You might think graphic horror is a relatively new creation, something which developed in the 1970s and '80s with exploitation horror and video nasties. I mean, surely the prissy and conservative Victorians and Edwardians would have no interest in seeing blood spray across a room from a sliced up jugular, right?
Well, apparently that's not the case, as one particular French theater specialized in giving vomit-inducing horrific performances.
Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was founded in 1897 by Oscar Méténier and catered for French theater goers who wanted something a little more graphic than the usual theatric fair. Established in an old gothic chapel, Grand Guignol put on macabre and gruesome plays, many of which centered on deranged and unprovoked killings. The highlight of the performances was the moment the killer brutally and violently dispatched their victim - and the Grand Guignol spared no expense in making the act look authentic.
It might have been over 100 years ago, but the theater's special effects could put some modern horror films to shame. Check out these vintage pictures from Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol's glory days below:
In fact, the special effects were often too realistic for some members of the audience. Vomiting and fainting was relatively commonplace, while theatergoers could also rent special rooms to go into if they felt too 'aroused.'
The theater performed various genres of plays, although it's horror plays were by far the most popular. Common themes included altered states, insanity, hypnosis, panic and unjustified violence. Furthermore, the villain of the piece was rarely ever caught or punished. The Grand Guignol would also often alternate horror plays with comedies to heighten the effect. Here are some of the plays performed:
Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations, by André de Lorde: A surgeon finds his wife's lover on his operating table. He performs graphic brain surgery which renders his love rival an insane hallucinating semi-zombie. Now murderously crazy, the lover hammers a chisel into the doctor's brain.
Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous, by André de Lorde: Two jealous ugly crones in an insane asylum blind a pretty fellow inmate with scissors.
L'Horrible Passion, by André de Lorde: A nanny strangles the children in her care.
Le Baiser dans la nuit by Maurice Level: A man gains revenge on a young woman who once disfigured his face with acid.
In its hayday, Le Grand Guignol could boast royalty and celebrities as regulars at its performances, but the theater began to see a decline in interest after the Second World War. It seems the horrors of that conflict, often experienced first hand by the French people, had turned audiences off fantastical depictions of murder and gore. The theater's final director, Charles Nonon would say:
We could never equal Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.
The theater would perform its last play in 1962, however it went on to inspire some of the most gruesome horrors of the later 20th century, including the iconic Hammer Horror Films. It has also recently featured in an episode of Victorian horror series, Penny Dreadful. You can see how they recreated the famous theater below: