The Garden of Ghastly Delights

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Weird, Weird World: EPIC.

Hollywood has created its share of gore fests—from Friday the 13th (1980), to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), to Scream (1996). But all bloody, creepy slasher movies owe a large debt to the shock-theater pioneers in France, courtesy of turn-of-the-century Parisians who got their horror up close and personal at the Grand Guignol.

ON SACRED GROUND

The Théâtre du Grand Guignol (pronounced with a hard G, like gross) was a small 280-seat theater founded in 1897 on the slopes of Montmartre in Paris. Over a century later, the Grand Guignol still means one thing: blood. And lots of it. Movie critics today still use the term “Grand Guignol” to describe a sort of over-the-top kind of blood and gore—with good reason. Eye gougings, stabbings, flayings, impalements—all were “performed” in front of a live audience.

The theater was located in a small building that was originally a convent, a setting that lent itself surprisingly well to the sinister. The seats looked like pews, and two leering wooden angels hung over the stage. The stage, only 20 by 20 feet, was so close to the front row, one critic joked that the audience could shake hands with the actors without leaving their seats. With the addition of dim red lighting and the abundance of shadows, the theater oozed the macabre even before the curtains opened.

THE PUPPET MASTER

Oscar Méténier, a former police secretary, founded the Grand Guignol in April 1897. Named after a popular children’s puppet, the Grand Guignol was meant to be a big puppet show for the adult set. It would use live actors instead of puppets and specialize in one-act plays that showed slices of life from the Parisian underworld. Eventually, Méténier left the Grand Guignol and handed it over to Max Maurey, who continued the one-act plays. But he turned slice-of-life drama into what one critic called “slice of death.” In 1901 Maurey discovered the Grand Guignol’s signature playwright, André de Lorde, the man who would earn the title “Prince of Terror” because of his gruesome plays. The son of a physician, Lorde spent his childhood listening to the screams of patients in his father’s office. Result: a lifelong fascination with pain and death. He turned that fascination into more than 100 terrifying plays that were performed at the Grand Guignol.

NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART

Maurey, Lorde, and the cast judged the success of each production by the number of audience members who fainted—an average of two per evening. One popular play featured a young girl imprisoned in a madhouse with three old women who gouged her eyes out with a knitting needle. Horrified at what they had done, the crones turned on one of their own and seared off her face with a hot plate. Another play set a record with 15 faintings. Interestingly, it was mostly men that fainted, probably because they didn’t look away at the worst parts.

As a publicity stunt, Maurey hired a physician to be present at all performances, although some accounts say that one doctor was not enough. A Guignoler, attempting to revive his fainting wife, called for the doctor. From the lobby Maurey replied that the doctor had just fainted as well!

A THOUSAND DEATHS TO DIE FOR

An actress at the Grand Guignol named Paula Maxa went by the nickname the “High Priestess of the Temple of Horror.” She kept a diary of her career that catalogued her 10,000 stage deaths in 60 different macabre fashions—including getting scalped, strangled, disemboweled, guillotined, hung, burned alive, devoured by a puma, and cut up into 93 pieces and glued back together .

Paula Maxa dies for the 6,736th time. 1921.

RECIPE FOR DISASTER

The stage tricks that made the Grand Guignol the most realistic horror in town were closely guarded secrets—some were even patented. This was probably more to disguise the simplicity of the tricks than to keep other theaters from stealing them. The cornerstone was 10 different recipes for fake blood, each congealing at a different rate for different types of spurting and oozing wounds. The stage managers even used local butchers and taxidermists as sources of animal eyeballs. Why? They bounced best when they hit the stage.

The theater hit its peak in popularity after 1915, which some historians attribute to the Guignol’s filling a gap left when public executions were discontinued. Society women in particular flocked to the Grand Guignol in the 1920s and 1930s to scream and swoon into the arms of their male companions—or just the stranger in the next seat over. Audiences often included royalty, among them the king of Greece, Princess Wilhemina of Holland, and the sultan of Morocco’s children.



A SLOW DEATH

But after the real-life horrors of World War II, the Grand Guignol fell out of favor and never regained its former popularity. By the 1950s, audiences went to new horror movies (that stole some of their tricks straight from the Grand Guignol), and only curious tourists and college students frequented the theater. The Guignol tried in vain to generate new interest through publicity stunts (like staging the kidnapping of their own scantily clad leading ladies), but it was no use; the crowds didn’t come. But the Guignol did go out with a scream. Performed by Maxa, it was so long and loud, that it permanently damaged her vocal chords. The little theater of horrors finally closed its doors forever in November 1962.

THE SILVER SCREEN RUNS RED

Though the little theater on the slopes of Montmartre is long gone, its aesthetic lives on. A number of cheap horror films have been set in a Grand Guignol–style theater like Mad Love (1935) and Theatre of Death (1966). Vincent Price’s classic Theatre of Blood (1973) uses the Grand Guignol as its template. The blockbuster Interview with the Vampire (1994) even set a scene of frenzied vampire feeding on the Grand Guignol’s stage.

Even more numerous are the films that owe their gore to the Grand Guignol. Though it’s unlikely that directors Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), John Carpenter (Halloween), Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill), or Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead) ever saw the Grand Guignol in its waning days, film critics and historians alike have compared the over-the-top bloodbaths in their movies to the bloodbaths that took place at the Parisian theater.

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The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Weird, Weird World: EPIC.

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