Can National Theatre of Scotland’s ‘Let the Right One In’ Pave the Way for Horror on the Stage?

Throughout the National Theatre of Scotland’s Let the Right One In, adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel and Tomas Alfredson‘s film, audiences are subjected to a parade of lyrically gruesome images: a man tied upside-down to a tree, his throat perfunctorily slit and drained into a bucket; another man using acid to rid himself of a face; a diminutive teenage girl in a candy-pink sweater whose mouth brims with vomit when she actually tries to eat candy, and whose face cascades with blood every time she enters a home uninvited. All of this stirs a reverent, rapt silence in the audience. This is not the type of play where spectators listlessly turn to their programs mid-show, pretending that looking up the catering credits will somehow enhance their experience.

No, such special effects, though often attempted, aren’t often performed with ease or elegance onstage, and for that reason, audiences are rigidly captivated. But despite their remarkability, none of these macabre flashes induces fear as universally as a girl merely popping out of a box. Late in the play, we see the vampire protagonist/antagonist hybrid, played by Rebecca Benson, enter a box. We see another man enter the room in which the box lurks. An immense sound claps, the lights wax blinding, and suddenly Benson has abandoned the box, and we, the audience, are physically altered: hearts palpitate, couples’ hands clasp, and deep breaths vacuum the room.

It turns out the spectacle of the breakability of the human body here carries less weight than a theatrical game of peek-a-boo, because this shocking occurrence, this moment tailored purely to startle, is so rarely attempted in theater. Unanimous, physical panic is a novel sensation for theater audiences. In Shakespeare, bloody-handed kings will see ghosts. In Sarah Kane, characters will suck out one another’s eyeballs. In Sweeney Todd, civilians’ innards are spiced, serenaded, and crushed into pies. But if theater history were broken into video-store categories, “horror” would not appear; unlike with film, there is not a genre of plays whose fundamental aim is to induce palpable dread in its audiences.

This notion seems in some ways counterintuitive: theater by definition necessitates a captive audience, so wouldn’t the promise of real-time, live horrors make the stage the ideal vessel for the genre? Let the Right One In, which runs through March 8 at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, with its provenance in and transcendence of horror tropes, sheds light both on the relative nonexistence of theatrical horror and its potential for growth into a relevant stage genre.

In his New York Times review, Ben Brantley used a flattering superlative to describe this achievement, comparing the play not to the film on which it’s based, but to another horror film entirely: “A production of the National Theater of Scotland, Right One offers the most gut-twisting presentation of the middle teens as a supernatural horror story since Brian De Palma’s movie cameras invaded the girls’ locker room in Carrie.” In resorting to film analogies to pay his compliments, Brantley underlines both the dearth of theatrical horror and this production’s potential to set precedents.

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The story, a hybrid of horror and coming-of-age love story, follows Oskar, a bullied, athletically under-performing outcast who meets a strange girl named Eli. Though she can certainly hold her own athletically, she, too is an outcast, for she’s actually not a young girl, but an old vampire, an anti-Peter Pan who couples the fragility of an awkward tween with an animalistic viciousness that surpasses anything True Blood could cook up. Eli and Oskar find solace in their mutual experiences of alienation, sweetly creating their own weird world together, but the lurking notion that death needs to occur in order for Eli to “live” haunts the future of their relationship.

And it seems to please theater aficionados and horror aficionados alike: since the announcement of the New York production (after runs in Dundee, Scotland and London), a forum called We, the Infected — housing the avid fandom of the Let the Right One In film and novel — has erupted in comments about it. Most are overwhelmingly positive, lacking the myopic territoriality of many fantasy fandoms. A great deal of the comments concern attempts to make the trek to New York — from all around the country — to see the play.

Apart from attracting this group of horror/fantasy fanatics, the play seems to have, with its venture into somewhat lesser-charted theatrical territory, helped the company with an issue that’s been plaguing theater for a century: aging and dying audiences. “When we first started playing [Let the Right One In] in Dundee, it was reported that we brought the average of their audience down by 15 to 20 years because of the subject matter,” says Laurie Sansom, artistic director of the National Theater of Scotland, a company that has also mounted such massive hits as Alan Cumming’s nearly-one-man Macbeth and Black Watch.

