‘The Nemo Effect and Music for Grand Guignol Theatre: Horror, Horror Everywhere’ by Gregory Thomas Martin

Horror is one of my favorite genres to compose music for. It is always an exciting challenge to compose something that the audience not only has certain expectations for, but also is still something entirely new. For me the music is always in service of the drama itself; I want the viewer to be scared by what is happening on stage but I feel that the experience is always heightened by the sonic world around it.

In a play like Molotov Theatre Group’s The Margins (now through April 26 at DCAC: www.molotovtheatre.org), the horror element is based on something supernatural, and something we don’t even really see. I have the opportunity to have this unseen element be entirely sonic and therefore shaped by the sonic world I create. In a space like DCAC the house is small and the audience is almost apart of the action, with the actors only a few feet away. It is the sonic world that can make you feel like there is something more out there, like there is something in the spaces we cannot see – something in the margins – and make it seem to you that the horror is everywhere.

The Grand Guignol style of horror theatre originated before the mainstream film industry. Today’s audiences have preconceived ideas of how horror should sound; most, if not all of Molotov’s audience has seen horror films on the screen. These preconceived ideas allow me the opportunity build off the great horror film music that we all know and love, such as Bernard Herman’s music for Hitchcock’s Psycho, or how director Stanley Kubrick used the modernist compositions of Györgi Ligeti and Béla Bartók. These are rich sonic worlds that every horror fan knows, but what makes it even more exciting for me as the composer is getting to create something totally new that still sounds like what people think of for the horror genre.

I feel that it is always most important to heighten what is going on in the drama but not overpower it. When I teach classes on film/theatre composing, I tell my students about what I call “The Nemo Effect” (yes, the Disney movie character).

When my son and daughter were young we watched the film Finding Nemo – not quite a horror film, I know. One thing I noticed after having watched the film for the tenth time was that never did I consider how they created the film, the animation, the sonic world, or the technology used itself. I only watched the story unfolding in front of us.

“The Nemo Effect” is just that: Never should you as a viewer or theatregoer be thinking about any of the elements of the film or play by themselves. The story and the actors should move you, the music only heightens the drama, it is the support. Sometimes a scene needs more support, sometimes less.

Composer Gregory Thomas Martin.
Composer Gregory Thomas Martin.

This concept is very important for horror. We all know the theme from Psycho, but the very first time we saw it we were only scared because “mother” was killing Janet Leigh in the shower.

Of course now you know my secret and may be listening to the music more, or maybe you will just be too scared after the show to sleep in the dark, and will just keep thinking of all the things that happen in the Margins.

Gregory Thomas Martin is a composer and musicologist. His compositions have been heard throughout the DC Metro area and in New York. His recent choral work was premiered in San Francisco. Mr. Martin’s opera Life in Death was performed on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center.


The Margins plays from April 2-26, 2015 at Molotov Theatre Group performing at DC Arts Center (DCAC) – 2438 18th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Performances are every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 7:30 pm. For tickets, purchase them online.

The Margins stars Adam R. Adkins, Jen Bevan, Yoni Gray, Kate Jeffries, Elliott Kashner, and Brian McDermott. The show is directed by Carl Brandt Long of Grain of Sand Theatre. Original music and sound design is by Gregory Thomas Martin. Lighting is by Pete Vargo, and Set design is by Rachel Marie Wallace.

Do You Believe in Ghosts? An Explanation of the Horror Behind Molotov’s New Show, ‘The Margins by Alex Zavistovich.

Directing Molotov’s ‘The Margins’ – The Rules (?) of the Ghost Story by Carl Brandt Long.


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