Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman may just have created the Blair Witch Project of theatre. Not simply because their show, Ghost Stories, is liable to turn even the most hardened horror nut into a gibbering wreck – though by many accounts it will – but because, like Blair Witch, having been created on a wing and a prayer by a couple of old mates it has snowballed into an unlikely commercial smash. After an initial run in Liverpool earlier this year it broke box office records at Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre in the spring and is now opening in the West End.
People, it seems, just love to be scared. And according to many who’ve seen it, Ghost Stories really is scary. A paranormal chiller – well, duh! – for over-16s only, it apparently isn’t merely for attention-seeking purposes that the publicity material suggests those of a nervous disposition should stay away.
“There are particular moments in the performance that draw screams which make you think you’ve psychologically damaged someone,” chuckles Nyman, who knows all about manipulating an audience into open-mouthed submission, having spent the past few years as Derren Brown’s co-writer and director. He’s also an accomplished actor and the star of Ghost Stories. Dyson, who co-wrote and directed the show with Nyman, is best known as the fourth, non-acting member of the League of Gentlemen, the group who created some of the creepiest comedy ever to hit TV screens. The pair met as teenagers on a kids’ activity holiday and bonded over their love of horror – “we shared a dormitory so we told horror stories and did a mock séance to scare everyone,” laughs Dyson – but it’s taken them 30 years to get round to working together.
“The mission we set ourselves was to create the show we’d love to see ourselves,” Dyson explains. “Being scared is a great form of entertainment, though we had no idea until the first night whether we’d pull that off.”
Of course, the West End already has a famously scary ghost show, the long-running Woman in Black. But Ghost Stories, which features three separate tales of haunted horror linked by Nyman’s parasychologist lecturer, is a very different (demonic) beast. Instead of the Woman in Black’s Victorian setting and slow-building tension, Ghost Stories is a contemporary-set, 70-minute adrenaline rush intended to have audiences leaping out of their seats from the get go.
“We want to give the audience an absolute roller coaster ride of big screams and big laughs from start to finish, so they never know what’s going to hit them,” says Nyman, who says the show combines the visceral rush and entertainment of films like Evil Dead with the eerie, deeply sinister qualities of Ringu or The Exorcist. But can you really recreate that on stage as successfully as you can on film? Even more so, says Nyman.
“A lot of the history of horror stems from theatre, and the fact that it’s happening live, in front of your eyes, means there’s no safety net,” he says. “I love that people come thinking ‘how scary can it be?’, then we frighten them out of their wits.”
He adds with an evil chuckle: “It’s been a great surprise to get messages from people saying we gave them nightmares. That when we know it’s really worked.”
Previewing now at the Duchess Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, and running from 13 July until 7 November. www.ghoststoriestheshow.co.uk.