Parasitical Horror: Where do we go in post-Roe America?

There’s something inside you that you didn’t want there. It might kill you. You know you can’t live with the fall out of it, and the very existence of it inside you is traumatizing.

You’re watching Alien, of course. Or The Thing. Or Slither, or The Bay, or Viral, or Malignant, or–

….where does parasitical horror stand now, really in a post-Roe America? Because while of course, a human fetus isn’t a parasite in the scientific or traditional sense, it’s still an intrusion into the body that not everyone wants there or is happy about, let alone safe with.

My state has now banned abortion even in the cases of situations such as ectopic or molar pregnancy. For anyone unfamiliar with these terms: a molar pregnancy is when the fetus becomes a tumor. Not a potential child, to be entirely and crystalline clear: a tumor. And an ectopic pregnancy is in which the fetus develops outside the womb. Neither are viable. Both will kill the pregnant parent. 

When Roe was overturned, I flashed back to the scene in Prometheus where Noomi Rapace’s character had to have the alien parasite removed. She sat in the medical machine, demanding an abortion for the inhuman creature which had taken residence in her uterus.

But just like the system which she found herself in, our system was also not designed for women and others with uteruses. It took reifying the situation to one a cis man might face for her to receive treatment. It’s not the most delicate metaphor in Prometheus, nor the most impactful at the time, but…now in the shadow of the SCOTUS decision and various trigger laws going into effect throughout the states? It’s horrifyingly real, in ways we thought were behind us.

Allow me to get a bit personal.

I grew up a fan of horror. I always get looks outside the South or even in the South by the younger crowd when I tell them the first movie I remember wanting to watch over and over with childish glee wasn’t a Disney film, but was Ernest Scared Stupid. And as I grew up and consumed more horror media, I noticed it, like all media, reflected a lot of what society had to say about itself. It’s very telling really.

Alien. The Fly. The Exorcist. Rosemary’s Baby.

There’s something inside you that you didn’t (necessarily) want there. It might kill you. You know you can’t live with the fall out of it, and the very existence of it inside you is traumatizing.

Even in horror, the scariest thing we can all imagine, even cis men, is the loss of autonomy of our own bodies.

This isn’t to discount the countless valid stories of parents of wanted pregnancies, who lose what would have become a beloved child to tragedy beyond their circumstances–who are then victimized more by a system that holds no grounds for nuance. I cannot imagine the pain, the suffering that causes, the sheer mental fortitude and bravery required to go on. I remember the far off pained look and the quiet embarrassment of my mother telling me about her miscarriages quietly during my adolescence, as if speaking of them as more than a whisper would be enough to invite more shame. 

But that isn’t my story and I feel it might ring hollow or disingenuous, even though I want to stand and scream for them as well.

So here’s my story:

I was born in the late 80s in Nashville to a biological mother who already had teenage children, and a biological father who already had a different wife and possibly children of their own. From what little I know, they knew each other from work. He had a position of power over her, which he abused. We won’t go into more detail–no more is known by me, and no more is needed. My biological mother made the choice, or was perhaps cajoled, I truly do not know, into giving me up for adoption through a Christian adoption agency.

I was adopted by a couple in rural TN, who–for all our fussing and fighting at times–do love me very much. I can’t fault them there. And due to this I grew up, like one might imagine, thinking the only choice–adoption–was as clear and easy as day.

And then I started getting sick. As I got older I got sicker. Needed surgery in my late teens to fix problems usually relegated to 50+ year old alcoholics even though I never drank more than a glass of white wine my whole life up till that point. Took till my twenties to figure out I had a genetic disorder that affects every system of my body–reproductive included.

I’d wanted to be a parent, up to that point, even though pregnancy sounded kinda scary. I’d realized by that age that not evrything was black and white, and I was nominally pro-choice, but still somehow in my mind, I guess I thought abortions were for other people. And I’d done everything “right”–never acted on being bi, and never questioned why the label “girl or woman” had chafed my whole life.

But then the doctor was saying words like “rupture” and “hemorrhage.” “Growth restriction” and “collapse.”

