The Grand Guignol: Horror’s Gory Church

The story of the French theater that has become synonymous with blood and gore. 

Paula Maxa died at the Grand Guignol Theater in Paris. She died there about 30,000 times, in fact; once known as ‘the most assassinated woman in the world,’ Maxa was probably the first Scream Queen, being one of the regular players at the theater whose name has become synonymous with over the top blood and gore.

The Grand Guignol opened in 1898 under Oscar Méténier. He was a playwright who was interested in the darker side of life, who hung out with prostitutes and bums and ‘apaches,’ which is what the French called their petty criminals. He wrote plays about them, naturalist productions that sought to shine a light on their place in society.

Méténier bought a theater in the Pigalle Quarter of Paris, intending to put on his own productions. The space he purchased had once belonged to the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and the small theater - at 293 seats the smallest in Paris - was housed in the old chapel. Walking into the Grand Guignol was eerie and odd even before the shows began.

The theater was named after a popular French puppet character whose plays were often social satire, and whose nemesis was a gendarme. For Méténier Guignol represented rebellion against the oppressive society, and especially against the censors - who targeted him more than once, especially because of the subject matter of his plays about the lives of hookers and thieves.

But the theater didn’t become the Grand Guignol we now associate with terror until Max Maurey took over. Under Maurey’s reign the Grand Guignol would bring the ugliest, nastiest and most brutal stories to its audiences. Almost all of those plays were written by Andre de Lorde, who would pen tales of graphic brain surgery, eyeballs gouged out with scissors, children strangled and acid-burned women getting their final revenge. Many of de Lorde’s plays were about psychosis and hypnotism, reflecting not only the late Victorian era’s fascination with the workings of the mind but also the time spent with his own therapist, Alfred Binet, who co-wrote many of the plays. Binet also pioneered IQ testing!

The Grand Guignol would have multiple plays in a night, sometimes up to six. Many would be graphically violent, pushing forward the boundaries of special effects with knives that spurted blood, squibs and elaborate sleight of hand to cut off heads, limbs and tear out guts, but there were also comedies. The theater operated on the idea of running audiences hot and cold - having a comedy to break the tension of the latest bloodbath.

But it was the gore that drew audiences. And it was the gore that made them faint - Maurey loved hearing stories of audience members overheating and passing out - and made them fuck. The theater’s architecture retained the boxes from which nuns had sat during church services, closed away from prying eyes, and those boxes would be used for adulterous assignations, where French women would, in a fit of terror, throw themselves into the arms and laps of their companions.

In many ways the Grand Guignol invented everything about the modern horror film, from the extremes of violence to the evocative key art (which also presages the EC Comics covers) to the way people use the frights as an excuse to get cozy with their dates. The stage tricks developed for Grand Guignol would inform the effects artists of the movies, and the stories of revenge, horror and cruelty would echo throughout the centuries.

In 1958 Anais Nin, a regular patron of the Grand Guignol, summed up why it had made such an impact:

"I surrendered myself to the Grand-Guignol, to its venerable filth which used to cause such shivers of horror, which used to petrify us with terror. All our nightmares of sadism and perversion were played out on that stage."

The theater prospered for decades, but it was the victim of first a change in subject matter - in the 30s director Jack Jouvin focused more on psychological terrors and less on the visceral nastiness that had built the theater’s reputation. But more than Jouvin, the theater could not survive World War II. The horrors of the First World War had not slowed down the Grand Guignol, but the extremity of Adolf Hitler’s crimes made everything on that stage seem trite.

Charles Nonon, the final director of the Grand Guignol Theater, gave to Life Magazine the theater’s cause of death:

"We could never equal Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality."