It’s not easy putting a scary ghost story on the stage. But it can be done. And when it is done well, look out.
British playwright Andy Nyman (author of Ghost Stories) wrote, “When you hear an audience scream as one, night after night, and sometimes see them shaking in the street afterwards, you realize that horror onstage is something very special indeed and something that cinema cannot get close to.”
To do it, you have to create a convincing illusion that the characters (or the audience members themselves) are in real danger. Here are a few of the plays and musicals that successfully raised hairs on the back of the audience’s collective neck:
Seeing kids in danger is always especially scary, and Martin McDonagh’s drama puts multiple kids in the worst kind of harm’s way. His play tells the story of an author named Katurian with a penchant for writing disturbing stories about children being tortured and killed, including one about a murderer who scalps the faces of his prey. A series of child murders in his community start to bear an uncanny resemblance to the ones in his stories. Is Katurian responsible? As detectives peel back the layers of the mystery, several of the stories are enacted and horrible truths are discovered.
2. The Weir
This Conor McPherson play is the theatrical equivalent of sitting around a campfire telling ghostly tales. A gaggle of Irish people gather in a pub trying to outdo one another with chilling yarns. There are some pretty good ones, but the creepiest one is Jim’s story—more horrifying than terrifying—about a child abuser who, after his death, gets himself buried in a children’s cemetery so he can molest their tiny souls for eternity. I shivered as I wrote that. No special effects needed—just a twisted vision.
3. Shining City
One of the great fake-outs in Broadway history, even the title seems designed to mislead. (SPOILER ALERT) Playwright Conor McPherson (again!) uses the whole show as a set-up to lull the audience until he springs the final booga-booga moment. John goes to his therapist friend Ian because John believes he is being visited by the ghost of his wife, who was mangled and killed in a dreadful car crash. Ian spends the entire play working John through all the psychological reasons for his hallucination and trying to free him from his obsession with his wife. John finally accepts his cure and moves on with his life. Two acts of reassurance soothe the audience into thinking, “We feel sorry for this poor disturbed man.” Then, without warning, we, too, see the ghost—and it detonates like a lightning bolt. Now we’re haunted by her, and good luck opening a door on a dark night without thinking of her.
4. Sweeney Todd
Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 masterwork was based on a 19th-century penny-dreadful story about a revenge-seeking barber who slits the throats of his customers as he shaves them—which is plenty creepy enough right there—but then hands off the corpses to his partner Mrs. Lovett, who bakes them into meat pies. The story owes a great deal to the sensibilities (or lack thereof) of the Paris-based theatre company Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, which specialized in brutally gruesome horror plays. A few standout moments in the American musical include the song “Epiphany,” in which Sweeney violates the fourth wall and threatens to kill the entire audience, the judge’s self-flagellation scene, and the moment when Sweeney slashes his first throat. In the original production, directed by Hal Prince, this moment was accompanied by a sickening gout of blood. Sweeney winds up with his throat slit by his own razor, Mrs. Lovett winds up roasted in her own oven, and both of their ghosts rise from the grave for the finale.
You can argue about whether the music was good or bad, or if the one-time movie plot really worked onstage. But you have to tip your hat to the show’s special effects. For more than a century, savvy directors relied on a trick called Pepper’s Ghost Effect, which uses mirrors and lights to make actors disappear or transform onstage. Ghost added high-tech wizardry by Paul Kieve to enable actors to put their hands through solid surfaces and vanish from center stage. These effects were more amazing than frightening, but the bad guy getting sucked through a vortex to Hell in Act II was truly horrifying.
This one has been scaring the pants off people since almost before pants existed. Most theatre people refuse to say the title aloud lest it bring bad luck, referring to it instead as “The Scottish Play.” Set about a millennium ago in medieval Scotland, the play tells the story of a regional governor named Macbeth, who, along with his ambitious wife, plots to murder the king—and anyone else in his way—to put himself on the throne. Shakespeare wrote plays in all genres, and this was firmly in the category of horror, along with Titus Andronicus, which has scenes of dismemberment and cannibalism. What sets Macbeth apart from its gory cousins is the fact that it has ample ghosts, witches, and other supernatural phenomena. Directors outdo themselves trying to make the appearance of the floating dagger and the revenant of Banquo as hair-raising as possible. The 2013 Broadway revival (one of four productions of the play that appeared in New York that year) had Banquo appear in startling lightning flashes. Cast members report that audience members sometimes screamed in fright during these scenes. The Bard loved theatrical spooky stuff. Which leads us to….