“Fifty percent chance of heritability.”

I remembered dislocated ribs on the playground. Fainting just standing up after a long lecture because my veins are too fragile to regulate blood pressure some days. Throwing up pure stomach acid before tests, not because of anxiety, but because my esophagus won’t function properly on the bad days.

There’s something inside you that isn’t you. You didn’t invite it in. It might kill you.

And I knew that even despite what I’d thought I wanted most of my life, I couldn’t let it kill anyone else either. I knew in that moment, if birth control failed, I’d get an abortion without hesitating. And in that moment, I knew whatever little judgment I may have held onto for others didn’t have a leg to stand on.

No one’s judgment really does.

Because they know it’s a horrifying situation to be in. Frankly I’m tired of pretending they don’t. Art reflects life, and since the dawn of the genre of horror, its many male authors have known the same thing:

The horror isn’t the whispers in the woods at night. Not always.

Much much more often, it’s the loss of autonomy. The loss of feeling full personhood. The gaslighting by society telling you you’re crazy for not being happy about it. The complete and total lack of help by anyone around you capable of giving any significant aid.

It’s interesting to think of where horror might go from this point in regards to parasitical elements. Even prior to the overturn of Roe, directors of such films did seem to have an inkling of what such horror reflected in our culture and how it might be received differently by roughly half the populace. With the advent of a new more socially aware generation of horror directors and films thereof, it seems impossible to avoid as a subject going forward.

There’s something inside you that you didn’t want there. It might kill you. You know you can’t live with the fall out of it, and the very existence of it inside you is traumatizing.

Don’t let them make excuses. Don’t believe the lies. They’ve told us this whole time they know.

We don’t have to make them know.

We have to make them afraid too, somehow.

Afraid to be voted out, afraid to be the bad guys of history, afraid to lose every ounce of the credibility that they’ve tried to make for themselves.

They are the monsters of these stories. It’s time we fight back. 

There’s something outside you that isn’t you. You didn’t invite it in, but it’s trying to take your choices. 

Don’t you dare let it.

Moral Manias #002: Gender and Orientation in the Satanic Panic

As discussed before, the anxieties and delusions driven into the societal mainstream during the era of Satanic Panic were largely reactionary to the contemporary gains made by feminism and queer rights. Michelle Remembers placed the blame of abuse on her mother for leaving her in the care of others–a parallel for the soon to occur daycare abuse allegations made during the era. In fact, one may look beyond Michelle Remembers to other mass media paperbacks of the time to see this reactionary blowback.

As documented thoroughly by Alison Nastasi in her essay “The Unholy Passion: Sex and Gender Anxiety in Russ Martin’s Satanic Erotic Horror Paperbacks,” publishers began aping on the success of stories like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (as well as so-called “non-fiction” accounts like Michelle Remembers) by releasing their own original stories steeped in the societal fear and fascination of Satanism. The books often focused on female possession victims, painted luridly on the covers in compromising positions. At the forefront of this movement was Russ Martin, an erotica writer who spent 1978-1988 penning novels of “unholy passions” with the Devil. 

Credit to the authors and editors for much of the source material I have cited

Martin’s and similar books were reflective of the growing complexity of gender relations. According to Nastasi, these books “equated fears of feminism with the moral panic that spread through the decade.” Like many erotica novels, they followed a certain script: women are stripped of their agencies and become sex slaves to dark forces. Martin’s books focus on physical and psychological domination of women, women in perpetual victimhood, and eventual outright physical enslavement. Some of the women were queer, yet were stripped of their orientation and identities via these demonic incursions. 

Playboy heralded his work as feminist, since the stories took place from the women’s perspective. 

No comment.

During the Reagan era, many of the former disciples of free-love turned their backs on their previous beliefs and became even more strongly convicted by conservative dogma and Christian morality. However, this new cultural Crusade did not align so well with more secular cultural morality. More women than ever were working outside the home, and–while feminists themselves were divided on the concept–sex positivity was coming forward as a leading movement, including sex positivity for queer cis women. 

The Moral Majority Report and many other religious conservative think-tanks would come out of private Christian universities.

