Terrifying Women: the trio of ‘horror fiends’ embracing stage fright

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, Abi Zakarian and Sampira are self-professed horror fiends. All three grew up addicted to ghost stories and gorefests, but as playwrights they have found it frustrating to see the form so often dismissed by theatre-makers as lowbrow or better suited to the medium of film.

They sought to address this last year with a one-day programme of horror at the now defunct Bunker theatre in London, but the pandemic stymied its staging. So they set up a themed WhatsApp group over lockdown instead as a way to keep connected. “We called it Gore Girls,” says Lloyd Malcolm, writer of the Olivier award-winning play Emilia. “It was a way of talking about horror, sharing memes, watching films on Zoom. It became a real support group.”

It also led to a post-lockdown project to bring female-led horror narratives to the stage which will be realised later this month in an inaugural Halloween festival called Terrifying Women, featuring six short plays by them. They have created a theatre company of the same name and hope to expand the festival in the future by commissioning and staging work beyond their own.

The playwrights are sitting in a cafe opposite the Golden Goose theatre, in south London, where the festival will take place, and ruminating on theatre’s awkward relationship to horror.

“It’s so funny that there’s this attitude towards horror when there is everything from Medea to Titus Andronicus and Jacobean revenge drama in the canon,” reflects Sampira. “There’s a through-line of horror all the way across the classics but they call it ‘tragedy’. Even when theatres stage stories like Dracula or Frankenstein they call it ‘gothic’ rather than horror.” It is ironic because there is something inherently theatrical about the genre, thinks Lloyd Malcolm: “You can step out of realism in a way you can’t do in some other genres, which is great for theatre because stepping out of realism is what we do.”

Each came to the genre early in childhood, and love the mix of laughter and fear often embroiled in the medium. Sampira remembers flicking through TV channels at the age of eight and stumbling across the film Scream. “I saw this figure in a bizarre mask running through the house and I was really terrified but I also couldn’t look away. I think that’s what good horror is and it’s what good theatre is – you want to look away but you can’t.”

Lloyd Malcolm agrees, having first realised the potency and power of scary stories by making them up to capture the imaginations – and fears – of her schoolfriends. Her two plays in the festival both revolve around supernaturalism: The Passenger is a partly autobiographical exploration “of the fears you have as a child and how they follow you into adulthood” while Close Your Eyes is about a teenage girl who is coming to a realisation about who she is. “I’m fascinated by stories of teenage girls and poltergeists – there’s so much in them about collective energy and what young women are capable of.”

Horror has typically featured women as victims who either seek revenge for a wrongdoing or are fated to die at the end, says Zakarian, a British Armenian writer. But a new kind of female-led horror is subverting this narrative, at least on screen, with TV shows like Killing Eve and films such as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, an Iranian movie that features a hijab-wearing vampire who rides a skateboard.

These stories increasingly explore the nature of evil, challenge patriarchal tropes and explore sexual violence enacted on women’s bodies. The same can be done on stage, says Zakarian. “[Traditionally] it is a medium in which a woman is always imperilled or in danger but I love looking at it and saying ‘We can subvert this cliche. We can change that trope.’”

Horror is a form that necessarily asks a writer to think about how violence is framed, says Sampira, and in the hands of female writers or directors this can be transformative. “It’s an inherently violent genre so it demands you think about these things all the way through, not just in one particular scene.”

It has the potential to be radical in other ways, too, she believes. “British culture has this weaponised politeness but horror, by its mere existence, brings us into contact with the darker side of humanity. Even though this may not be overtly political, it is still dealing with aspects and behaviours that we don’t often talk about because we want to repress them. It allows for those repressed feelings to come out.”

Zakarian’s two dramas in the festival are a case in point. The Final Girl is a play on the trope of the “last woman” left standing to face the monster or evil force in horror. In this case, it is also an exploration of the #MeToo movement. “My main character, a young woman, is an actor going to audition for a big-name producer in his hotel suite. It’s about subverting power structures and it will be a cathartic release for every woman, I hope.” Her second play, I Am Karyan Ophidian, is rooted in Armenian folklore and deals allegorically with inherited trauma and the Armenian genocide.

Sampira’s drama United Satans also contains overtly political themes, with a plot that involves a female Satan and the fall-out of 9/11. Her second, shorter play Easy Breezy, features a female psychopath contemplating dating culture.

But isn’t there a problematic paradox at the heart of female-led horror? The idea of the evil or wayward woman is, after all, as old as Eve and original sin, so how do writers navigate that toxic trope? “We will be exploring that extensively,” says Zakarian. “It’s about progressing the story.”

Lloyd Malcolm thinks that letting women be evil on stage is essential for allowing us to see them as rounded human beings. “They can do evil things and in the majority of cases they have had evil things done to them. There are questions around nature versus nurture in this. If you start asking them, you have to change everything we do in society to look after people. Horror gets really good when it looks at why humans do the things they do.”

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