Sheffield born Joseph Willis is known for his love of horror theatre and a habit of carrying too much fake blood. He’s one of the minds behind horror theatre production company Danse Macabre. We caught up with him to find out more about their latest show, Fear Itself, which is heading to both The Edinburgh Fringe and the London Horror Festival. We caught up with him to find out more about the show.
STARBURST: Tell us a bit about Fear Itself?Joseph Willis: Fear Itself is our brand new one-woman horror show that follows Dr. Amelia Greenwood, a former psychologist turned motivational speaker as she tries to conquer the audience of their fear. However, in doing so, she must confront the ghosts of her past both metaphorically and literally, awakening truths she thought had long been buried. It’s what would happen if you crossed a TED Talk with an MR James ghost story and then had Clive Barker do the rewrites.
What are the challenges in doing theatre on the stage?
The main challenge that has presented itself when producing horror theatre for the stage is the limitations on spectacle that the medium can create. For example, we are not able to use CGI like films do and have say someone turns into a giant pineapple and crush someone’s face in (as much as we would love to). However, whilst it is a limitation, it is also a huge benefit as it requires us to think more psychologically when devising our shows. For example, one of the best audience reactions we’ve had was through a very simple but terrifyingly effective piece of stagecraft. In our show Every Breath You Take, we had a scene where the main character’s flat had a blackout.In this blackout, we played heavy breathing over the speakers and had members of our company touch various audience members on the shoulder. This leads to much screaming and was excellent evidence of how the intimacy of the theatre can be just as scary as a big CGI budget. The same goes for good old-fashioned storytelling as the lack of spectacle also makes you focus on telling stories that are much more insidious in their terrifying ideas. Stories which plant seeds of doubt in the audience minds, worming there way in so that they spring up from their bed at night to check under the covers. (I promise we’re nice people, honest!) These can be just as effective, if not more so, than the spectacle and so are also key weapons in horror theatre’s arsenal; further showing how these challenges are benefits.
What inspired Fear Itself?
The idea for Fear Itself came initially from our social media accounts being clogged up with various inspirational posts, quotes and videos telling us how to achieve, believe and grow. Which is all fine and good until we started fact-checking for fun some of these posts (we really need to get out more). Many of the quotes were mislabelled or videos falsified, and so we began to think about how often people believe what they want to believe. Creating their own narratives, often through this type of inspirational media to help them make sense of themselves and their lives.
Whilst not always a bad thing, it can sometimes cause people to overlook or ignore more negative aspects of their personalities, rather than making them address the problem. This then leads us to motivational speakers and how the bad ones use this to exploit the audience much like how a fake medium does with a show or séance, by giving false comfort. However, unlike the idea of a fake medium, where the horror potential of a show going wrong is both obvious and has been done numerous times, there had never been a horror piece about motivational speakers, even though the parallel between them both is quite significant. Thus, we thought a) why not and b) wouldn’t it be scarier? For it is often the terror within the mundane that is scarier than the terror of say a giant clown from space. For it’s closer to home, and much more likely to happen, especially for an audience member thinking about it as they walk home at night. Also, we really really wanted to buy a new microphone and the show allowed us to do that (it has multiple inputs and a lovely rich sound quality and everything!).
How would you pitch it to your grandmother?
A lovely heart-warming inspirational drama of a young psychologist getting over her ex-husband by confronting the metaphorical ghosts of her past. She abhors horror, so I think describing it as a Channel 5 afternoon movie might be the best bet to get her to come to see it. All it would need is Jennifer Grey from Dirty Dancing in the main role, and she would probably bring her whole coffee group. Love you, Shirley.
How did Lovecraft change horror?
For us, Lovecraft is king (or Shoggoth) as he removed resolution from the genre; or at least the need for it. For in all other classic pieces of horror before it, Frankenstein, Dracula etc. there was always a form of resolution, a sense that the monster or horror was dead and buried. This allowed the reader to sleep better at night, knowing that the monster could not come for them (unless it was a zombie or succubus because then things get a bit trickier, however both these terms weren’t really coined until the 20th Century, so we’re probably just invalidating our argument, but on the other hand steampunk zombies would be incredible, right?).The genius of Lovecraft was that he brought in the idea of the horror having no end, that the old gods would always return whatever, and that there was nothing that we could do to stop it. There was no resolution, no safety net, just a terrifying existential dread that it was only a matter of time before that thing or sea creature appeared at your doorstep. This has obviously been used throughout horror ever since, from Halloween to It Follows (spoilers, sorry!), but its significance cannot be overlooked. So thank you, Lovecraft for this gift that keeps on giving and hail Cthulhu as the old ones will come for us eventually.
Does the stage make horror stories more intimate?