Martin’s books, and books similar to them, were bringing forth a new type of horror to the conservative American household. The devil was truly real, and he was luring American women and children to the dark side. In Nastasi’s words: “Martin’s books brought these fears to light, exposing fantasies about control (or lack thereof) and fear of the changing social tide, encouraging a queasy relationship between the reader and female subjects–one where they are both turned on and punished at the same time.” These stories are a vehicle by which women are told their sexualities are of the devil; in such a worldview, enjoyment and punishment must be one and the same. Martin also makes sure to punish trans women in his narratives, as well; in The Destruction of Susan Browning (one of his more famous works), the trans woman in the story is a seductress, forcing the main character’s husband to leave her and sell his soul to the devil. While Playboy was championing women’s right to contraception and abortion, they were (unsurprisingly) simultaneously publishing these stories.

No type of woman–trans or cis, straight or queer–may win in Martin’s world: they exist only as victims or villainesses. And that was the brush with which women became painted in during the Satanic Panic, both then and now.

In 2009, the world watched in a mix of emotions as Amanda Knox was placed on trial for the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher. Both women studied in Italy, and the Italian courts were dead set on using Amanda’s strange trauma and the date of the murder being All Saint’s Day as evidence that the murder was Satanic ritual abuse. Despite DNA evidence pointing to another person (who was eventually convicted), the trial dragged on, painting Knox and her boyfriend as satanic deviants. There were also plenty of accusations of Amanda being the person who sexually assaulted Meredith, painting the former in the trope of “psychotic bisexual.” She was acquitted, reconvicted, re-acquitted, and fully exonerated by 2015; understandably, she refuses to return to Europe as those who still believe her to be some Satanic deviously queer murderer have a strong presence

From the Netflix documentary regarding the case.

This ties again to the fact that the modern Satanic Panic is largely affecting queer (or perceived to be queer) Americans as opposed to more liberated cishet women alone. In “Why Satanic Panic never really ended” by Aja Romano of Vox Media, they discuss the history of the Satanic Panic and how we are now seeing it tie heavily to queer identity. Even beyond the supposed ending of the phenomenon in the early 90s, the panic persisted on for queer people.

“In 1997, four lesbian women who became known as the San Antonio Four were targeted and wrongfully convicted for child molestation claims. Their trial played out against a resurgence of Satanic Panic tied to homophobia in a conservative state, and their fight for justice lasted nearly two decades. All four women spent 15 years in prison before having their convictions overturned in 2015 and ultimately expunged in 2018.” [Romano, 2021] 

With the recent decisions by the SCOTUS to dismantle privacy laws, it’s no wonder we of the queer community are sitting by in quiet desperation and worry.

Lil Nas X in the video for Montero (Call Me By Your Name), 2021

Recently, the infamous music video for Montero by Lil Nas X, in which the rapper gives a lurid lap dance to Satan, may be seen as edgy fun to one group; however, to those who follow evangelical and QAnon movements, it was proof of queer ties to Satanic cabals that secretly wish to control and chage the bodies of children to “aberrant sexualities and genders.” Even in the arts, where queer people have typically found more freedom throughout history, we are unsafe from these accusations of satanic ritual abuse merely through acts of self-expression.

In an odd tie back to literature, nowhere is the public seeing this more clearly now than the protests against and shuttering of many libraries, particularly smaller libraries in rural areas. The American Library Association has faced more book challenges than in decades, mainly for books that contain elements of social progress, queer existence, or discuss racism. The most-challenged book of 2021 was Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, which was challenged, banned or restricted because of LGBTQ content.

Photo credit: NBC15 Madison, WI

The connection of any sexuality outside of Christian patriarchal norms has been a driving force throughout the Satanic Panic, showing up again now in full force. It chants about groomers and throws rocks at drag queen story hours and burns books that contain any deviation from white cishetero hegemony. 

For queer people and even some cishet women who deviate from patriarchal expectation, the danger is inside the house, trying to corner us into a closet where it can finally strike like Michael Myers to Laurie Strode.

