Tom Sutcliffe: Terror rides to remember

The Week In Culture
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The Independent Online

Some years ago, in another of the hapless attempts to turn it into a place worth visiting, the Trocadero Centre opened a kind of indoor theme park. I went to write about it, for some reason, and decided I should sample one of the more ballyhooed attractions, a ride that was hyped as bringing a new peak of terror to the old fairground ghost train. I climbed into the trundling little cart, was fed into a pitch-black corridor and then endured two minutes of absolutely nothing. There were no luminous ghouls, no wailing cries from hidden speakers, no trailing cobwebs over the face. Just the expectation that something was about to happen and the fact that nothing did. And the curious thing was that it was quite frightening. The longer it continued the more horrible you imagined the eventual surprise would be. And since you couldn't see anything at all you had no way of knowing where it might come from. I trundled back out into the light, heart beating faster and unsure whether I'd just experienced a technical malfunction or a cerebrally minimal approach to spine-chilling.

I found myself thinking of that curious blend of anti-climax and anxiety after seeing Ghost Stories, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman's very entertaining essay in theatrical haunting, not because it's anti-climactic or baffling, because it isn't, but because it too understands that anticipation is 99 per cent of the game. And it also got me thinking about the differences between theatrical fright and the cinematic or the roller-coaster version, which are essentially cousins. Like a fairground ghost ride a horror movie or a filmed ghost story can control to a large degree what you look at and when. And that loss of control over the sense that you most depend on to protect you is one of the reasons for the cinema's visceral power to frighten us. Ghost Stories acknowledges as much with stage-craft, which sometimes attempts to replicate the suddenly changing angles and editing of film. It also finds an equivalent to the cinematic experience of having something atrocious flashed in front of your eyes, and then snatched away again, by means of lighting tricks that create a kind of jump cut.

But, as enjoyable as both those devices are they're really not what theatrical fright is about. Dyson and Nyman get this too, I think. They build their show around the individual experience – one voice recollecting something that happened, sometime in the past. Where cinema horror is usually a present-tense affair, something that is happening right now, theatrical fright, for obvious technical reasons, is more often retrospective. This should dull the anxiety but doesn't. We know that these tales are going to twist into the uncanny at some point – however banal and humdrum the place from which they set out – and it puts us into a curious state of suspension, more patient with the ordinary than we would ever otherwise be because we understand that it's the downpayment on the eventual chill. Quite a few critics have been a bit sniffy about Ghost Stories, partly, I guess, because it is so cheerfully fan-boy in its appreciation for the macabre. I thought it was a lot of fun – and, just occasionally, more than that. But it still didn't quite achieve the status of theatrical "Most Haunted" for me, which remains with the Irish writer Conor McPherson. His hit play The Weir, which employed no special effects except the human voice, was a kind of masterclass in elegantly deferred shudder. But he exceeded himself in Shining City, a play which made the whole audience jump simply by closing a door. It might have been constructed to demonstrate the essentials of theatrical fright – hints, suggestions, deep grief and unresolved guilt and the uncanny held at bay for as long as possible – in this case until two seconds before the end of the play. He understood that the moment you hear the thud is the moment relief begins. Waiting to hear it is where the terror lies.

Dull to the naked eye

To what should we ascribe the baffling longevity and continuing profile of the photographer Spencer Tunick? Here is someone, after all, who appears to have had only one idea in the last 20 years... which is to persuade a lot of people to get their kit off in a public space. The resulting images require a certain logistical talent for crowd control and, one imagines, honed skills of diplomacy in dealing with local jobsworths. But they signally don't require artistry or a huge amount of photographic expertise. And yet Spencer Tunick seems to be able to guarantee good media coverage for every new instalment of his global divestment programme. Is it because the photographs speak deeply to us of the human condition – reminding us of our mammalian kinship beneath the superficial peel of class and wealth and culture? Or is it because quite a lot of people like taking their clothes off in public and newspapers are always grateful for anything that isn't a picture of a man in a suit and tie coming out of a doorway? I favour the latter explanation and urge the picture editors of the world to give his next effort a miss. You never know, it might encourage him to come up with idea number two to fill the next 20 years.

* Tate Britain's Henry Moore exhibition is largely a matter of familiar shapes and feelings, even though it is intent on refreshing his reputation and contains many lesser known pieces. Walking round it you're having your sense of what a Henry Moore should be confirmed at every turn. It does contain some oddities though – two of the most salient ones cropping up works on paper. In Crowd Looking at a Tied-up Object Moore seems to prefigure Christo, with an enigmatic scene of a towering monolith wrapped in white fabric, being watched, in rather bovine fashion, by a group of people. And in Eighteen Ideas for War Drawings, a collection of postage-stamp sized vignettes, he produces an extraordinary little sketch of burning cows, flames rising from their backs as they unperturbedly chew the cud. They give you a glimpse of an utterly different kind of artist, and also highlight why he became the artist he was, one who swathed and smoothed and who could imagine a blazing animal, which apparently hasn't even noticed that it's on fire. Still can't quite decide whether they made me think better of him or worse.