I’m a theatre director who works with young people a lot. I’m a horror fanatic. So when I got asked whether I wanted to adapt one of the best-selling children’s books in the world (after Harry Potter, of course), Goosebumps, and make it into an immersive show for children, naturally I said yes.
But then I panicked. How was I going to create a piece of theatre that was scary, incorporating some of the best-known horror stories for children, without psychologically damaging the kids?
The original series of children’s horror fiction Goosebumps was written in the 1990s by RL Stine. It was recently adapted into a feature film starring Jack Black. Soon the books will be made into two immersive theatre experiences at The Vaults under London’s Waterloo station. There’ll be a version for an adult audience, which, by the looks of it, will be petrifying – and a version for kids, which I hope will be exhilarating.
I watch a lot of horror films and generally know what the differences are between and 18 rating and a PG. The British Board Film Classification has a clear set of criteria to rate films with horror content, especially those aimed at young audiences: “Decisions will take into account such factors as the frequency, length and detail of scary scenes as well as horror effects, including music and sound, and whether there is a swift and reassuring outcome.”
Here are a few things I did to ensure I made the PG version of Goosebumps rather than a gore-tastic, nightmarish 18 version.
With a film, the screen is a window to the action, but it’s also a barrier; the monsters can’t jump out of the screen and get you, even with the best 3D effects. Immersive theatre on the other hand has no screen and the monsters can absolutely grab you at any given moment.
You can put a book down if it’s too scary or press stop on that creepy tales podcast, but in theatre there’s less escape. It means the scare factor could have increased exponentially if I didn’t frame the stories in a right way. So instead of recreating the stories from Goosebumps as if we were reliving them, I’ve set the show in a museum, a place where the audience can explore the history of the stories.
Much like going to a museum to see ancient Egyptian mummies, you may be anxious at the fact you’re looking at dead bodies (some connected to the terrifying demises of others), but you feel safe that you’re looking at it though some glass – a screen. That’s not to say that the whole show is looking at exhibits; I’ve upended the trope somewhat, as they all come to life (think Night at the Museum).
Tell them not to be scared
This may sound counterintuitive, but I wanted to have a way of telling the audience they should be brave. Early on in the show a “fear meter” is introduced. It reads how scared people are and if it reaches 100%, everyone is locked in forever (cue maniacal laugh and flashes of lighting). It gives the audience a clear consequence for them not to be scared: they get out of this weird museum.
By constantly reminding the audience to be brave and then trying to scare them witless, it becomes a game – one they need to win to escape. I’m currently developing a mantra for the audience to use/say as a way of demonstrating they’re not scared.
Make the audience heroes rather than victims
Scary stories are a way of telling us there is always something worse in the world. They also give us a place to rehearse being a hero. I had to balance making the audience both the object of terror as well as agents for surviving it.
Attendants at our fictional museum guide the audience through the action.
They can be the ones who are scared of the horror, enabling the audience to feel like heroes, not victims. If the museum attendants are more scared than the audience, then we’re winning. Children can also reassure themselves that it’s not happening to them; it’s happening to the character.
Laugh at it all
Humour is the one thing fear can’t stomach: laughter banishes anxiety, releases endorphins and can help replace fear. It has the same energy as screaming
(we know this from Monster, Inc) so throughout the show I’ve tried to balance the tense moments with ones of pure comedy. If children leave knowing that if they can laugh at the things there are scared of, they become less scary.
- The costumes will be larger than life in order to take us away from reality; there’s nothing scarier than believing that this actually could happen in real life.
- Like a horror film, we’re using sound and light to indicate that something scary is about to happen; it’s a good way of preparing the audience.
- While I don’t want to spoil the plot, if you have read The Blob that Ate Everyone then you will be in for a treat.
For more information about Goosebumps Kids - click here