Ghost Stories, Bath Theatre Royal

aWHY do we like to be frightened? What is it that makes horror films so appealing? Why do we love to gather round the fireside and have our blood chilled by stories of haunted houses, headless knights and grey ladies ceaselessly pacing lonely battlements?

You might say, we live in comfortable times and we need something to jolt us from our centrally-heated complacency. But ghost stories, hauntings, unexplained disappearances, serial killers, people-eating monsters and voices from beyond the grave have been sending pleasurable chills down the spines of human beings from time immemorial.

Dracula, Frankenstein, Hannibal Lecter, zombies and the twilight world of vampires, werewolves and the undead are big business in the theatre and on screen.

Ghost Stories, the extraordinary play by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, at Bath Theatre Royal until Saturday 18th January, has become an international phenomenon. The success can partly be attributed to this peculiar human desire to be frightened, and perhaps a little to the secrecy that surrounds the plot. We – critics and audiences alike – are asked not to reveal the play’s secrets. And, well-behaved as we are, we duly obey.

So, I can’t tell you anything about the story. I can tell you that it begins as a lecture by a professor of parapsychology (Joshua Higgott). He illustrates his lecture with stills and film clips from a website, and three examples of people having terrifying experiences which cannot be readily explained. He goes on to explain them away, to dispel the idea that anything paranormal or ghostly really happened, to demonstrate that it is, as it were, “all in the mind.”

Who wouldn’t be scared almost witless being stuck in a derelict industrial building at night or in a broken-down car in a dark wood (the distinctly spooky Rendlesham Forest comes to mind)? These are fears we can all relate to. It is also at times very funny, particularly with the insistent interruptions of mobile phones.

What made my experience different from that of others in the audience is that my companion is blind. I could describe to her some of what we were seeing, she could hear the voices of the victims of other-worldly onslaughts and the sound-scape that heightens the horror – but she was never frightened.

Driving back, we concluded that most of our fears come from what we see or what we think we see, from plays of light and shadow and wind-blown shapes.

And then we spent the rest of the drive talking about the places we had been that felt haunted, or had an atmosphere that clawed at your heart, or chilled your bones, rooms you couldn’t wait to get out of, buildings that spoke loudly of fear and misery and desolation.

So it works. Ghost Stories really is scary.


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