Let’s Final Girl this shit once and for all.

In the next installments we will talk about how the Satanic Panic hit the nerd community, specifically cultures surrounding goths, metalheads, horror fans, and D&D players.

Janisse, K.-L., Corupe, P., & Nastasi, A. (2019). The Unholy Passion: Sex and Gender Anxiety in Russ Martin’s Satanic Erotic Horror Paperbacks. In Satanic panic: Pop-cultural paranoia in the 1980s. essay, FAB Press Ltd. 

Romano, A. (2021, March 31). Why satanic panic never really ended. Vox. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from 

Moral Manias #001: Michelle Remembers

Welcome to my new series of articles “Moral Manias” where I will be discussing how moral manias of the past reflect our present cultural battle with delusionary reactionaries.

DISCLAIMER: There will be discussion of false allegations of child s*xual abuse throughout this article and subsequent moral mania articles. While I absolutely believe that more children than we know about suffer at the hands of monsters–even organized monsters a la the thankfully dead Jeffrey Epstein–I do not believe that it is for Satanic purposes; rather it’s unfortunately just because some people are disgusting.

And with that we proceed. 

On December 4, 2016, twenty-eight year old Edgar Maddison Welch entered Washington, D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong armed with an assault rifle and a conspiracy theory. A Satanic cabal lead by former Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was operating a child sex ring out the (non-existent) basement of the pizza parlor. These fictional children were supposedly used for the purpose of Satanic ritual abuse led by Clinton, her aides Abedin and Podesta, and famous performance and spatial artist Marina Abramovic.

Luckily, Welch only shot the lock off of a freezer door in the dogged pursuit of his truth. As he was led away, despondent, we as a culture had to wonder: how could this happen?

Simply enough: It’s happened before.

Little did we know then how fully it would happen again. But I digress on that point for now.

To truly understand the origins of the North American “Satanic Panic” that swept the United States and (to a lesser degree) Canada, during the 1980s and early 1990s, we must start with a concept and a book.

The concept? Recovered memory therapy. The book? Michelle Remembers.

But what is recovered memory therapy?

“Recovered Memory Therapy is a loosely defined cluster of clinical methodologies where a therapist would help adult survivors recall repressed, traumatic memories of childhood abuse, allowing a path to personality reintegration….its historical notoriety renders it today broadly considered both unscrupulous and unprofessional by the mainstream medical profession (Heller-Nicholas, 2015).”

Published in 1980, Michelle Remembers is considered the origin of the Satanic Panic and the moral crackdowns on supposed cases of Satanic ritual abuse. It’s also considered one of the most influential media hoaxes of the 20th century. Written by Dr. Lawrence Panzer and his eventual wife Michelle Smith, Michelle Remembers chronicles the supposed Satanic ritual abuse of Michelle as a young child in 1950s Victoria, Canada. 

In 1976, Smith came to Dr. Pazder to undergo treatment for depression after a miscarriage. After describing feelings of lost time, Pazder insisted Smith undergo hypnosis. While a more responsible therapist likely would have concluded C-PTSD or postpartum depression from the findings, Pazder…wasn’t responsible. Michelle Remembers is based upon the 600 hours of recorded sessions that Smith underwent with Pazder.

Smith’s parents’ marriage was a toxic one, filled with alcoholism and violence. According to the book, during one of her father’s many absences, Michelle’s mother became involved with a mysterious man named Malachi and his other Satanic associates. Smith’s mother allegedly gave her daughter over to the Satanic cult, only for young Michelle to witness murder, cannibalism, and other dark acts. She is abused throughout the book in a multitude of ways. 

Apparently, at one point, she has a tail and two horns surgically attached to her body, stretching the already thin credulity to the breaking point.

Michelle warned of the advent of a new Holocaust to come in 1982, in which Satan would once again be summoned to Earth to enact horror upon horror on the population. This comparison is especially awful, given that Michelle Remembers is so obviously a hoax.

