Grand Guignol

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Stageness and the Horror Machine


Essentially functioning as a circuit of horror, the primary mediatic dimension of Grand Guignol can usefully illustrated in terms of a sense of "stageness", that is, a reciprocal connection established between audience and actor through mutually corresponding vectors of attention. Although the actors possess the primary role of performancatory output, the audience takes on a similarly active role of reception and response. Arguably the relation between actor and audience can be seen as that of two stages, related in varying degrees of primacy. Although the actor traditionally occupies the 'primary stage' and the audience as the 'secondary stage' relational politics of Grand Guignol imbues the audience with a high degree of agency, creating an active communicative circuit between the violent spectacle of the actor and visceral reaction of the audience. Casting the audience as "meaning-makers" FIRST NAME Hand and Wilson argue that "the audience is irrefutably implicated in the creative process and an equal partner in the audience-performer dyamic" (77). As observed by Hand and Wilson, the stageness of Grand Guignol is characterized by this equal partnership, a circuit embedded in the larger conceptual apparatus-of-horror; a machine constructed from flesh, seats, darkness and illusion. These cogs work in synchrony, producing and consuming fear, disgust and sexual arousal in a complex web of input and output, in which "form and meaning are negotiated and created" (Hand and Wilson, 77) in the synaptic space between actor and audience and powered by electric viscerality.

Apparatus of Horror

The functioning of this conceptual horror-machine is dependent upon specific interaction between structure and flesh, the makings of the machine. The small stage and cramped seating further conflates the audience/actor bodies through tecnics of claustrophobic closeness; illusion of dismemberment literally spray (TOO GROSS?) in the face of the audience. In the spirit of Donna Haraway's examination of the cyborg, Grand Guignol brings together the tripartite of man, animal and machine (Haraway, 151). Using animal organs to mimick human flesh, man and animal unite as a mechanical cog in the horror-machine. This cyborgian conflation is extended through the scientific disection of the staged body. Opened bodies leak past the confines of the stage, splayed and surgically dissasembled, revealing their organs as mechanical parts. In his study of optics, Johannes Müller similarly describes the body as "a multifarious factory-like enterprise. . . the organism becomes equivalent to an amalgamation of adjacent apparatuses" (Crary 89). Conversely, Vilém Flusser identifies machines as "simulating organs of the human body" (Flusser, 51); the body and machine cry out to each other in their mirrored likenesses. Beyond the obvious illusion of theatrical effect masquerading as corporeal violation, viewing Grand Guignol as this apparatus-of-horror uncovers the hidden illusions that lie in the proposed divisions between audience/performer and man/machine.

Violation of the Staged Body

The crux of the horror-machine that is Grand Guignol is surely the performatory stage upon which the body of actress Paula Maxa "the most assassinated woman in the world", among many others have been "shot with a rifle, scapled, strangled, disembowled, raped, guillotined, hanged, quartered, burned, cut apart with surgical tools, cut into 83 pieces by an invisible spanish dager, stung, poisoned, devoured by a puma, lashed, infected and decomposed" (MOST MURDERED WOMAN CITATION). Though illusory, these acts are the loci of fear, creating the message that is delivered through the circuit of attention and connection between the actor-body and audience-body. Philip Brophy describes this connection in terms of textuality, coining "horrality" as "the construction, employment and manipulation of horror--in all its various guises--as a textual mode" (Hand and Wilson, 70). Horrality then, casts the body-as-paper to be inscribed upon by the slice of the knife-as-pen, creating a text to be read and deciphered as raw fear. Here the message embodies in the spirit of Iris in the most literal of ways, the violated body as message. Though horror as text is surely an act of writing, the inscription of the knife functions only to establish the actor/audience connection through nonsensical viscerality, a call returned through a jerk of the hand over ones eyes, a flinch, or a scream; these call back to the stage, writing of the horror just witnessed.

Techniques of Violent Illusion

Producing the Horrifiable Subject: How to Be Scared

Heightened Expectations and Sensationalism

Arrangement of the Audience

The Reception of Violence

Suspension of Disbelief


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Le Jardin Des Supplices
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Les Crucifies
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Sur La Dalle
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Bourreau D'Enfants
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From Le Baiser De Sang (The Kiss of Blood) Jean Aragny and Francis Neilson, 1937
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Louis Perdoux and Remy Clary in Le Viol (The Rape) 1959
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Les Nuits D'un Damne