Built inside an old chapel, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol opened in 1897 in the bohemian Pigalle area of Paris.
The short plays of the Grand Guignol Theatre were not supernatural or science based horror like Dracula, Frankenstein or the Wolfman. Those stories called phantasmagoria were named for the popular 1812 book Fantasmagoriana – an anthology of German ghost stories translated into French.
They were instead naturalistic horror stories containing sexual torture often tinged with macabre black humour. Their gory special effects were so realistic, members of the audience often fainted or vomited. Others became so aroused they retired to privately rented booths to relieve excitement with a willing companion.
The one scene plays dealt with the types of torture and sadism found in extremes of everyday life. For example one told the story of two insane old women who blind a pretty girl with scissors. Another was about a man who takes revenge on the pretty young woman who disfigured him with acid.
This type of sexual, sadistic titillation gave rise to the term ‘Grand Guignol’ to describe everything from erotic horror – like the old lesbian Hammer Horror ‘The Vampire Lovers’ – to more modern slashers like Hostel and Wolf Creek.
Grand Guignol meant ‘Big Puppet’. The theatre took its name from a sexually violent puppet character, rather like Mr Punch, whose peculiar mix of social comment, black humour and savage violence originated in the 16 century with touring troops of the Italian Commedia dell’ Arte – that also gave us Harlequin, Scaramouche, Pierrot and Columbine.
A version of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol is recreated in the film ‘Interview with a Vampire’. In the the Parisian ‘Théâtre des Vampires’ a young woman is tortured and devoured by vampires in front of a human audience who think it lifelike, gory make-believe.
In Season 1 of the excellent TV series ‘Penny Dreadful’ that intertwines so many of the classic horror story lines, Frankenstein’s monster begins working in the Grand Guignol – a copy of the theatre based in London that specialises in the same gore-fests.
The Grand Guignol Theatre operated successfully until 1962 when it finally closed its doors. Audiences had waned. In part this was due to the success of cinema (especially European cinema) emulating and eventually surpassing the gory horror it offered.
But long before that, the aftermath of World War II had already sounded its death knell. As its final theater director commented…
‘Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things and worse are possible in reality. We could never equal the horrors of Buchenwald and the other concentration camps.’
Here is an entertaining and informative brief film outline the history of the theatre…
And of course there is everything you could ever want to know at: