Horror of Transformation

The Horror Within:

Monstrous Transformations on Stage


A man, the innocent victim, looks into the pale orb that defines the night sky and feels his skin shed.  He fights, valiantly, desperately trying to stop the metamorphosis but it’s hopeless.  The audience knows the inevitable destruction and violence that result with this final surrender.   His inner monster awakened and now given corporeal form, he is the Wolf-man. 


The werewolf is not the only myth that explores the potential of mankind’s inner “beast.”  Monsters tend to reflect what we already fear and human's cruelty knows no bounds. But the process of transformation makes them special.  It differs from monsters who already embody societal taboos, their claws at the ready to commit acts of violence.  Nor are these tragic character arcs; fate forcing our poor luckless protagonists into murder through passion, anger, or a broken soul.  Within horror, these emotional journeys are actual physical processes.  The victim and perpetrator merged into a single person.  A style that has history on film. The spectacle demanded of these kinds of monsters has trouble in a theatrical context.  Live transformations are (at best) problematic when an audience sits only a few feet away.  But theatrical practice is no longer, if it ever was, simple realism or the Broadway musical.

Horror in theatre is not a new genre.  Ghost stories within drama have a long and fruitful life (The Piano Lesson,Ghost Stories) and the old adversary, Satan, is a consistent theatrical ploy (The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Seafarer). Dracula was a Broadway play before it was a Universal movie. Jekyll and Hyde is a gem like example of the genre I wish to explore (so I’ll naturally ignore it).

My initial attempt to merge modern theatrical practices and the theory of what I term horror of transformation (transformative horror for brevity) was a devised Master’s project called the Badb. After this achieved (being generous there) mixed results, I wrote a play titled Gingerbread.  Both attempted transformative horror in a theatrical context.

In order to develop a practice based on literary theory (and genre), I had a few goals.

A). To define “transformative horror” within the context of horror fiction and its own unique tradition as a sub-genre of horror.

B). The process by which this sub-genre can inform and develop a methodology of physical practice and performance.

C).  To expand these tactics from exclusively horror into other genres and theatrical experiences.

The Theoretical Basis:

Understanding the Curse

The horror genre historically is intimately tied with audience response.  It attempts to invoke a feeling of... oh what's the word... right! Horror. The structure, plotting, and characteristic traits of the genre are formed in order to help illustrate and encourage those reactions.  Noell Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror illustrates some useful fundamentals for the genre and how it can differentiate from other related works.  His work extensively influenced my initial thinking.  Carroll in his analysis admits to a primarily narrative goal (that is horror as it exists in novels, movies, etc.) but admits that horror and horrific imagery can exist outside of narrative, an aspect we will draw on later.  Carroll proposes two core features in his definition of horror, the first being the above mentioned intended audience reaction.  That is to say horror is a narrative that causes a specific, horrific, emotional relationship between the art and audience.  Now we say intended audience reaction because we all know bad scary films are the funniest thing on the planet.  However, Carroll seperates this from terror, suspense, or mystery.  Horror does include fear (or at least good horror does) but more importantly…

“Rather threat is compounded with revulsion, nausea, and disgust. And this corresponds as well with the tendency in horror novels and stories to describe monsters in terms of and to associate them with filth, decay, deterioration, slime and so on. The monster in horror fiction, that is, is not only lethal but—and this is of utmost significance—also disgusting… Within the context of the horror narrative, the monsters are identified as impure and unclean. They are putrid or mouldering things, or they hail from oozing places, or they are made of dead or rotting flesh, or chemical waste, or are associated with vermin, disease, or crawling things. They are not only quite dangerous but they also make one’s skin creep. Characters regard them not only with fear but with loathing, with a combination of terror and disgust.”    (22-23)

It is this disgust that marks horror.   We must understand that this force is not merely frightening but also wrong, unearthly, a threat to our very soul.  A power that even vanquished will leave its filth behind.  And as you can imagine this revulsion if often a subjective concept that changes over time.   Taboos change and sometimes quite rightly.  Caroll uses the term impurity to talk about the cultural norms being challenged by the monster.  These "norms" can vary from the hygenic to the sexual (or both if that's wht you're into).

However, the above quotation also illustrates a more objective defining feature: the use of monster within the work.  The monster, according to Carroll, is an unequivocally supernatural being.  It is not human and more importantly not explainable through any naturalistic system.  This monster must live in a world in which such things are hidden, uncommon, or fantastical.  That is to say that it lives in what the reader would consider their own worldThe baddie invades our precious safe spaces.