And yet, even its creators, who rightly shy away from classifying the play as pure “horror,” have their doubts about the plausibility of more straightforward examples of the genre thriving in a theatrical setting. “It’s funny because often [gore] is seen as something comedic onstage,” says the play’s director, John Tiffany. “Often violence and horror are seen as being in the realm of something farcical. We were very aware of the potential pitfalls of what we were doing. But at its heart, Let the Right One In is a love story, which happens to be about a vampire. So I thought that if we focus on the love story, everything else would follow.”

St. Ann’s Artistic Director Susan Feldman, who had followed the play after seeing its West End (London) production, praises Tiffany and his collaborator, Steven Hoggett, for being “very sly at taking you in and out of different worlds. And the gore is just a part of it, but it’s not the only part,” she observes. “First of all, you believe you’re in the woods, even if a couch slides on! One of the things that happens to me, every night I watch [Let the Right One In], is there’s a certain moment where I completely lose sense of time. It’s around the time [Eli] gets in her [coffin-like] box for the first time, and you realize her night is our day… When I come out of that show I don’t know what time it is, how late at night it is. To me those are the special effects of theater.”

“You kind of think, ‘Have you ever seen a horror or a sci-fi theater show that has really worked?'” wonders Sansom. “I think that theater isn’t at its best when it’s doing genre, because it’s actually the specificity of that particular world that you create that seems to resonate with audiences in the live format, so it’s brilliant at being a magpie and borrowing that idea from horror or that idea from sci-fi or that idea from rom-com, and switching it around and about.”

John Wayne Shafer, author of Taboo Theatre: Sex and Violence on Stage, devoted an entire book to theatrical extremes of violence (and sex), but admits that almost across the board, even the most brutal plays have never attempted the carnival-ride sequence of jolts that horror films typically do. Regardless of the level of barbarism displayed in these plays, audiences’ bodies were not puppeteered to armrest-clutching fearfulness, as is often the case with cinematic horror.

Shafer notes Seneca’s Thyestes as a curious example: “Two brothers have a fight and one of them ends up ritually slaying and dissecting and cooking different dishes with his children. It’s described graphically and verbally. The generally accepted belief is that these actions weren’t carried out onstage, they were delivered verbally. The idea of eating your own progeny is horrific, but it’s not in the same league as Saw.” According to (disputed) general belief, this brutality existed only in dialogic implication and was not acted out. Shafer also describes a recent production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus — based on Thyestes and known to be one of the bloodiest plays ever written — where the stage had to be hosed off every night.

Yet even in productions like this, there’s a distance between the action and the viewer. With film, Shafer explains, “The advantage of the camera is that depending on whose point of view you’re shooting from, you’ll begin to sympathize with that person more.” Because of the immoveable construct of the stage, theater establishes an irrevocable divide that film overcomes with these POV shifts. Violence often becomes a presentation, encased in the diorama of the stage. (Recent site-specific productions like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More have, for this reason, shattered the construct of the stage to attain a more physically immersive horror.)

Peter A. Davis, a theater historian and professor, elaborates on this notion, referencing mirror neurons as a biological explanation for our heightened response to filmic horror: “They’re sort of our empathy cells and they can be triggered instantly to great effect,” he says. “The reaction can be especially heightened through the use of cinema, which allows us to zoom into a painful action instantly. Or even to jump-cut to a surprising action that causes our brains to react in shock and surprise. Live stage does this to some degree, but much less effectively, since there is often too much distance on top of the acted or performed violence.”

These notions date back, it seems, to the beginnings of theatrical tradition: there’s an ongoing theater-historical debate as to whether or not the Greeks completely eschewed violence onstage, the dominant school of thought being that, yes, they did. Davis explains, “It couldn’t be accurately portrayed.” They were already “living in an age where public executions and warfare were part of most people’s lives” in Athens, so even if they’d had the theatrical special effects technologies we have today, this simulated violence would have read as particularly false. Though in 2015 we’re many millennia into theater history, and violence has been explored a great many ways onstage in the intervening centuries, it doesn’t seem farfetched to question whether the scarcity of true horror plays has something to do with the art form being rooted in a tradition of verbally graphic but visually sublimated violence.

Illustration of a Miracle Play, ca. 1200-1600 A.D.
Illustration of a Miracle Play, ca. 1200-1600 A.D.

