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{Book Review} Theatricality in the Horror Film by André Loiselle

What do theater and the horror film have in common? According to André Loiselle, the similarities are abundant. In his latest book, Theatricality in the Horror Film: A Brief Study on the Dark Pleasures of Screen Artifice (Anthem Press),  Loiselle argues that horror, in its break from normality, uses several theatrical elements, including masks, a narrative disruption from reality via a monster, and interactive spectatorship, just to name a few. His book is a unique addition to horror scholarship because of its focus. Additionally, some of the chapters on realism versus spectacle and spectatorship in general should have a broader appeal to anyone interested in film studies.

Loiselle makes clear in the introduction that his premise is to show not only how horror films represent a shift from “bourgeois safety” to “mortal danger,” but how they pull from elements of the theater when marking a turn from realism. He writes, “At moments of horror, the scary movie replicates the theatricality of stylized melodrama, breaking with the naturalism or realism of narrative normality.” Before dissecting various theatrical techniques and their role in the horror film, Loiselle takes his time echoing some basic horror, theater, and film theory, often citing fundamental theorists such as André Bazin to detail how realism functions in film and how horror’s theatrics break from that pattern. Bazin’s definition of realism adheres to the idea of the “ontology” of the photographic image, or, in other words, the ability of the camera to record the real world with minimal human intervention. According to Bazin, realism in film uses long takes and deep-focus photography in service of reality. Furthermore, realism presents objects and situations in a way that mirrors how spectators perceive reality. He also references Aristotle’s theory of unities, meaning a play should have a single action, occurring within a single place within the course of a day. These references are like a crash course in a graduate level film seminar, but they’re helpful in advancing his arguments. I suspect Loiselle’s target audience will be familiar enough with some of these theories, but he does a nice job summarizing them for anyone unfamiliar.

One of the clearest and most comprehensible examples Loiselle uses is Night of the Living Dead. The film contains realist characters/subjects that are perceived as actual people juxtaposed with “theatrical figures,” as Loiselle calls them, that are artificial. The characters trapped in a small farmhouse are actual human beings, while the ghouls/zombies disrupt normality.

“The ghouls, on the other hand, with their eerily slow pace, uncannily drifting gait and blank faces made up to look like rotting cadavers, are purposefully devoid of subjectivity…From the beginning of the film, Romero signals that Night of the Living Dead will oscillate between subjects and figures, between realism and theatricality.”

André Loiselle

Loiselle’s analysis gives the reader a new way to view a film that’s already had an immense number of articles published about it over the 50 years since its release.

Loiselle’s quick to point out that even realistic films, like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, contain strong doses of theatricality because they showcase the spectacular nature of monstrous violence. More specifically in a chapter titled “Theatricality of Monstrous Villainy,” Loiselle analyzes Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who, on the surface, may not seem theatrical, but in the staging of his murders, draws attention to the artifice of violence on the screen, especially through the crucifixion scene in The Silence of the Lambs. Loiselle adds that other serial killers, including John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in Se7en and Uncle Eddie (Don Harvey) in Anamorph also theatricalize the scenes of their crimes.

Photo: New Line Cinema

Loiselle doesn’t just address the theatrically of human monsters, however. His book includes cameos by some of the most famous American slashers, including Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. More precisely, the author is interested in digging into the historical role and perception of masks, which also break with “commonplace practices of the ordinary world.” The history lesson is interesting, as Loiselle points out how the perception of masks changed over time. During medieval times, they were associated with evil and sin, and yet, even today, Loiselle notes that masks still terrify the “wretched beholder.” Not only does he reference iconic slashers, who wouldn’t be as memorable without their masks, but he mentions the slew of home invasion movies within the last decade, such as The Strangers, Hush, and Home Invasion, whose villains wear masks and are all the more theatrical and creepier for it.

Several of Loiselle’s chapters focus on how theatricality operates within the horror film, but in one of the most fascinating chapters and also the last, he details the role that spectatorship plays in the horror genre. Here, he again connects the horror film to Greek tragedies in that both provide the audience with an “experience of dread and fear” that often leads to catharsis. More so than any other genre of film, the horror film engages with the spectator who interacts with the film. He uses several examples to illustrate this point, including gendered commentary from reviewers in the 1930s that stated the pleasure of watching horror films, at least for young heterosexual couples, derived from their ability to perform stereotypical gender roles for each other. The woman would act afraid and the man would play brave for his date. Loiselle links this type of commentary to the ancient Roman poet Ovid, who mused that gladiator combat could be perfect for dating, since female spectators, terrified by the horrors of the circus, would cling to their male suitors.

In another example, Loiselle points to William Castle’s The Tingler, namely the director’s clear understanding of the role his audience plays, especially during the scene where the creature breaks loose in a movie theater and infiltrates the projection booth. When the film was released, Castle, the king of gimmicks, included vibration devices on certain seats which buzzed during certain points in the film. As Loiselle writes, “Castle realized that the spectators can play a crucial role in intensifying the viewing experiences.” Other examples he lists include Scream, specifically the spectatorship and reaction to Halloween within the film, and Paranormal Activity, namely its marketing campaign, which showed audiences shrieking in fright.

Photo: Columbia Pictures

Theatricality in the Horror Film is a welcome addition to the ever-growing field of horror scholarship. It’s unique in the connections it draws between the genre and ancient theater. Yet, its appeal is not limited to horror scholars. Anyone interested in film theory or theater in general should check out the book. Loiselle’s research and knowledge, specifically his broad historical context chapter by chapter, make for an illuminating read.