What is Grand Guignol?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Grand Guignol is a style of theatre, and by extension, film, that is gory, macabre, and heavily reliant on shock value. It typically makes use of special effects to produce realistic, over-the-top violence. The term Grand Guignol comes from a Parisian theatre of that name renowned for its gruesome shows.

The term "Grand Guignol" comes from a Parisian theatre of that name renowned for its gruesome shows.
The term "Grand Guignol" comes from a Parisian theatre of that name renowned for its gruesome shows.

Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol, open from 1897 to 1962, was named after a traditional French puppet, Guignol, who is similar to the English Punch. Playwright Oscar Metenier opened the 300-seat theatre, the smallest in Paris, in a former chapel. From its early days, it specialized in controversial subjects, depicting criminals and prostitutes on the stage and frequently attracting the criticism of censors.

Grand Guignol films rely heavily on shock value.
Grand Guignol films rely heavily on shock value.

Max Maurey, who took over as director at the Grand Guignol in 1898, ushered in the era of horror shows that would make the theatre famous. The Grand Guignol still offered a variety of subject matter, though all on the darker side, including crime and sex farces, and each night featured a few short plays. The violent ones, however, supplemented by the butcher's byproducts, soon became a staple, and it was common to see audience members faint. Maury employed a house doctor to attend to such spectators.

Andre de Lorde wrote many of the plays that helped cement the fame of the Grand Guignol. He incorporated the relatively new field of psychology into his plays, depicting a variety of mental illnesses and criminal behaviors. Nearly every fear imaginable was exploited at the Grand Guignol, from executions and serial killers to epidemics and drug addiction, though scenes of horror were nearly always interspersed with those of comedy.

The combination of increasingly violent horror films and the real life atrocities of World War II led to the demise of the Grand Guignol, but the style developed in that theatre has flavored the horror genre ever since. Exploitation films of the 1970s, such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, owe much to the Grand Guignol style. Grand Guignol has also seen some resurgence on the stage. Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, due to be filmed in 2007, returns Grand Guignol effects to the stage in the story of a murderous barber. The San Francisco theatre company Thrillseekers has been translating and staging Grand Guignol plays since 1991.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


I remember there was a scene in the movie "Interview With The Vampire" that showed an early Grand Guignol production. Of course, in the movie there were real vampires mixed in with the rest of the cast. I'd say it was pretty psychological, since it was hard to tell if the victims were really being tortured or not. I think I would have been scared to death if I were in the audience, especially if I didn't have a frame of reference like schlocky horror movies to go by.

I've read some of the plots of some Grand Guignol plays, and they sound really freaky. Usually an innocent female is thrown into a terrifying situation, like a mental asylum's dungeon. The other inmates would falsely accuse her of a crime, but a psychopathic guard would come to her defense. Later, the guard would come back and torture the girl himself while the other inmates egged him on. I'd call that a horror story, all right.


In a way, I wish I could watch a few Grand Guignol plays as they were originally presented. I can't imagine how scary the earliest Grand Guignol pieces could have been, considering the limits of live theater back in those days. But according to everything I've read, the audiences weren't faking their reactions. Those plays really must have been gruesome enough to make some adults sick.

I just wonder if a modern audience would see them the same way.

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