The Romans had something of an opposite take on stage violence to the Greeks: it was neither strictly dialogical nor, as it is today, a matter of masterful artifice. Rather, they sometimes couched real-life brutality in narratives. One uncommon but real practice, explains Davis, was that “if a criminal was scheduled to be executed, he might be taken to a nearby theater and actually killed on stage as part of the action of the play.” Then, in the Middle Ages, “the argument is that the audiences were too familiar with public executions to be fooled by fakery onstage, so in the performance of miracle plays — civic performances about the lives of martyred saints — the actor about to be killed by flames, for instance, would be substituted with an effigy filled with pig skins and offal — to mimic the smell of burning flesh.”

Though Elizabethan drama broke the mold in its attempt to use actors to depict violent scenarios (like choreographed fights), these scenes likely weren’t particularly convincing: “It’s presumed that depictions of violence were suggested or mimed as best they could. But in Shakespeare, the word’s the thing, after all,” says Davis. It wasn’t until the 19th century that theater used technological developments to startle audiences with violent verisimilitude, incorporating special effects that Davis says have become “standard parts of professional magic shows in Vegas today. And would lead to an audience well primed for the tricks and scare tactics of film.”

Though the theater could have become the home of Gothic traditions started by Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th century, the advent of cinema upstaged this potential. Poe references Thyestes in his story “The Purloined Letter,” revealing that the roots of Poe’s horrors, which were truly the beginning of a new genre, lay somewhere in theatrical convention. But through the likes of Poe, a literary genre that was never quite a theatrical one was born: “On the page,” says Davis, “horror works well, largely because our imaginations are far more frightening than reality.”

Soon after Poe’s era, cinema appeared, and with it, a new cinematic genre: “Horror suddenly had a new technology ideally suited for fright and the convincing depiction of violence,” Davis explains. In film, horror found its most effective medium. The genre was not just about the discussion or presentation of fearful ideas or images, but about those images’ ability to, like a thrill ride, physically alter viewers, transferring the fear felt by characters onto them. Even in silent film, horror thrived on what Davis calls the “heightened reality and aesthetic distance of photography, not to mention the expert use of sudden edits.” After 1927, sound and music were incorporated, swaying and punctuating audience’s visceral journeys. “As we all know, turn the sound down on Jaws and Psycho and the film just isn’t anywhere near as frightening. That sort of precision… just isn’t possible onstage.”

Shafer suggests, however, that when a play sets up its own world with its own rules, and when, from the beginning, we accept those rules, it can then operate within a stylized series of violent symbols that are just as potent, if not more potent, than naturalistic gore. Once we give in intellectually to these tropes, we can give in viscerally. This horror of abstraction, where theater plays into its constraints and establishes new rules within them, may come the closest to having the physical impact of a horror movie. Shafer references a 1992 production of Oedipus Rex by pre-Turn Off the Dark Julie Taymor: “As she did in Lion King, she used masked characters to honor the Greek legends and Greek performance.” He notes that when Jocasta, Oedipus’s mother/wife, commits suicide after realizing the unsavory nature of their relationship, the mask, “which at this point has become part of the image of the character — is ripped off, and underneath is red silk.” In a similar vein, Let the Right One In vacillates between real (blood effects) and stylized (light, sound, and interpretive movement indirectly evocative of gore) violence, aware that it’s created a world with aesthetic rules that differ from our own.

For this horror-heavy, cinematically derived play to succeed, it seems it was imperative for it to acknowledge the distinctive limitations of the theater, and not attempt to emulate film too rigidly. John Tiffany was approached by Marla Rubin Productions Ltd. to helm the adaptation: the acclaimed director was a sensible choice, as in 2011, he premiered his stage adaptation of Once, which, like Let the Right One In, was a film that relied on a vitreous atmospheric intimacy to tell its story and allure audiences. Adapting indie films to the stage “is not a thing of mine,” he insists. And executive producer Neil Murray asserts, “We were quite tough on ourselves, we really interrogated that: Should we be doing theater based on a film, based on a book?” But, says Tiffany, “the stage tells those stories of interesting people, outside of society, finding each other. There’s something that works very well about those love stories onstage. Damaged people finding solace in each other. Often there’s a space you can create onstage, which we do through music and movement, with a kind of lyricism and spare storytelling.”