Also helpful in a build your own monster kind of way Carroll provides a variety of means this unearthly creature can be generated:  Fusion, the merging of the unmergable, fission the splitting of what is unbreakable, magnification, the enhancement of what should be small, and so on.    Our friend the werewolf is his literal textbook example of “horrific fission.” (46).  That is two being forced to share the same space but not at the same time.   If horror is based on “impurity”… which is “a conflict between two or more standing cultural categories” then spatial fission is this conflict confined in a single person.

Conflict, of course, is my favorite word in drama and it is within this conflict that the “horror of transformation” exits.  Here is where we depart for the moment from our good friend Caroll.  The revulsion here is not projected onto an outside force but internalized by the central character.  The key to this monstrous transformation is the acknowledgment that the horrific actions and eventual violence emerges from impulses within the unwitting victim.  It is the resistance then surrender to these impulses that defines the transformation.  Dr. Jekyll drinks the potion, transforms, commits violence, returns, fights the desire, and then drinks again, rinse-lather-repeat. Or our wolf-man struggles, gives into the pain, and becomes a werewolf. These impulses grow and fester until the character has become a physical embodiment of this impulse.  I will refer to these impulses as the hunger of the monster.  This hunger can be varied from actual hunger, rage, lust, or pain.   And it is in the resistance and surrender to this hunger that makes the transformation horrific.   Now under the loose category of “body horror” there is a long tradition of horrific transformations, sometimes even called transformation horror.  Some of these I would categorize as “horror of transformation” others I would not.  The key question is not the mutilation of body but the loss of humanity.

So the horror of transformation has a few defining characteristics.  The first is an empathetic victim.  This is easiest with a character whom the audience has developed a relationship.  Usually  the protagonist but it can be a mentor, love interest, best friend, or comedic relief.  It cannot be the adversary.  An illustration of this difference lies in the year of the wolf (1981) by contrasting An American Werewolf in London and The Howling.  In American Werewolf… David Kessler, a plucky American tourist, fights with everything he has to prevent his transformation.  While across the pond in The Howling, Eddie Quist gleefully makes the transformation terrifying and disgusting his victim.  Both transformation are horrific but only David has the necessary empathy, attempted resistance, and eventual failure that define horror of transformation.

In this way a whole host of horror can be reevaluated.  The Wolf-man and Interview With a Vampire function as horror of transformation but Cycle of the Werewolf and Thirty Days of Night do not despite both being werewolf and vampire novels respectively.   It is also not necessary for the horror of transformation to define the entire work.  In 28 Days Later Frank, the loving father to Hannah, becomes infected and the next few moments involve him fighting the process.   The video game Until Dawn uses the Wendigo and the act of cannibalism as the catalyst.

Forming a Methodology:

Help!  I’m Changing!

Now that we have the defining features it is important to take a moment to stop here and address the key difference from these various source materials and the goal.  Horror, in particular horror of transformation, has a rich life in the cinematic and literary world.  Skin explodes away, faces are forced out of chest cavities, eyes become a dusty yellow.  While the horror of theatre has remained relatively psychological, ghostly.   So what can we do as theatre artists to bring this kind of horror onto our stages?

First the monster in question need not be a werewolf.   There is after all nothing inherently special about the wolf.  It is not more human than any other canine, or boar, or even ape.  Our monster doesn’t even need to be a shapeshifter at all.  Vampires or demonic possession can lend itself to this kind of horror.  In fact it need not be anything in particular. Transformative horror requires the hunger not a particular beast.   As long as we start with a person, define a hunger, and end with a monster we are in business. In my own foray I used a traditionally static monster (a creature usually found outside the transformative horror sub-genre) the witch.

The ugly witch is stirring the protion

Care for some tea?  Fresh cup?

Now a few key points, one ethical the other contextual.   The witch has a complicated and tragic history.  It is impossible to separate the history of “witchcraft” and the history of misogynistic, racial and class oppression.   The plague bringing Nosferatu or the Viking berserkers as inhuman wolf men have moved beyond these original fears into their own cultural standing.  They do afterall glitter now and pine after young women.  But the witch as a horrific figure has not outgrown the backward, sexist, patriarchal nightmares that spawned them.  Entire religions, new age or not, have reclaimed this archetype reacting against this history.  The witch in modern culture can be a celebration of the very femininity that was once literally demonized.  So you know… keep that in mind.

