The extent to which I allow myself to be completely taken in by a ‘warning’ on any kind of horror experience is, quite frankly, a little embarrassing. There are many reasons why a warning might appear; sometimes it's simply a ploy to help sway audiences towards attending. However, even though I know nothing bad can actually happen to me, these kind of warnings make me anxious and hyped up. I rapidly succumb to a unique blend of mortal dread and giddy excitement which sends my expectations through the roof. This often results in disappointment. I sensed that familiar jolt of nervous excitement when I read this warning on the Ghost Stories website as I was purchasing my ticket:
“WARNING: Please be advised that Ghost Stories contains moments of extreme shock and tension. The play is unsuitable for anyone under the age of 15. We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending.”
This time, however, I tried my best to ignore it. I became steadfast in my resolve; so much so that I actually felt quite calm when the day finally came. Upon arrival at the Arts Theatre, I was intrigued by the interior decoration along the theatre walls, and somewhat unsettled by the ambient sound effects, which were unobtrusive yet oddly sinister in their pervasiveness. Nervous chitchat ebbed and flowed around me. The atmosphere was weighty and palpable. A sense of dread was slowly creeping in, but I tried my best to deflect it.
If only I’d known. Those decorations, the subtle sound effects. Not mere window dressing. These elements were foreshadowing what was soon to become my worst nightmare.
Ghost Stories wastes no time - its insidious, brutal attack on my senses and my psyche was efficiently deployed. Jump scares abound in Ghost Stories, and many of them actually function as a clever decoy. They create a false sense of security, masking the methods which will eventually be undertaken to shock and disturb you to the highest degree. Moments of dark humour also serve the same purpose. These combined elements build the tension slowly and effectively, before the true nature of the show is revealed. There’s an odd comfort in the familiar pattern of tension and release, and this is ripped away in the most brutal fashion, as though the jump scares were pulling the wool over my eyes from the very beginning. The searing final flourish is intense and deeply psychological; it really caught me off guard and was not the type of fear I was expecting to feel. It was simultaneously terrifying and elating.
Our second row seats in this small theatre may have gone some way towards making this experience as intense as it was. Upon leaving, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I might have felt different if we’d sat further back. Being positioned right in the line of fire, with nowhere to hide (and no interval), the most visually alarming moments of the show hit us particularly hard. But regardless of seating, the overarching theme in this play is what delivers the fatal blow.
Ghost Stories is engaging, horrifying, and extremely intelligent in its execution. It’s perfectly crafted, superbly acted, and the clever set design connects the various elements of its unique narrative seamlessly. If you love a good (and powerful) scare then this is not to be missed, but be warned- its dark energy could conquer you, so just keep telling yourself: it’s only a play…
There’s one moment in the show which caused me great distress the first time I saw it. The timing of this moment is nothing short of genius. I think about it often; It has featured in my dreams. In my many years as a horror lover and horror film festival programmer, Ghost Stories is the only experience which still troubles my thoughts when I’m alone in the dark. This is no mean feat. I have now seen the show multiple times, and I can't wait to see it again!