At first glance, the idea of a Christmas-themed horror theater showcase might seem like an odd fit.
Think a little harder on it, though, and you realize that the holiday season has always packed a fair bit of horror. Heck, “A Christmas Carol” is the story of a man who spends a harrowing night being tormented by ghosts and facing down his own mortality, and that’s been packing them in at the Guthrie for years.
This weekend’s “Dread the Halls: A Gathering of Holiday Horror” mini-fest in Minneapolis pulls together new 15-minute plays from four veteran horror-theater troupes that view Christmas from the scary side.
“That sort of minor-key, ‘Carol of the Bells’ Christmas vibe has always really appealed to me,” said festival co-founder Sean Dillon. “It’s my feeling that Halloween is just the beginning of the spooky season. From there it really only gets scarier and darker.”
Over the past decade or so, the Twin Cities has emerged as something of a proving ground for live horror theater. Fringe Festival regularly features a slate of creepy fare, and the annual Twin Cities Horror Festival has grown into one of the largest and best-loved events of its kind in the country. With that in mind, Dillon said his team at Oncoming Productions, for which he serves as creative director, decided this year to make the leap into the Christmas market.
“There’s this wonderful community of horror-theater folks who otherwise often just have the one outlet, the Horror Fest, each year,“ Dillon said. “As a horror theater company, we were looking ahead at what would be fun to do. Something for the holidays seemed like a natural fit.”
Dillon is quick to note that holiday horror is by no means a new concept. In fact, the darker side of Christmastime stretches back considerably farther than many of the cheery festivities we currently associate with the season.
“We’ve gotten away from some of that English tradition of ghost stories around the fire on Christmas Eve,” Dillon said. “There’s a deep sort of folklore tradition — Krampus, Black Peter, a lot of these Christmas monsters who aren’t part of our modern American interpretation of the holiday.”
The festival includes a story of a haunted bottle of Christmas Eve brandy from Oncoming Productions; a mashup of dance and spoken word from Erin Sheppard Presents; a theatrical lecture on legendary occultist Aleister Crowley from Ghoulish Delights, and a zombie Santa Claus tale from Rogues Gallery Arts. Performances by eclectic jazz duo the Champagne Drops will punctuate the productions.
While horror is the theme of the night, the lineup suggests that audiences can expect laughs, as well. Dillon is a seasoned comedian who recently took the reins as managing director of Huge Improv Theater, and most of the writers and performers behind “Dread the Halls” have similar comedy pedigrees.
Dillon feels that crossover is no coincidence.
“There is a lot of common ground [between comedy and horror], to the extent that they almost feel like mirror images,” Dillon said. “A good scare, like a good comedy bit, depends heavily on timing, and on setting up a tension of expectation, then releasing that tension in a way that feels both surprising and inevitable. Both genres transgress norms, and take the absurd seriously in order to provoke visceral, often audible, emotional reactions.
“So I think horror is a space that feels familiar to stage-comedy folks and provides the same kind of payoff — just in the opposite direction.”
Ira Brooker is a St. Paul-based freelance writer and editor.