The potential for the stage to facilitate a fresh take on this much-told story — which, as an art founded on mythology, is what most theater does — convinced them. John Tiffany sought Skins writer Jack Thorne to pen the adaptation, with the suggestion that he write it with as spare a touch as possible, “as though Beckett were writing Let the Right One In.” He brought on frequent collaborator Steven Hoggett (this being the old friends’ — who met in choir when they were 15 — ninth piece together) as the associate director/movement director. Hoggett choreographed a series of poignant, dialogue-free interludes, using an interpretive mode of expression specific to theater that would look preposterous onscreen. The interludes do, however, adhere to the idea Shafer mentioned about theater’s otherworldly rules. Interpretive movement here becomes its own insinuation of violence and allows for a climax that’s liberated from an adherence to blood-drenched gore.

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While a great deal of the movie and book take place in the apartments of Eli and Oskar, as well as the school Oskar attends — at which he’s terrorized — set designer Christine Jones made the forest just beyond Dundee, Scotland (where the play was originally staged) the invariable visual centerpiece for the play. The set is a cornucopia of blanched birches from the Dundee forests, looking as though they, like the audience, have been dread-stricken by the story’s insinuations about love and far less insinuating scenes of gore. It presents an almost fantastical, timeless space outside of the known world, which more familiar scenes and set-pieces traverse: a skeletal bedroom set is laid down in the middle of the forest, and coexists with the massive trees for a while. A small, makeshift playground stage right also commingles with the wilderness, as does a gym locker, on occasion. Here, the real is transitory and the spectral is concrete.

The otherness of theater is paralleled in this particular play’s desire to create an extra-societal niche for its two central characters, down to the way their names impact the ultimate mood of the play. Sansom notes that the names — which they decided not to change from the Swedish original, despite resetting the play in Scotland — decontextualized the characters for this very reason. “It actually sets up this kind of liminal zone for [the play], where it exists in its own world,” he says.

The attempt to transmit fear onto the audience is approached from a variety of angles throughout the play, which toys with symbolic gore, literal gore, and occasionally turns its sights from visual horror to rely on classic suspense strategies: “We kind of mixed [the horror elements] I suppose — [we’ve kept] the brutality of the film. But the thing I find most amusing, the scariest bit is a very old gag, it’s a ‘boo,'” says Murray, referring to the aforementioned Jack-in-the-box moment. “For all the money we spent on other things, a bright light and big noise is what frightens people. It’s a very old-fashioned gag,”

Of the classically petrifying bit, which occurs in the play’s second act, Tiffany adds, “I allowed myself one moment like that, just to the point where the audience thought, ‘They’re not going to use any of those –– oh God, they are.’”

But to create this simultaneous gasp among audiences via a simple scare tactic, Sansom says, “You actually need that team who really know how to do it, who’re going to put the subwoofers exactly where you need them under the seats for maximum impact.” With Chahine Yavroyan providing skillful lighting design, and Gareth Fry on sound, it seems to have had the right effect. Said The Observer, “The gasp, so rarely heard in the theater, rings out often here.”

As for the gore — the most challenging part to pull off onstage without succumbing to camp — they hired New York-based Jeremy Chernick, who “specializes in making it snow, rain, burn, bleed and explode for the entertainment industry.”

Knowing the challenges of integrating gore seamlessly into theater, Tiffany ensured their special effects coordinator was a constant presence: “Unlike so many theater productions, I was brought into rehearsals from the start. I had a small workshop and my small team and I would rig up blood delivery gear and start to strap it on to the performers to see what was most comfortable, user friendly, and most impactful,” says Chernick. “We learned that the blood could be triggered in many different ways and with many different looks depending on body position, actor manipulation, and where the blood generated from. By starting from this free and organic place we have been able to create the show you see today.”

The play’s success, which has allowed it to continue to run erratically for nearly two years, has given Rebecca Benson the opportunity to use repetition to appropriately banalize Eli’s blood-sucking. According to Chernick, she seems to have gradually and almost unknowingly become one with her blood effects. The character has, after all, been feeding for centuries, and, says Chernick, “Becky has mastered how to use her blood equipment in a way that is sublime and natural.” That’s not to say she doesn’t lurch at her victims then quiver with bestial satiation once their lives have filled her digestive tract, but there’s an ease to it that makes it read as perfectly habitual.

