Horror theatre is a rare beast. Theatre has thrillers, of course. There are tense moments and the odd scary tale. The Woman In Black has been terrifying West End audiences for decades. Ghost Stories proved a recent goosebump-raising hit. But rarely does theatre chill the blood or leave audiences squirming in their seats in the way of a classic big-screen scream fest.
Jakop Ahlbom is challenging that. A self-professed aficionado of all things big-screen horror, he has taken everything that scare fans love about those films and brought it to the theatre, in his aptly named hit show, Horror.
The show was an immediate success when it ran as part of the London International Mime Festival in 2016. As it returns to the Peacock Theatre for a three-week season, Ahlbom tells us what inspired the show and why the genre is so alluring:
“In Horror, I tell the story of a woman who returns to her parental home with two friends. The house is haunted by a tragic family event. None of them knows what happened to the woman’s older sister. Her vengeful spirit, however, does make itself known to them.
“Gradually the past re-emerges: the cruel parents, the crushed youth. The youngest sister is brutally confronted with the hidden past. The only way to survive is to face the terrible truth.
“I had been thinking about making this show for quite some years. I’ve been fascinated with horror films since I was very young. In my early teens I consumed any horror film I could get my hands on. And I was scared of them.
“I remember me as a young boy, hidden behind the television, waiting for the moment the scary scenes were over. I was and still am gripped by the absurd fantasy, the special effects, the extreme events, the dark unknown and the adrenaline kick that horror provides.
“Horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote: ‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.’ That says a lot about who we are as human beings.
“I am fascinated by the fear of the unknown, by unsolved, hidden things. What powers and desires live inside our souls without acknowledgment? We suppress them, and therefore they get stronger than we can manage.
“In my work, I always deal with people’s strained relationship with themselves and the world around them. I am interested in how characters deal with a world that is not always what it appears to be. Secret desires can’t stay suppressed. Hidden traumas eventually can’t be denied.
“My characters cross the boundaries of the everyday life and enter, willingly or unconsciously, into a world that eludes all conventions.
“In Horror, the woman who returns to the childhood home becomes lost in a world with its own rules, its own logic and its own truth. This world seems far more powerful than she is. That confronts her with her own role when she was young. And because of this confrontation, she can finally define herself, let go of her trauma and respond to her past.
“No matter how much trouble my characters may be having in their life, they are always on the lookout for love, because I think it is their only handhold in the struggle for survival. This sense of yearning is important for me, and gives my work poeticism and some melancholy as well. Despite the often traumatic events my characters must endure, I want to offer solace and hope.
“The deeply hidden fear that I tried to bring to life in Horror is: how should someone deal with a traumatic past? Can you ignore it? Should you face up to it so you can get on with your life? And how are you, even then, dealing with your own sense of guilt?
“The horror genre plays with supernatural aspects. These surpass the boundaries between life and death, today and the past, time and space. This show gave me the opportunity to create a surreal world, and also to use the kind of special effects rarely seen in theatre.
“I challenged myself to transfer cinematic horror effects into the theatre, to amaze the audience and make them shudder with fear at the seemingly impossible events unfolding before them. But I also like horror as black humour, and its fascinatingly, terrifyingly surreal imagery.
“I had previously created cinematic editing techniques. But creating horror in the theatre, in a true, essential and substantive way, was a unique challenge.”