Definitely. Not only from a spatial point of view as the actor is only a few metres from your face, but also again in the sense of the stories that you can tell. As previously mentioned, theatre limits you in scope and scale, but this becomes beneficial, as it makes you come up with smaller more insidious scary ideas that you feed into the audience’s brain rather than spectacle. Thus, you can draw the audience in with effective storytelling and keep them up at night not with a shocking image but a shocking idea that makes them think twice before checking under the bed at night.
This is why I think people are repeatedly drawn to theatrical horror, because of this intimacy. It’s how Dickens used to go about telling A Christmas Carol and it’s the reason that The Woman in Black has been going on at the West End for more years than I’ve been alive (and probably will long after I’m gone or have returned as a flesh-eating immortal; god I hope that blood sacrifice wasn’t for nothing). It is a way of telling stories that no other medium has and a way of being scared that no other experience can give you.
Many horror fans are not regular theatregoers. What should they expect?
They should not expect to go in seeing gore and the effects budget of a blockbuster. However, they will get to see something much more quietly effective in chilling you to the bone. Something that will stick with you long after the applause has ended and bows have finished (and we’re not just talking about the chewing gum on the theatre floor; remember to pick up your rubbish on the way out).
As well as this, they shouldn’t expect to be safe in an auditorium. For whilst in a cinema or at home, the movie can end, or the film can be paused, in the theatre, the show is live and in your face. Anything could be behind you, or next to you in the dark, people could be hanging from the ceiling or even be under your seats (always remember to check under your seats). In the theatre, all rules are off and anything could happen, both good, bad, and horrifying. It’s what make horror theatre so great, but viewers of a nervous disposition should be warned (or if they want to ignore this warning at least bring a lid for your drink.)
What is the future of horror?
The future of horror hopefully lies in three different areas if all goes well (if not, well I’m already building my nuclear bunker in Sheffield, from VHS copies of the Leprechaun movies so I’ll be fine). Firstly, pieces which use the genre to heavily criticise and discuss social, political, and cultural issues will take precedent over quicker easy to make but exploitative media like Hostel or The Human Centipede.Metaphor is nothing new to the genre, having been used since its inception (vampires were initially a way of talking about syphilis, Twilight fans!) but more frequently now it is being used in a more important and vital context, giving voice to ideas and thoughts that would be overlooked or ignored due to their political, social, or cultural content. By placing them in a horror context, they are more likely to slip under the radar and allow the piece to get made, whilst still being able to disseminate their ideas and create discussion.
An amazing example of this, of course, was the incredible Get Out and hopefully, more horror media follows it example. Secondly, pieces which are schlock but fun schlock will continue to survive and thrive and hopefully not be thrown out with the dirty dirty bathwater that is pieces like Hostel or The Human Centipede (if you haven’t gathered I really dislike this stuff and believe it ought to be fired into the moon or Mars, I have no preference on planet). For sometimes we, as horror audiences, don’t want to think and instead just want to see five teens go out to a cabin and things go awry.
But if this is the case, we still want it to be enjoyable or have interesting characters or a decent plot. If we make the blood splatter matter (yes it did take at least five hours and seven coffees to come up with that pun) as in pieces like IT or The Evil Dead, then we can still have our axe-wielding murders but without all the upsetting sadism and weird obsessions with sowing people together (though I would go to see the human pineapple any day of the week). Thirdly and finally, hopefully, horror theatre will continue to grow in its legitimacy to the point where it is on par with the cinematic medium. It is already beginning to do so thanks to the incredible work of London Horror Festival, its producer the amazing Katy Danbury, as well as the never-ending ghost train that is The Woman in Black but hopefully it will continue to go from strength to strength. If not, as I said, the bunker is starting to look sturdy right now.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
From an artistic point of view, it is the usual touchstone of such greats as Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Mary Shelley, Stephen King, Lovecraft, and George A. Romero as well as comedically the League of Gentleman, Dave Allen, and Peter Cook, but in all honesty, it mostly comes down to one person, my mum. From making me watch Alien when I was four to buying me a fake decapitated hand, she has always allowed and supported us in my passion for all things macabre (though sometimes she heavily hints that I should really get on writing something happy like a musical). She was the person who introduced me to all those touchstones above and who kept saying yes when others said no. So, in a way, I draw much of my inspiration from her, through her likes, recommendations, and support. Also, a lot of my ideas, have come from asking myself what would really scare my mum, as she is one of the hardest people to scare! Thus, she provides a great sounding board, as if I can manage to even get a sense of dread out of her, then I’m on the right track!
If you could ask one person, alive or dead, one question, who would it be and what’s the question?
Apart from asking Rod Serling what the actual postcode of The Twilight Zone is, I would love to know where Washington Irving got the idea of the Headless Horseman from. As a long-time love of mine, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has been another constant inspiration in my work and it was a dream come true when last year we were able to perform a site-specific version of the story in some Yorkshire woods at night. However, whilst many other inspirations for ideas have been well-documented, the mental ticking’s of Irving has not really been discussed too much length (or I need to read more). Therefore, I would love to find out how he came up with one of the most prominent and brilliantly twisted characters of all time.Why the Edinburgh and London Horror Festivals?
