It’s autumn — the season of crispy leaves, trick-or-treating, and scary movies. But before you could visit Netflix and put on a variety of shows to thrill and scare you, there was theater.
One theater in specific specialized in horror and frights, and became known around the world for the shows and the posters that accompanied them.
Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, better known as the Grand Guignol, was a theater in the Pigalle district of Paris. You probably know its nearby neighbor, the Moulin Rouge. The location (20 Bis, Rue Chaptal) was once an old church.
The theater opened in 1897 and was in use until closing in 1962. During this period of time, it built up quite the reputation for its horror shows that were so grisly, horrific, and bloody, people around the world knew it as the French theater of horrors.
Being an old church, it is reported that two large angels hung above the orchestra and the boxes with iron railings looked like confessionals. These religious characteristics were a stark contrast to the common types of characters known to take the stage.
Oscar Metenier is a French playwright and novelist, as well as founder of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. He liked to bring characters on stage that weren’t represented often at the time but had important voices, like criminals and prostitutes.
According to BBC, “It began as a theatre of realism – showing short, one-act ‘slice of life’ plays about ordinary Parisians. But the show that really got audiences’ tongues wagging was an adaptation of a Maupassant short story set during the Franco-Prussian War, where a French prostitute kills a German officer.”
Frequently, the special effects of the Grand Guignol were so realistic, members of the audience were known to faint or vomit during performances. In fact, there are rumors that the success of the plays were measured by the number of patrons who fainted during its performance.
As you can imagine with all controversial creative work, this theater was subject to frequent censorship and shutdowns by police. But as violent and shocking as their performances were, so were their posters. The style was so easily recognizable, that to this day, they are easily identified as a Grand Guignol poster.
A Fun Kickstarter
I recently backed a fun Kickstarter that I wanted to share. Creators and horror fans, Mark Steensland and Destiny Keller, have paired up to re-imagine iconic horror movie posters in the style of the Grand Guignol.
In their own words:
This project asks “What if” some of the most famous horror movies of the gory 1980s (the golden era of splatter) had been productions of the Grand Guignol.
Together, Mark Steensland and Destiny Kelly have created four visions that make those “What ifs” into reality.
Each 11″ by 17″ poster is full color, printed on 80# poster paper. They will be shipped via USPS First Class, rolled in cardboard mailing tube.
Check out their original artwork and re-imaginings of Friday the 13th, Day of the Dead, The Beyond, and the Re-Animator.
A Few Fun Facts About the Grand Guignol
- Gaston Leroux, author of The Phantom of the Opera, wrote for the Grand Guignol.
- The venue had about 150 seats, reportedly with the scent of incense clinging in the air.
- One actor, Paul Ratineau, was also a stage technician. He is known as the pioneer is lo-fi special effects on stage. His specialty is stage blood that congealed under the lights.
- Joseph Conrad tried to write for the Grand Guignol, but was reportedly turned down.
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