Shakespeare’s culminating masterpiece is set in motion by the appearance of the ghost of Prince Hamlet’s father (a role said to have been originated by the author himself), who urges Hamlet to avenge his death. A popular feature of Jacobean revenge dramas, the ghost winds up receiving lots of company as the actions he sets in motion end in the murder of his wife, his son, his brother, and his main counselor—not to mention catspaws Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who later got a play of their own, courtesy of Tom Stoppard.
8. Sleep No More
Before we leave Shakespeare, we should mention this immersive theatre adaptation of Macbeth, courtesy of the U.K. theatre company Punchdrunk, which has been playing since 2011 at a cluster of Manhattan warehouses dubbed the McKittrick Hotel. The adaptation takes place in many rooms on multiple floors simultaneously, and you could spend hours wandering around the shadowy, spooky halls and stairways trying to see the whole thing. A witches’ orgy, a hanging, a bathtub filled with blood, and a chamber full of dismembered dolls are just a few of the disturbing images visitors discover in the dark.
It’s a tribute to the lasting power of Euripides’ tragedy that it still causes gasps 2,400 years after it was written. In the Miss Saigon-like story, barbarian princess Medea is lured away from her homeland by the charismatic warrior Jason, killing her father and brother in the process. But once back in his native Greece, Jason drops Medea for a local princess. With nowhere to turn, Medea strikes back at Jason in the worst way she can think of: She slaughters their two sons. The role has attracted major actors at the top of their game, including Judith Anderson, Irene Papas, Zoe Caldwell, Diana Rigg, and Audra McDonald (in a musical version). But the 2002 Broadway revival with Fiona Shaw is still remembered for the sheer dreadfulness of the murder scene. In that version, the children’s blood drenched glass panels on the stage so the full horror could be experienced from every angle.
More Scary Plays
The murder mystery The Mousetrap has been running in London since 1952, but the second longest-running London play is the disturbing chiller The Woman in Black. The story of a woman who haunts the spot where her child died in a horrible accident has been onstage across the pond since 1989, but has never been seen on Broadway.
Based on an 1898 novel, The Turn of the Screw follows an English governess who comes to a country estate and discovers that a one-time sexual indiscretion has led to an eerie haunting. It has been adapted numerous times under various titles, including Tom Stoppard’s The Innocents.
Bram Stoker's Dracula showcases bloodthirsty Transylvanian count. The 1927 original was a smash with Bela Lugosi, who went on to film immortality in the role. Frank Langella starred in a hit 1977 revival that ran 900 performances.
The Rocky Horror Show, Little Shop of Horrors, Carrie, Bat Boy, The Toxic Avenger, Jekyll & Hyde, Wicked and many others aim to send a shiver through audiences with tales of the supernatural.
Gentler Ghost Plays
Ghosts aren’t always frightening. When it comes to Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit or its musical adaptation High Spirits, Elvira is far more beguiling than bloodcurdling.
At least two shows with ghosts in the title actually have no ghosts. Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts is actually about venereal disease. The ghosts are metaphorical. And, of course, the phantom in The Phantom of the Opera is a living man, though his homicidal obsessions certainly frighten the denizens of the Paris Opera.
However, ghosts and spirits are, and have always been, popular onstage. Our Town, Angels in America, Carousel, Proof, Follies, Da, An Inspector Calls, Ragtime, Into the Woods, The Piano Lesson, What’s Wrong With This Picture?, Fiddler on the Roof, and Billy Elliot are just a few of the shows visited at various times by phantoms. The characters in Sutton Vane’s 1923 hit Outward Bound don’t even realize they are ghosts until more than halfway through the show. Norbert Leo Butz marked himself as a potential star, playing the ghost of a murdered husband in the short-lived 2001 musical Thou Shalt Not. The spirits of all the dead characters in Les Misérables return to escort Jean Valjean to the afterlife and sing once more in the finale. (Fun fact: It is the rare play with 13 letters in the title. A 13-letter title is considered to be bad luck in theatrical superstition—though it doesn’t seem to have harmed Les Miz much.)
And, of course, the most widely produced and seen ghost story of the them all... is A Christmas Carol, though only the final ghost, the wordless Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, is portrayed as menacing.