Horror plays are quite different from film in how they deliver their terrifying thrills. Here are five of the best sure to impress.
Some horror fans may not bat an eye at a scary film but will become chilled by a haunting play like Macbeth or the famous Sleep No More (an immersive Macbeth adaptation). They will scream when they see the lights flickering or when the wind blows against the curtains slightly.
In a movie, you’re separated from the action by a screen, which provides a secure barrier and often keeps the horror from feeling terrifyingly real. But a play, like a haunted house, is a much more enveloping experience.
Gifted performers of the stage can get you to suspend your disbelief in a more profound way that is often experienced through film.
Even the oldest plays, such as Gas Light (1938), can send shivers down. your spine. Many of the most iconic plays, such as the aforementioned Gas Light, are often adapted into stellar works of film (see Gaslight 1940 and 1944). Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s Four Great Tragedies, was recently adapted by Joel Coen in the Academy Award-nominated film The Tragedy of Macbeth (which also garnered an Oscar nod for Denzel Washington in the titular role).
Before even getting to the stage, on the page itself, these stories come alive and take hold of our hearts and imagination.
For students of literature or drama, there’s a good chance you’ll study one or more of these plays from talented modern playwrights as well as timeless classics like Hamlet and Othello. If you find yourself needing to write about these classics of literature and theater, the free writing samples and essay topics on “Othello” on EduZaurus will jump-start your paper writing process with fresh ideas.
But studying classic and modern plays isn’t something reserved for the academic world. There’s a treasure trove of thrilling tales waiting to be discovered by genre fans who crave something different — and something that may challenge and disturb you in a way many films do not.
These five frightening stories of old and new are among the most memorable of the page, stage, and screen.
1. The Pillowman (Martin McDonagh)
The worst thing imaginable for many people, especially parents, is the idea of kids falling into danger and suffering. One’s heart could easily come to a stop seeing realistic scenes of kids being tortured. This nightmarish hellscape is what British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh puts audiences through in his 2o03 horror play The Pillowman.
The play revolves around a writer named Katurian, who is fond of writing scary stories about people who love torturing kids. His characters torture, murder, and take children through the worst, most unimaginable experiences of their young lives.
His book becomes a best seller. But, at the height of its popularity, scary things begin to happen to kids. Unfortunately, these real-life crimes closely resemble every sentence in Katurian’s torture descriptions contained within his fictional work. The police begin their investigations to find out if Katurian is responsible, and the truths they uncover are horrible and disheartening.
The Pillowman stemmed in part from McDonagh’s experience composing fairy tales and his realization that “there’s something dark about them that doesn’t quite come through.”
WHERE TO READ/WATCH THE PLAY:
Watch the trailer for the stage performance here. Click here to watch the full stage performance of the play by the Leftfield Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark. Watch a horror short from 2015 inspired by the play here. Finally, click here to read a PDF of the play for free.
2. Othello (William Shakespeare)
Despite being written all the way back in 1603, William Shakespeare’s tragic tale of Othello is still haunting to this day.
In the story, an African general joins the Venetian army hoping to give his family a better life. He leaves his wife behind to take care of the family while he is away. But he is tricked by a rival into belief that his wife was involved in an adulterous relationship, and he develops sexual jealousy against her. This leads to tragic consequences.
Othello, the Moor of Venice is based on the Italian short story ‘Un Capitano Moro’ (‘A Moorish Captain’) by Cinthio, a disciple of Boccaccio, first published in 1565. It’s a story that pioneered exploration into racial prejudices.
Because of its varied themes of racism, love, jealousy, and betrayal, Othello is widely felt to remain relevant even in the present time. The play has also been the basis for numerous operatic, film, and literary adaptations.
WHERE TO READ/WATCH THE PLAY:
Click here to listen to an audio clip from the 1959 Royal Shakespeare Company performance with African-American actor Paul Robeson (1898-1976) playing Othello. Robeson was the first black actor since 1860 to perform the role in a major production. There have been many film adaptations of the classic Shakespearean tragedy. The 1995 version starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello is streaming now on Hoopla, or available to rent from most VOD platforms. You can also find the 1981 version from the BBC on Hoopla (or rent it on Amazon), starring the great Anthony Hopkins (a casting choice that caused controversy due to Hopkins’ race). You can read the full play here.
3. Blasted (Sarah Kane)
One of the most notorious and terrifying theatrical plays around is Sarah Kane’s Blasted. Initially ‘blasted’ by critics due to its controversial and shocking content, many have subsequently reassessed the merits of the play — especially following Kane’s tragic suicide in 2009. It was listed in The Independent as one of the 40 best plays ever.
A middle-aged tabloid journalist is working on assignment in Leeds. He’s a despicable character, exhibiting qualities of misogyny, racism, and homophobia. In the evening, he convinces a woman named Cate to join him in his expensive hotel room for the night. Cate is much younger and seems to be emotionally unstable. The next morning, Ian faces a barrage of unspeakable horror, which culminates in a deeply unsettling finale.
The play involves brutal violence, dark poetry, and absurd language. Every unfolding event brings surprise and horror. There is bloodshed, rape, death, torture, and just about anything else you’d expect from a visceral horror story.
Blasted made its world premiere in London in 1995, a premiere that prompted headlines labeling the play a “disgusting feast of filth”. But it’s actually quite effective, extremely well-crafted, and a must for fans of extreme horror content.
WHERE TO READ/WATCH THE PLAY:
4. The Crucible (Arthur Miller)
This play is terrifying because the events it portrays are based on historical horror, with a story that chronicles the 1592 Salem Witch Trials. Arthur Miller wrote the story in 1953 as an allegory for another horrifying event in history, McCarthyism (when the United States government persecuted people accused of being communists). Miller was questioned by the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956 and convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to identify others present at meetings he had attended.
When the play was first performed, the reviews for it were largely hostile and Miller was unhappy with the adaptation. However, a year later, a new production of the play became a huge success, and the play has become a classic — with many regarding it as a central work in the canon of American drama.
The opening scene of this scary play starts with a group of young girls who join a black slave named Tibua for dancing in the deep forest. A local reverend finds them dancing and accuses them of witchcraft. The entire village is in an uproar demanding the blood of the young women. This is what leads to the trial of the women. The jury is seeking to please the community while at the same time seeking to save the women. Justice cannot be complete unless some of them experience painful deaths.
Miller originally called the play Those Familiar Spirits before renaming it as The Crucible. The word “crucible” is defined as a severe test or trial.
WHERE TO READ/WATCH THE PLAY:
This seminal play has been adapted many times, including in 1996 with a screenplay written by Arthur Miller himself. The cast included Paul Scofield, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Winona Ryder. This adaptation earned Miller an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, his only nomination. The Crucible is available to rent on most VOD platforms. Read The Crucible online for free.
5. The Ghost Train (Arnold Ridley)
The Ghost Train was written in 1923 and remains a satisfying thriller to date. Arnold Ridley wrote over 30 plays, but The Ghost Train was the most successful. He was inspired to write the play after becoming stranded overnight at Mangotsfield railway station.
This horror story is about a group of travelers who embark on a train journey. The travelers get stuck in a station that is hunted by ghosts and many creepy creatures.
The play ran for over a year in its original sold-out London theatrical run, and is regarded as a modern minor classic. It was a source of inspiration for many films with similar themes, including The Lady Vanishes (1938), Night Train to Munich (1940), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and Narrow Margin (1990).