Writers Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson tell Quays Life about their shared love of horror, giving audiences a trick and a treat, and keeping the secrets of spooky stage hit Ghost Stories.
Supernatural stage scarefest Ghost Stories is something of a modern The Mousetrap. Stick with me. I’m not suggesting Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery has moments of ghoulish terror that would make you leap, petrified from your seat, but if it did you probably wouldn’t know about them because, despite having run for the best part of seven decades, no-one spills the beans on its record-breaking secrets.
Ghost Stories is exactly the same. Despite having premiered a decade ago and been adapted as a film, the secrets that make it such an unusual and successful show have remained elusive, well-guarded as they are by both its creative team and audiences.
“Secrets are precious,” explains the show’s co-creator Andy Nyman. “If you give people a secret that they really enjoy and you ask them nicely to keep it, they do.” If anyone should know about secrets, it’s Nyman. Before writing Ghost Stories, he was the man behind many of Derren Brown’s mystery-filled stage shows and early TV performances.
The secretiveness with Ghost Stories, he says, was born out of frustration that these days “Everything is spoiled for you. Every single film and television trailer ruins plot points. Jeremy and I love the experience of telling people a really good story without them knowing anything about it in advance. You feel the buzz in the audience; it’s an exciting thing to sit and watch.”
So what can we say about Ghost Stories? Well, Andy explains: “Ghost Stories is a 90-minute scary, thrill-ride experience about a professor of parapsychology who investigates three cases. That’s as much as you get and that’s more than we ever used to give.”
If you push him a little harder, he’ll tell you it’s: “A rattling hour and a half that will make you roar with laughter, leap out of your seats and talk about it for a very long time.” And that’s really all you need to know about the specifics of the show; it will make you scream like a banshee and giggle like a schoolchild, probably at the same time.
Nyman and co-writer Jeremy Dyson, best known for his work with The League of Gentlemen, have a long history that reaches back far beyond the start of their Ghost Stories journey, but begins with horror and a shared love of the genre that saw them forge a teenage friendship.
“It probably started, for me, with Scooby Doo,” says Dyson of his infatuation with creepy tales. “There were a lot of scary things for kids around in the 70s, and lots I was enchanted by. Doctor Who would have been a part of that, which in the 70s had a real horror edge to it. So the groundwork was done by the time I was seven or eight years old. People used to buy me collections of ghost stories for my birthdays. They were supposed to be for kids, but they were the most terrifying tales.”
Throw in horror double bills on BBC2, screened at a time when there were only a trio of channels available so “whoever was doing the programming just picked the best stuff,” and public safety films that were as terrifying as any big screen offering, and you have a culture that bred a shared sensibility, certainly between Nyman and Dyson, if not a much wider generation of horror fans.
“It’s a very English genre,” says Dyson. “Certainly when it comes to the supernatural side of things. The English sensibility defined a lot of that. It’s a very English tradition, and there’s no question that’s part of what we’re celebrating in Ghost Stories.”
Yet despite the best British traditions of both horror and theatre, stage horror is not a genre you see very often, even with the fact that a theatre gives you the ability to control the entire 360 degrees of an audience’s experience. The Woman in Black may be a permanent fixture in the West End, but try and name another such show. After Ghost Stories’ emergence at the Lyric Hammersmith 10 years ago, and its immediate success, this has slowly begun to change.
“I think it’s hard to do well,” says Dyson. “You have to have a love both for theatre and for horror. It’s a bit like comedy. People talk about comedy writers having funny bones. I think you need scary bones to write horror.”
“I think snobbery plays a real part in it too,” Nyman adds. “When I was growing up, we’d come to the West End and there was always a good old thriller on, be it Corpse!, Deathtrap or Sleuth. Those stage thrillers have completely gone out of fashion. There is a section of the audience that is completely ignored by plays; a thriller audience that would never dream of going to a play because it’s seen as ‘clever stuff for clever people’. That’s not to say we think we’ve created this brilliant play for that audience, we’ve just written the play that we wanted to see.
After numerous successful runs across London, Ghost Stories is taking its jump-inducing, goosebumps-raising show around the UK for the first time, and Nyman and Dyson could not be happier. “We cannot wait to take it around the country and let people see it and experience it in their home towns,” says Nyman. While audiences outside London have had to wait since 2010 for Ghost Stories to take to the road, they are getting the fully polished, expertly tweaked, 20% scarier version that Nyman and Dyson have been refining for a decade. The majority of the spooky psychological blood-curdler was actually put together in the space of one-week. It was one of those projects where everything clicked. Since then, Nyman and Dyson’s work has been about small changes to give audiences the biggest thrills, laughs, scares and hold-your-breath moments of delicious tension possible.
Nyman and Dyson really do care whether audiences leap out of their seats with a heady mix of fear, excitement and joy, and not just because they want them to keep those all-important secrets. “If people are paying their hard-earned money to see a show you’re putting on, you have a massive responsibility to give them more than they pay for,” says Nyman. “It’s not fair to think ‘that’s good enough, it will be fine’, you have to over-deliver. You’ve got to lose sleep over it. When the show is up and working and you keep tweaking it to get it right, and you see people going away happy, you know the main reason you’ve got to that place is you’ve felt a responsibility and you’ve worked hard at it.”
With that attitude, if anyone deserves to replicate The Mousetrap’s success, it’s them.