Despite being so fantastic as to beggar belief, the book became a phenomenal success, making its authors celebrities. Smith and Pazder became enamored both with success and each other, leaving their respective partners at the time to wed one another. They toured the country together, making ridiculous amounts of money, and even appeared on Oprah, where the famous host unquestioningly took them at their word. Pazder and Smith always pointed back at the recorded tapes as proof of authenticity, despite the capabilities of technology even then to manipulate audio or just have acted their way through the hypnosis process.

As the story of Michelle Remembers continued, it nearly made it to theaters as a feature film. The Pazders were civilly sued by Anton LeVey, the Church of Satan, and Michelle’s father to prevent this from happening. LeVey and the church, for all their abuses under the notorious LeVey, were horrified by the accusations of the books, proclaiming they would have nothing to do with such crimes against humanity. This beggars the question: if the book heralded such horrific damage in the cultural landscape as it did, how much worse would the film have wrought?

It can be theorized that both the Satanic Panic and the recent resurgence of it come from an inherent hatred of women and queer people of all genders. While men are certainly involved in the stories of ritual abuse, both in Michelle Remembers, the Comet Ping Pong case, and others that would follow, women and queer people are primarily to blame. Michelle’s mother hands her over to the cult. Hillary Clinton supposedly leads the cabal, with Abramovic and Abedin at her right hand, an army of LGBTQ+ supporters following their whims. While men insistently give validation to these stories based on their pre-supposed authority as men, it is the image of women and the queer community who continually suffer over it.

In the book, the cause of Michelle’s suffering isn’t blamed upon the male priest Malachi, but rather her mother and the cloaked priestesses that surround her. By their rejection of the traditional feminine–eschewing motherhood for monstrosity–they place the idea of the monstrous feminine at the forefront of Satanic Panic discourse. Blaming the betrayals of her mother and mother figures in her life, Smith-Pazder repudiates the idea of female liberation and replaces it with the conservative ideal-hood of women–women as subservient, loving mothers. This is hammered home by her claim that Jesus Christ himself sent a vision of the Holy Mother to guide Michelle away from the horrors of Satanic ritual abuse. Much like the figure of Christ Himself, Pazder is put forward at the end as Savior, father, and husband figure in the end Smith-Pazder’s narrative. 

It would also be remiss to avoid discussing the inherent racism and anti-Semitism of Michelle Remembers. Villainous Satanic priests are often described having either Semitic or West African features or ancestry, and many symbols from both ethnic groups are littered throughout the text in scenes of graphic, sensationalized abuse. Pazder relied heavily on independent research into West African religious cultures to emphasize the “cult-like nature of the people.” Good in the book is described as “blonde, blue-eyed, and tan” giving Jesus more of a Malibu Ken appearance than that of the Aramaic speaking figure of Biblical times. While this is already unfortunate enough in outdated fiction like the works of Lovecraft, Michelle Remembers was billed as true and became a cornerstone for the Satanic Panic movement.

Soon enough, the Pazders’ claims began to unravel. Two sisters, not mentioned in the book at all–in fact, whose existences were repudiated by the book–came forward to deny the salacious claims made towards their mother. Starting the 1990–the same year as the infamous McMartin Preschool Trial–the claims began to come undone in earnest. Not one corroborator to Michelle’s story was able to be found. But it was Pazder’s own words that became their undoing.

“It is a real experience. If you talk to Michelle today, she will say ‘That’s what I remember.” We still leave the question open. For her, it was very real. Every case I hear I have skepticism. You have to complete a long course of therapy before you can come to conclusions. We are eager to prove or disprove what happened, but in the end it doesn’t matter.”

Despite his loose relationship with fact and fiction, one cannot help that the distinction mattered a great deal to those whose lives were ruined by the results of the Satanic Panic. The Pazders’ involvement didn’t just kick off a cultural phenomenon: it would result in loss of jobs and families, as well as end in the most dramatic, expensive trial in United States history.

As we continue on, we’ll go to the past, zoom back to the present, and theorize on the future.

Feel free to comment and share, but just know that I AM moderating comments!

CITATION: “REMEMBERING MICHELLE REMEMBERS By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas” Janisse, Kier-La, and Paul Corupe, eds. Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. FAB Press, 2016.

