The Horrific History behind Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris

  • October 20, 2023
  • Parisian theatre
  • Isabelle Iebeneck

The grandeur of great Parisian theatre is haunted by the dark and bloody past of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. Sink your teeth into the horrifying history of this illustrious company.

Read to the end to see our list of spooky shows this Halloween season in Paris!

Founded in 1897 in the Pigalle district of Paris, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (literally: “The Theatre of the Great Puppet”) was dedicated to naturalism in theatre from the start. Its more popular name, the Grand-Guignol, has become synonymous with all things gory. Founder Oscar Méténier initially planned on following his father into policing, and became a secretary for a local precinct. Inspired by the works of naturalist Émile Zola, Méténier began writing short stories and plays about the things he saw on the job. His original intention for the Grand-Guignol was to showcase plays in the naturalistic style, seeking for the dramatic action to mirror real life as closely as possible. After a particularly violent show depicting a murder became a big hit, the brand of the Grand-Guignol was born.

Because the theatre now specialised in both horror and naturalism, the shows presented on its stage were notoriously graphic. Often drawing from crime reports in the newspaper, the stories remained anchored in reality, rather than venturing into the realm of the supernatural. Through the combination of novel special effects and traditional staging techniques, the Grand-Guignol held a haunting mirror to the darker side of humanity, telling tales of truthful terrors. Doctors were employed at every performance, partly as publicity, and partly due to the occasional fainting or vomiting viewer. Rumours claimed the theatre had two swoonings per night; on one occasion, one of these was reported to be the very doctor intended to care for other squeamish patrons. More boisterous spectators are said to have been so vocally opposed to the action that the actors broke character to quieten them.

Audiences were captivated. The intimate nature of the small venue meant they could see with perfect clarity the ghastly special effects for which the theatre was renowned. Eye gouging, decapitation, and even flaying made their way across the stage of the Grand-Guignol. As a result of the theatre’s bold creative choices, they drove innovation in realistic, theatrical special effects. Critics have also lent great credit to the actors of the company, as their truthful portrayal of violence and victimhood were crucial to the success of the illusion.

However, the Grand-Guignol’s popularity did not last forever, and in 1962, it shut down. Many people attribute its failure to the horrors of the Holocaust; what had seemed to be a theatrical illusion was suddenly very real. Audiences no longer found a need to seek out frights on the stage. While post-war years did see a decline in attendance, the theatre had been teetering for a while, with creative conflict stewing deep within its company. So immersed in the genre, the Grand-Guignol lost touch and the gore became overwhelming, then unrealistic. Under new leadership, the theatre then shifted to a psychological style of horror. Missing the easy dichotomy of good and evil, the audience lost interest. The final straw came when beloved actress Paula Maxa was fired due to creative differences with the new manager.

Since its dissolution, many theatres worldwide have produced revivals, adaptations, and tributes of and to the work of the Grand-Guignol. Entire theatres, such as Vigor Mortis of Brazil, have been created in tribute to the illustrious theatre. Its original works have been translated into a number of languages, including Italian and English. The San Francisco company, Thrillpeddlers, have produced both original Grand-Guignol scripts, as well as musicals inspired by these works. Experts also point to modern plays such as Ghost Stories and The Woman in Black as being inspired by the legendary company. The marks on modern theatre left by the Grand-Guignol are as profound as they are bloody.


In honour of the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, we’ve compiled a list of spooky shows this Halloween season. Click the links below to learn more and buy tickets!

  • Victor Vincent in Fantastik, an illusion show at Théâtre de la Tour Eiffel in Paris (Until January 7th, 2024)

  • Macbeth Underworld, an opera at Opéra Comique in Paris (November 6th-12th, 2023)

  • Rocky Horror Show, a Broadway show at Lido2Paris in Paris (February 27th - April 7th, 2023)
  • See all shows playing in Paris!

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