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Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol

In 1897, an entirely new form of entertainment came into being in the Pigalle district of Paris.

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, known as the Grand Guignol, pioneered horror as a theatrical genre, inspired partly by the “Penny Dreadfuls” (the original “pulp fiction”) and probably inspired the relatively recent “Jack the Ripper” murders In England.

1897 was also the year that artist Philip Burne-Jones painting The Vampire was created. His vampire was a voluptuous female; and at about the same time, author Bram Stoker published his landmark horror novel Dracula, the aristocratic monster that became the archetype of the bloodletting genre that still flourishes today.

The Grand Guignol was the ancestor of our horror films and fiction today. The name “Grand Guignol” itself was a sarcastic and irreverent in-joke: “Guignol” was the name of a puppet in a popular French puppet show in the 1800’s. The name was pirated by the founders of the Grand Guignol, using the popular puppet’s name as a ironic in-joke to lure audiences to their performances.

The modern equivalent would be if the puppet Pinocchio was used as a major advertisement for a modern horror film, or if the TV series “The Walking Dead” was promoted and advertised by Disney cartoon characters. Because of the common association of the name “Guignol” with puppetry, there was also an implied dehumanizing element, suggesting that the murderers and their victims portrayed by live actors onstage were merely “puppets”.

The original purpose of the Grand Guignol was to present plays about subjects and activities not usually considered appropriate subject matter or “role models”: prostitutes, criminals, perverts and various lowlifes. This eventually drifted into sordid depictions of sex, insanity and violence. Some might say our own entertainment industry may be drifting in the same direction.