The second element is that magic and those in thrall to it have a long history as corrupting agents.   This concept of corruption is related to transformative horror though not necessarily the same.   While transformative horror depends on the conflict between reason/morality verses the unstoppable hunger, corruption is more cynical.  The usual version of the corruption myth involves either guiding the protagonist into a new world of moral bankruptcy or pulling away the surface hypocrisy under the tired excuse of “power corrupts.”  There is usually an outside force, making reasoned if selfish arguments.  A partial list would include:  The Faustus myth, The Devil’s Advocate, Harold Lauder in The Stand, The Craft, among many many others.  A corruption story is not necessarily separate from a horror of transformation but has other defining characteristics.

A devised piece, The Badb, was my first attempt at staging transformative horror.  A Master’s project, my group was interested in what could form “horrific theatre” in general.  For my personal goals, we needed to fulfill two criteria, first Carroll’s concept of a disgusting dangerous creature and my own that the transformation must be from victim to monster.

The Badb historically is not a monster.  She is an Irish goddess but a goddess of power and death.   If horror is two parts revolting to one part terrifying the descriptions of the Badb suit the formation well…

“Over his head is shrieking

A lean hag, quickly hopping

Over the points of their weapons and shields—

She is the gray-haired Morrigu.

““The red-mouthed Badbs will cry around the house,

For bodies they will be solicitious.”

In these descriptions the goddesses appearance is as important as her dangerous nature.  The age and hideousness of the creature is central to the myth.  The description of aged women with great power and a hideous visage has a modern cultural context, witch.  Our group did not plan to use the goddess/witch connection initially but decided to develop this further.

So while the witch can function as Carroll’s monster it is not enough for transformative horror.  The witch is dangerous true.  And the witch can represent numerous cultural clashes within our society.  A simple list might include:  Female as other, the debilitating effects of age, beauty verses power, sexuality, gender, poverty, and a corruption of motherhood.   But the transformative quality is not inherent in the image of witch.  Nor is any single hunger that must be embraced to trigger the transformation.  This is where the shape shifting nature of the Badb in particular becomes useful.  The Badb, in Irish mythology, is one part of a triple goddess referred to as The Morrigan.  The Morrigan usually takes the form of a crow, beautiful young woman, or crone but as in the case of most oral mythological traditions other alternatives were provided.  We had two actors who wanted to work on these transformations within the myth.   One chose the shift from maiden to crow, the other from mother to crone.  For a variety of scriptural reasons it is the mother/crone change that became our focus in terms of witchcraft.

The Bedb’s transformation from mother to vicious crone set the horrific journey we wished to develop.  The Mother starts as the victim and is drawn inextricably into this hag’s body.  The group needed to identify the hunger that fuels this transformation, in this case maternal love.   Carroll indicates a tactic that forms horror or horrific reactions is magnification.  His meaning was literal (giant ants or tomatoes) mine was emotional.   The emotion itself must be magnified or amplified to the point where it no longer seems human.  A worried mother becomes a paranoid who imprisons her child. A proud mother transforms into a frenzied worshiper.  An innocent kiss eases into a deep desire.  The hunger then for her child physically transforms the innocent mother/victim into the diabolical witch.   We had developed the archetypes for both the victim and the monster.    The attempt to theatricalise this resistance could begin.

And fail.  The final project was a disjointed mess.  My own interest in transformative horror was merged with my peers other horrific goals.  The final project produced a couple of nice pictures and a few key elements from which I could draw.  Two moments in particular when transformative horror was clear.    One was a purely physical development the other based on an emotional shift.

The physical transformation of the maiden was part of a series of atmospheric approaches we took to indicate the maddening of our main character.  The maiden traveled behind a screen that cast her in shadow.  The maiden though having very little dialogue was based around archetypes in particular the innocent child.   This allowed the audience to empathize or connect with her on a limited level.  In other words she had been one of the good guys.   Keeping her in silhouette, behind the screen, the audience was able to focus on two things exclusively:  the outline of her body and the sounds she made.  The shadow exaggerated the excellent physical performance of our actress and this outline contorted in seemingly impossible ways.  This provided the transformation but the vocal pleading and groans of agony gave the audience an impression of an unwilling, sickening, and painful process.  When she emerged: hair covering her face, dragging her heel, the knife in her hand held awkwardly it was unsettling.  Her emergence may have been frightening, no matter what, but her resistance is what made the act disgusting.