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This naturalness speaks to the story, but its relatively nonchalant treatment also downplays the horror-genre urge to propel audiences to panic. Tiffany agrees that the blood-spilling, while natural, isn’t where the play’s greatest horrors lie. “People have said the bullying seems much more harrowing to watch than the horror scenes, because Eli’s killing is more like natural order, like watching a wildlife documentary.”

The swimming pool scene in the original, Swedish film
The swimming pool scene in the original, Swedish film

The bullies who’ve plagued Oskar’s adolescence collide with Eli’s reign of terror in the play’s bloodcurdling climax in a swimming pool, which reveals another plane on which theatrical horror can thrive. The scene sees Oskar’s antagonists threatening that if he can’t stay underwater for three minutes, they’ll stab one of his eyes out. While the audience of course becomes afraid for the endangered eye, we’re also given that rare experience of being afraid for the real, live actor — of seeing the limits of the human body tested onstage, in a moment where physical reality and theatrical reality meld in their ability to shake us. “Even though it’s part of the horror story, it’s more to do with ‘[this actor] has been in the water for too long,’” says Tiffany, who is careful to clarify that the actor’s safety is never in danger. “You get a sense of ‘no no, this is too much, this is going on for too long.’ And that’s all connected to the atmosphere we’ve set up as well. It’s an amazing moment when Eli comes and saves him.”

The water scene hails directly from the film. Tiffany, Hogget, Jones, and Chernick worked together to decide how (and how literally) to incorporate it. “In the end,” says Chernick, “we decided that we actually needed to do the water. From there I drew up what I considered to be the simplest plumbing to fill that tank as quickly as possible so that the scene could start with that amazing moment kicking off the suspense.” The moment he’s referring to is when the playground set does a 180-degree turn onstage, revealing a water tank on its flip-side. The second we see it begin to fill, both audience members who’ve seen the film and oblivious ones alike know that, as with Chekhov’s gun, if you bring plumbing and a translucent tank onstage, there’s no way a body won’t end up in it. It’s as though the set itself were a conscious, threatening entity.

But despite these effects’ thorough success, it’s hard not to come back to the creators’ reluctance to classify their play as pure “horror,” their desire to see it more as a tale of finding love through alienation, and finding alienation in love. Another element of the show, which exists on a more abstract plane, should be mentioned: the play makes explicit the notion that Eli’s caretaker, the old man Hakan, who kills and drains Dundee civilians for the “young” vampire, was once as young-looking as Eli (the film kept this a mere suggestion). Before Hakan’s body capitulated to time, as mortals’ bodies do, it’s heavily implied that the two were romantically involved. This self-harming, love-driven serial killer foreshadows the road ahead for the legitimately sweet romance between Oskar and Eli. Love, the play claims, is what we become the most immersed in, and is therefore the thing that should scare us most. It’s so consuming as to turn sympathetic characters into serial killers — so consuming that, next to death, falling in love is one of the greatest acts of human disappearance.

But rather than the love narrative negating this play’s precedent-setting status as a work of horror, it seems to fortify it. As with the film, the play expresses horror’s potential to induce both physical and emotional panic. In bringing love so thoroughly into its menacing world, it casts a horrific shadow over an aspect of life we’d like to consider sweet, devoid of existential threat; it claims, rather, that it’s one of the greatest existential threats.

All of these factors brought together make Let the Right One In an immense theatrical event. Its New York residency is the play’s third run, and performances sold out so quickly and reviews were so positive that it was extended by three weeks: theater audiences, who’ve scarcely been given a work of true horror, have clearly been hungering for it. Though it may be a more obstacle-laden genre for the stage, it’s evident that with the right mixture of technically elegant special effects, an openness to symbolism, and most importantly, a co-opting of universal, human themes into a horror setting can make for a moving theater-going experience. Perhaps theater will never achieve a “horror” completely imitative of that of cinema, and why should it? But by invoking cinematic techniques and using them to embellish theater’s impeccable storytelling ability, theater, it seems, can successfully achieve its own unique horrors.

“The trick is to maximize what theater does best,” says Chernick. Interesting that the man responsible for all the blood would likewise claim that “the scariest part of any story is how it impacts the people and their emotions, lives, and safety. Theater,” he says, “has been doing that since the earliest times.”