Oh, the horror: Why theater needs to scare us out of our wits

A monster stood before us, and all we did was chuckle. 

"Trevor," staged at the Catastrophic Theatre last month, seemed like it was going to be a family comedy. It had, after all, a setup that's so cute it could be the next ABC sitcom, about a woman who lives with a chimpanzee with aspirations for show biz. How delightful it was to watch Kyle Sturdivant, who resembles an overgrown toddler, stomp around the living room with his toys as Trevor the pet chimp. He talks and looks like a human, but he's a monkey! The audience was uproarious. What an amusing, harmless way to spend a Friday evening. Right?

And then the blood comes.

Anyone who's seen a horror film knows the rhythm of the genre, which flicks a switch a few minutes in from idyllic existence to gory murder. In a climactic scene, Trevor grabs a neighbor's baby, the mother screaming in desperation, the scene evoking the shocking video of Harambe the gorilla slinging around an infant at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Sturdivant's terrifying chimpanzee in "Trevor" wasn't the only performance from Houston's theater scene in early 2017 that has elicited shudders. There was Julie Oliver's chilling mummy in the Classical Theatre Company's "The Ghost Sonata," who squirmed and squawked like something out of a David Lynch movie, not to mention the production's entire cast of silent ghosts and cursed beings backed by an Andy McWilliams' ambient post-rock score.

And Lucy Mangan's bestial child vampire in the bloody "Let the Right One In," haunting the Alley Theatre through March 19, didn't just scare us with gore. Psychological traumas dealing with sex and society elevated the play's visceral terrors to new territories.

In a wonderful anomaly for theater, these three plays in Houston embraced the macabre in a minor renaissance for horror on the stage. All three productions had what the best horror films have – a monster, a creepy atmosphere, a prey-and-predator relationship. These were shows that didn't seek to leave you laughing, crying or humming but rather sweating in fear.

None of this should have happened. "Trevor" should have been a comedy, "The Ghost Sonata" should have been a kitchen-sink drama, and "Let the Right One In" should have been a coming-of-age tale. There are too many reasons, after all, why horror has no place on the stage. Many see horror as inferior to drama, and the term is often used as derogatory shorthand for campy, violent thrills that dig into guts but not the human experience – the same way the terms sitcom, romcom and biopic often evoke a less-than-ideal piece of art that's trapped inside its genre.

It also seems impractical. Movies can use camera work, special effects and music in ways that theater can't, the thinking goes, which explains why all the bloodshed happens offstage in Shakespeare – theater is too imagination-based a medium to accommodate the literal needs of a night of terror. Go to the theater, and you don't expect to see a good, bloody fight scene that doesn't also feel cheesy or staged.

When horror is used onstage, however rarely, it's often not meant to frighten. In the Alley Theatre's "A Christmas Carol," ghosts from hell were a symbol of existential terror. In Theatre Under the Stars' "Rocky Horror Picture Show," ghoulish elements were used in service for camp. Horror is often either purely metaphorical or comedic. These productions look pretty. Their black-and-orange color scheme is an aesthetic choice – like the costume aisle at Wal-Mart on Halloween – rather than a state of existence.

That's why the best incarnations of horror often appear in places where they shouldn't.

Consider Ivo Van Hove's "The Crucible," at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway last year, a play about demons that has nothing to do with the devil and everything to do with society and paranoia. But the curtains open to reveal an actual body flying in the air, and all of a sudden none of the demonic imagery in the play – a dog's apparition, the sudden opening of windows that lets in flying debris, a convulsing schoolgirl or drawings on a chalkboard that come to life – feels like the metaphor it's supposed to be.

Because, in the end, why exactly are "Trevor" and "Let the Right One In" so terrifying? It's not because Trevor and Eli are monsters. It's because we see them as human.

The plays thus implicate humanity. They're accusations. It's, in fact, the opposite approach of "Jaws" and "Alien," films that put all their villainy into entities that looked as nonhuman as possible, making our terror both abstract and impersonal. When the murderers are people we see as protagonists, however, our terror is turned inward. We must question ourselves. We wonder if, by laughing at Trevor's antics or by rooting for Eli to make that kill, we are not just the monsters' sympathizers but creators.

This, essentially, is what makes most horror compelling – stories about our own complicity. It's what made Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" good but also John Hersey's "Hiroshima," not to mention the British TV series "Black Mirror" and even "Get Out," the current hit horror film whose racial terrors ping-pong between the fictional and the all-too-real.

Perhaps the ghastly delights in Houston theater are a coincidence. Perhaps it's a recognition that horror belongs in theater as much as comedy, music or drama. Perhaps it's simply a side effect of these times, when social, racial and national terrors can't help but channel themselves into more literal manifestations – when truth isn't just stranger than fiction but more disturbing as well.

"The Ghost Sonata," for example, uses horror not for its scare tactics, as "Trevor" and "Let the Right One In" do, but for its ability to transport you to a parallel world. The village in "Sonata" is unmoored from mortal reality yet so banally similar to everyday life that it creates the same bubbling sense of unease many of us feel every day. "Sonata" places you in an alternate reality. That phrase remind you of anything? Maybe a world in which the Chicago Cubs, the Patriots, Brexit, Donald Trump and "Moonlight" won when they shouldn't have?

Which is to say that, putting aside the sheer thrill of a genuine scare, there's no artistic tradition that feels more genuine now than horror. What the jaw-dropping plot twist at the end of the Oscars (or the Super Bowl, or the election) say about modern existence isn't too far away from the existential theses laid out by Houston's scariest theatrical offerings. They say: What you see is not what you get.

That's exactly why we need more horror onstage. When it's under the guise of entertainment, horror feels like the best way to escape its real-life manifestations. And it can translate into blissful surprise. "The Ghost Sonata" hid a live mummy inside a clock. "Trevor" hid a monster inside a childlike animal, inside our laughter. "Let the Right One In" hid a murderous vampire inside a chest, one that you think you don't want the characters to open.

But of course you do.

Once the victims fall prey to Eli the vampire's primal urges, they struggle and bleed and, after a final spasm, stop dead. Then she emerges, her face and clothes soaked in red. All is silent. This is a moment that needs proper luxuriating. What is this feeling we have after the killing? It's a sense of relief, sure, but also one of those rare moments that remind us why we love live performance.

Her thirst sated, Eli smiles. We all do.