The second moment was the performance transformation of Mother into Crone at the very end.   This transformation was done in full view of the audience.   Now the Hunger chosen was love, a maternal possessive love.  But we needed a trigger, an overwhelming moment that could be magnified until it reached a horrific conclusion.

We used the discovery of her son’s dead body as the trigger and worked to magnify the grief which served as her emotional anchor.   We started vocally with the sobs.  The resistance was naturally built in as our actress fought to prevent the tears and gasps from escaping.  This perfectly natural response to grief created intense empathy.   These sobs grew in intensity developing shorter duration between each outburst while each individual cry lasted longer.   Once the duration had been magnified, we used a variation in pitch and timbre to indicate rawness.  In other words, her grief had overwhelmed her ability to cry.  Instead of silence these sobs become gradually more disjointed until they resembled screams or wailing.  This then transferred into a more aggressive vocal posture more akin to growling, hissing, and using the hunger for her child propel her.   At the same time the physical actions that define sobbing also become more and more pronounced.  The act of hugging herself for support allowed us to tense the arms and let the fingers develop into claws.  Her eyes widened to blink away the tears and stayed open to unsettle the audience.  She had to steady herself in her grief turning her walk into a bizarre waddle.  Our Mother was able to show the audience how her character could become overwhelmed and surrender to the changes in her body.  This initial empathy and subsequent disgust was a quintessential moment of our horror of transformation.

Though the experiment as a production failed in its ambitions it was just successful enough to illustrate to me the potential power of this kind of horror on the stage.  I tried again from a narrative point of view with my play Gingerbread.  Using the most basic elements of Hansel and Gretel I attempted to build in moments of transformative horror throughout.  Some of these are quick others slow but each can be defined by empathy, hunger, resistance, and surrender.  This process clarified a few more points-

One:  You can have frightening transformation without them being horrific.  The character of Wade, a misogynistic hit man who lives to kill witches, transforms from an Atticus Fitch to a Max Cady.  It does involve a physical process and a magnification of an emotional state but he does not fight the event.  Since his character is not repelled by his own actions or desires we cannot develop the initial empathy.   These are the kind of transformations we see in the action/horror hybrids like Underworld or Twilight.   Or even other body horror work like The Howling.

Two:  The transformation and resistance can be subliminal.  The fight existing under the delusion that once the hunger is sated everything will reset.


We got a dead monster

            So what’s the point?  Why the focus on a particular subgenre of horror in a medium hostile to the goal?  There are a few reasons.

Horror fiction does not and should not have a monopoly on horrific imagery or tropes.  This theatrical vocabulary can be applied on a much wider scale.  Just during the devised work we used not only traditional horror narratives but fairy tales, myths, true crime, photography, Goya’s paintings, and folk remedies.

This vocabulary can also be applied to more traditional theatre practices.  In my previous listing of magic as corruption you may have noticed a rather important omission, Macbeth.   That is because I think the dreaded Scottish play can fall very neatly into the ideas of horror as transformation.  Empathy for Macbeth is developed early on, a hunger (ambition) that grows in intensity, a resistance to the hunger “is this a dagger I see before me,” and a final surrender.   This is where I think for theatrical purposes Carroll can be left behind.  We do not need a supernatural monster if these criteria are met.

These tactics can be utilized in non-supernatural pieces as well.  All the Kings Men could use the same logic as Macbeth.   But by having this particular viewpoint we can use it to enhance or help focus performance, designs, or direction.  The travel from one archetype to another seemingly unwillingly can be powerful.   Our theatres exist in a cultural context and I’m for using as much of that context as possible.  It is that empathy, the connection with the audience which for me is an artistic necessity.  The place of theatre as not only an emotional link between viewer and viewed but a physical one; sharing space as well as story.

And this is the reason why horror of transformation has stayed with me.  Horror as a method of exploring our fears, prejudices, and repulsion is vital.  It can give definition to the indefinable instinctual terror the millennia has gifted us.  Yet, we live in a world where we often turn our kin into these monsters.   We use our fears and fear of others to say this is them and that is evil.  But horror of transformation does not allow that.  It says that if I’d received that werewolf’s claw, vampires’ bite, demonic possession, or cursed hand, if not but for the grace of God, I’d be the monster.