A History of the Grand Guignol

Credit to Samuel Thomas.

“It’s been reported that once inside the theater, a number of moviegoers vomited at the very graphic goings-on on the screen. Others fainted, or left the theater, nauseous and trembling, before the film was half over. Several people had heart attacks, a guard told me…” Judy Klemesrud, “They Wait Hours to Be Shocked”, NYT, Jan. 27, 1974

We’ve always been unduly fascinated with horror so visceral that it invokes a physical response. Fainting, swooning, vomiting, and other semi-apocryphal tales dot the historical landscape of certain horror giants. The above quote regarding a particular viewing of The Exorcist embodies this phenomenon, if not defines it in the mind of fans when we discuss such instinctual physical reactions to horror media. 

Despite The Exorcist being the quintessential icon of this trope in modern days though, it was hardly its progenitor. No, that honor goes to a strange little theater in the Pigalle district of Paris, France at the turn of the century in 1897.

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (The Theater of the Great Puppet)–no one contemporary to the founding of the smallest theatrical venue in Paris could have possibly guessed the lasting impact of the place upon its opening. The tiniest theater in the disreputable stage district would eventually become so associated with horror, particularly the splatterpunk genre, that it would become a generic term for all bloodsoaked visual performance art. What initially was viewed as an obstacle–the architecture of the chapel which the building housed prior–only became a boon, with the theatergoers getting a sacreligious kick out of the confessional booths becoming viewing boxes for the irreverent plays. To top off the aesthetic, the theater was named for Guignol, a puppet character made famous in the region of Lyon for combining slapstick comedy with incisive political commentary.

The theater boxes, credit to Getty Images.

Founder Oscar Méténier founded the theater with the intent to focus on plays about characters eschewed by polite society: criminals, sex workers, beggers, and others of the oppressed class. He had, for a time, followed his father’s footsteps in policing, but had a deep desire to devote himself to the arts. He viewed the Grand Guignol as a place where naturalistic performance could be encouraged (as opposed to the romanticism popular at the time). Méténier wrote and directed dozens of plays himself, with his most famous being La Puissance des Ténèbres–a translated modification of Leo Tolstory’s five-act play, The Power of Darkness. However, this adaptation was never performed at the Grand Guignol (from what I could find), despite the main characters being criminals or unfortunate people, fitting the theme of many other Guignol plays.

Méténier used his time as a police officer to inspire many of the brutal crime-fueled plays. Patrons of the Grand Guignol could expect to see five to six short plays for the evening, often horror plays alternated with bawdy comedies (a practice called “hot and cold showers”). The horror plays were bloody affairs, usually relying on natural explanations for the horror–crime, insanity, or panic–rather than the supernatural or paranormal often seen in the more romantic gothic plays elsewhere.

The main mastermind behind the plays was librarian, novelist, and playwright André de Latour, comte de Lorde. His fascination for the study of horror was infamous, with his friends dubbing him Prince de la Terreur (prince of terror) in the 1920s. He collaborated often with the famed psychologist Alfred Binet, co-creator of the IQ testing process, particularly on plays or other works which involved themes of criminal insanity and panic disorders. 

Even the famed author Gaston Leroux, who penned Phantom of the Opera, wrote plays for the theater. Perhaps, his concept for the opera ghost haunting the dark patron boxes came from the architecture of the Grand Guignol? 

While Méténier billed his plays as naturalistic, this label would seem odd to us today looking at the heightened melodramatics of the plays. As such, the term guignol as a disambiguation would come to be associated with films and plays which embodied the spirit of camp (i.e. deliberately exaggerated and theatrical behavior or style). The term Grande Dame Guignol in particular became a byword for horror productions who made use of the skills of aging actresses who might otherwise be overlooked by major productions–an excellent example of this would be the psychological drama What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as aging sister actresses. 

One Grand Guignol grand dame who embodied this more than any other was Paula Maxa, one of the Grand Guignol’s best-known performers overall.  Known as “the most assassinated woman in the world”, Maxa played the victim frequently in the literal sense. Her characters were murdered more than 10,000 times in at least 60 different ways and suffered sexual assault at least 3,000 times. She would have a few more empowered roles as she grew older, but her legacy as a doomed progenitor of the scream queen was sealed with such a resume. 

