns for its first UK tour.

Meanwhile, some theatre-makers are turning to classic tales: Punchdrunk’s latest play, Viola’s Room, is inspired by a 1901 Gothic short story by Barry Pain, while Room 13, at the Barn Theatre in Cirencester, offers a modern take on MR James’ ghost stories and opens in September.

This sudden influx of shows is notable because horror has often been noticeably underrepresented on British stages – there was certainly The Woman in Black , which ran in the West End for over 30 years. Ghost Stories has been haunting stages on and off since 2010, and there was a film adaptation of The Exorcist a few years back. But by and large, the genre has remained in the shadows – certainly compared to its continued dominance on screen.

So why the resuscitation now? One answer – the cynical one – is that the trend is simply due to the hope that such shows will move tickets. And this confidence is undoubtedly driven by the enormous success of one play in particular: 2:22 – A Ghost Story.

'Until recently, horror has often been noticeably underrepresented on British stages'

‘Until recently, horror has often been noticeably underrepresented on British stages’ – Helen Murray

Danny Robins’ tale of a woman convinced her house is haunted opened in the West End in 2021, breaking box office records as the biggest-selling play of all time at the Noel Coward Theatre, then the Gielgud and then on tour across the UK. It’s now licensed worldwide, while rapid stunt casting – Lily Allen, Cheryl, Stacey Dooley – has helped broaden its appeal.

“It’s a great example of taking a risk with something new and having the audience align with your tastes,” says Tristan Baker, half of Runaway Entertainment, which produces the show. Though it would be just as accurate to say he was aligning the theater with broader pop culture tastes — recognizing the success of ghost stories in movies, TV and podcasts and bringing that magic to the stage.

Baker thought audiences coming out of the pandemic might want to see a show like The Woman in Black. 2:22 was one of eight that premiered in the West End in summer 2021, but Baker’s hunch that 2:22 would resonate with younger audiences eager to return to the theatre proved correct. “We found a lot of first-time theatregoers who wanted to have a great night out, have a drink and talk about it,” he says.

No wonder producers across the country are now trying to tap into that market. But box office receipts may not be the only reason for the revival of stage horror: Richard Hand, a professor at UEA who specialises in horror studies, believes the underlying reason lies deeper: we live in a “new Gothic age”, in which we collectively turn to horror to process the awfulness of the world around us.

Viola's room is located at One Cartridge PlaceViola's room is located at One Cartridge Place

Viola’s Room is at One Cartridge Place – Julian Abrams

The pandemic was a horror movie experience in itself: the terror of a mysterious disease, a confrontation with mortality, lockdowns that felt like being trapped in a nightmare. And ever since, we’ve been bombarded with images of the most brutal conflicts imaginable.

“It’s a question of the zeitgeist,” Hand suggests, noting that interest in Gothic often flares up in times of social unrest. “When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula , there was anxiety about the approach of a new century, a paranoia about migration. Or Frankenstein and the Industrial Revolution. I can’t help but think there are parallels in the 2020s: it might reflect a kind of anxiety that we have.”

This theory also resonates with Felix Barrett, the founder of immersive theatre pioneers Punchdrunk, who is now directing Paranormal Activity. “The world is a very rocky place at the moment, there’s so much conflict and instability. I think we need these pieces to release the tension that we hold in our daily lives.”

Of course, Paranormal Activity will probably sell tickets on the strength of its name recognition. Not that it’s a faithful rehash—it’ll be “a new story in the same world,” Barrett promises, though there will still be a couple haunted by demons, both metaphorically and literally. But it was important, he says, that the audience not know what’s going to happen, to really ratchet up the nervous anticipation.

“I love making theatre dangerous,” Barrett says brightly. “That prolonged tension is really exciting.” And he believes theatre is a perfect medium for such nail-biting stuff: whether in the riveting intimacy of Punchdrunk’s latest work – Viola’s Room transports small groups into a dark fable about a reluctant bride – or in a feature-length adaptation of a film, theatre has the power to move audiences viscerally.

“The wonder of live theatre is that it has that electricity – of all the art forms, theatre is the one that gives you that crackle of tension, that it’s happening now,” he says.

Fear can also feed on itself—and so the collective experience of watching a show surrounded by other hyped-up people helps to amplify it for everyone. Theater is the “ultimate 3D form,” Hand suggests: “you’re in that shared space, that shared moment… that’s what makes it so exciting.”

So why did horror fall out of fashion on stage in the second half of the 20th century? Hand points out that the theatre has a rich history of it – from violent Greek dramas, to bloody Elizabethan revenge tragedies, to moralising ghost stories on Victorian stages, to the ultra-violent melodramas of the Grand Guignol in 20e-century Paris. The latter had a huge influence on early silent films – and it was at this point that horror seemed to migrate to the screen.

Ella Schrey-Yeats and David Threlfall in The Enfield HauntingElla Schrey-Yeats and David Threlfall in The Enfield Haunting

Ella Schrey-Yeats and David Threlfall in The Enfield Haunting – Marc Brenner

And there it largely remains. Hand suggests that theatrical snobbery against the mass popularity of horror films may have had something to do with this neglect on stage. “I think there’s something embarrassing about horror,” he muses. “It’s not an intellectual form – it’s working with your lower body, it’s ‘unsophisticated’.”

It also produces quite black and white physical reactions: the audience is either scared or not. And as a horror fest is not scary, it can be embarrassing, or even unintentionally funny. Witness The Enfield Haunting, based on a true story, which recently received a truly terrifying series of scathing reviews for being unscary, boring, and accidentally giggly. When horror goes wrong, it seems, it goes very, very wrong.

Yet it’s a risk that many theater makers—and many audiences—are increasingly willing to take. And when it works, stage horror has a unique ability to bring audiences together and provide a collective outlet: it’s scary, but it’s wonderful. As Baker puts it, “you just can’t compete with a thousand people in the same room jumping and screaming at the same time.”

2:22: A Ghost Story can be seen at the Gielgud until August 4 (; Paranormal Activity is on at Leeds Playhouse until August 3 (; Viola’s Room is at One Cartridge Place until August 18th (

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