Having worked at the Edinburgh Festival multiple times before, I have always resisted taking a show up there as I have seen numerous companies come out the other end beaten, heartbroken and broke. However as 2018 has already done that to me, I thought what’s not to lose? Joking, of course. In all honesty, having been up their multiple times, I believe that we have enough know how that we can really appeal to audiences, especially in a time when horror theatre and experiences are beginning to gain huge traction.Also getting to perform horror at the world’s largest arts festival will be an incredible experience, as well as allow us to do our part in providing the genre with a bit more legitimacy in the theatre. Some of my favourite shows and horror of all time have been from going to the Ed Fringe, and the ability to see work that you would never normally get to see is one of the festival’s biggest appeals. Thus, hopefully, people will be more open to seeing horror and come and discover us at Mint Studio at 8.50pm at Greenside Infirmary Street (sorry had to get the plug in somewhere!).
Regarding the London Horror Festival, it has always been an incredibly supportive platform and at the forefront of promoting theatrical horror. The team at the Old Red Lion led by Katy Danbury have always been helpful to new horror companies and especially ourselves, promoting, supporting us, and providing a home away from home in our work. Thus, there was no debate, we had to go! Also, because once again, Cthulhu commands it. All hail the elder lord.
What other shows would you recommend?
There are so many it’s unreal, but we’ll keep it to a small group so as not to take up all the space!
Firstly, horror shows that must be seen at Edinburgh are the wonderful horror comedy group Kill the Beast, who’s new show Director’s Cut, is terrifying and hilarious in equal measure. Imagine a physical theatre League of Gentleman and you’re halfway there! Another brilliant terrifying and funny show is Providence, which is a collaborative project by Simon Maeder of Superbolt Theatre and Dominic Allen of the Flanagan Collective telling a very Lovecraftian version of Lovecraft’s life.Not to be missed. Also, not to be missed is Cast Iron Theatre’s One-Woman Alien, which is as it says on the tin, a one-woman version of the film Alien and just as good, if not better than the original. (Shush don’t tell Ridley!)
In the non-horror boat there are a number of incredible shows that should be seen Electrolyte by Wildcard Theatre, an electrifying piece of gig theatre looking at mental health, Orange Skies Theatre In Addition, which uses torchlight to tell a very possible future of a dismantled NHS, Hitchhiker Collective’s Pig Circus which makes Brexit seem fresh and funny and Not Cricket Productions A Gallant Life, which shines a light on First World War Female Ambulance Drivers.
Also, if you can’t make it to Edinburgh go see Out of the Forest Theatre’s Bury the Hatchet at the Hope Theatre from July 24 - August 11th, which a brilliant new re-examination of Lizzie Borden’s life is and recently won awards at the Vault Festival.
The London Horror Festival programme is still being fully decided but check back in on their website on the July 1st for more info!Is the field of horror theatre growing?
Yes, not at a vast rate like The Blob or The Stuff but at a creeping rate like the monster from It Follows. In a couple of years, we have been going we’ve seen more companies come out of the woodwork and from out of the shadows to utilise the advantages of theatre in horror. Also, as already mentioned London Horror Festival has been huge in promoting horror theatre and showing that it is a legitimate part of the Art Scene. There’s still a long way to go, but in the next couple of years, it is going to hopefully grow and grow. This also partly comes down to a change in the way audiences are viewing the shows, not just as exploitation and gore, but stories with heart, humour, and soul, which also just happen to want to scare the living daylights out of you.
Why do we love scary stories so much?
I used to be pretty much terrified of everything. However, despite that I would keep watching scenes from The Thing and Halloween or reading Edgar Allan Poe even though I knew they would keep me up later that night. This was because I loved the feeling of my heart-rate going faster, the adrenaline pumping in my veins, and so would continue, as nothing else would give me an experience like it. This is why I initially loved scary stories and why I think many people get into scary stories also. For the kicks, the fun, the ‘I can’t believe you watched the whole thing’ conversations in the playground. However, as I got older and like any junkie became more accustomed to the terrors and frights, this love transformed.
It no longer became about jumps and bumps but about how watching, reading, and listening to horror allowed me to confront my fears about the world. This is why scary stories have remained around so long, and why I think people have and will continue to enjoy them. That by telling these tales, we become less scared of the world around us. For it shows you that the scariest thing in the world is your imagination and that whilst you can come up with 14 horrific ways of dying in the 5 minutes that you are sat on the bus, the chance of any of them happening is extremely unlikely. In a way scary stories are therapy, making us feel safe and sleep better as we know in the end, that the demon under the bed is just the one we’ve come up with (unless there is a real demon there, then you’re really in trouble.You can catch the Fear Itself at The Edinburgh Fringe at Venue 236 from August 3rd, 2018 until the August 18th. Check the programme for details.
It will also be at the London Horror Festival this October.