Beyond that, the Grand Guignol gave rise to the popular image of the mad scientist. Despite André de Lorde having decent working relationships with some doctors, it was clear he had some of the same contemporary suspicions as others of medical institutions and many who worked within them. Many of his plays categorized medical researchers as mad men, held only in esteem due to the social contract and the hope that their deranged research might bring some useful fruit. It never did. The plays of de Lorde influenced the trope so heavily in popular culture that it can likely be pointed to as the reason Victor Frankenstein changed so drastically from the novel in other portrayals on stage and in film–which in turn influenced the trope from there on.

An example of a mad scientist play, credit Getty Images.

Of course, the Grand Guignol influenced horror as an entire genre as well. Until that point, horror was viewed as solely escapism: stories of fantasy with ghosts, witches, and fictional creatures which were (usually) defeated by the end of the tale. In contrast, the stories of de Lorde and his cohorts frightened audiences with tales that were exaggerated, yes, but still within the realm of possibility. While the psychological did often devolve to mindless violence in the theater, it still frightened audiences with the reality of possibility. The Grand Guignol audience became known to be as rowdy as the goings on on-stage, with guests fainting, heaving, or screaming and fleeing from their seats. 

To quote Jason Colavito in his text Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge and the Development of the Horror Genre: “Horror became a vehicle for ideas and philosophy where deep insights gave way to spectacle, and spectacle to violence and gore, until in the end little was left but the gore.”

An English version of the Grand Guignol opened in London in 1908 and again in the 1920s, under the direction of Jose Levy. It featured stellar talents on stage, including performances by Sybil Thorndike and Noël Coward. Several of these plays were filmed and still exist at the BFI National Archive. The Grand Guignol has had massive influences on British horror, particularly as the play morphed into the film as production studios such as Hammer Films opened their doors.

There was also the technical engineering aspect of the theater which made it so unique. Actor and effects artist Paul Ratineau pioneered countless illusions still built off of in horror productions: fake blood that congealed under stage light, realistic false eyeballs, and makeup which melted like an acid burn. Why, the man even invented a method of artificially flaying another actor alive live on stage! It’s no wonder that it’s difficult to believe all of the tales of faintings are apocryphal–after all, the sound of artificial skin ripping and tearing as it was shredded from the body surely elicited an audience reaction. 

This, combined with the gimmick of advertising an on-site doctor to help those of weak constitution who passed out at the sight of such violence, sold countless tickets to the box office.

Credit to Getty Images.

Until it didn’t.

Despite its resonant influence on culture, the horrors of the Grand Guignol would soon pale. The site that was once as popular a destination for tourists to the City of Lights as the Eiffel Tower would have a dramatic fall off of patronage. It was not due to lack of creativity on behalf of the directors, though, nor could it wholly be blamed on the rise of films alone. Rather it was the horrifying creativity of real world forces, as World War I ripped across Europe, bringing with it untold horrors that had never been witnessed or imagined before. It only struggled more after World War II; no one could laugh at horror after the revelations of what happened at the German labor camps.

As recorded by Time Magazine in 1962:  “We could never equal Buchenwald,” said [the theater’s] final director, Charles Nonon. “Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and [so much] worse, are possible in reality.”

The Grand Guignol shuttered its doors that year. 

Still from the film Tokyo Grand Guignol, 2015

Its legacy lives on in countless ways, inspiring horror movies from the birth of film all the way until horror movies in 2022. Without the Grand Guignol, there were be no Herschel Gordon Lewis inventing the splatter film, no Dario Argento and other craftsmen of giallo, no New French Extremist horror movement, no modern genre of “horror torture porn” (though some would argue that might be for the better).

Beyond all that, anytime a film advertises with the lurid promise that someone, somewhere passed out or vomited while viewing, therein lies the spirit of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol: the blood, the insanity, the gore, the gimmick, and the legacy.