Though French psychologist Alfred Binet is mainly remembered today as the creator of the first true intelligence test, the Binet-Simon Scale (developed with Theodore Simon), his list of accomplishments is far more extensive than that. A pioneer in special education, Binet drew on his experiences with his two young daughters, Margritte and Armande, to study how intelligence and problem-solving skills develop in young children. Along with his work on intelligence though, Alfred Binet also wrote more than two hundred books and articles on a wide array of different topics, including memory, personality, sexuality, and even paranormal phenomena.
But Alfred Binet had another little-known side interest, one that would create a legacy that is still being felt today. To explain this better, I'll have to provide you with a little history...
By the mid-19th century, fans of horror became increasingly fascinated by theatrical productions that allowed theatre-goers to see and hear horror stories unfold before them. Along with plays based on such classics as Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, and Dracula came even more ambitious productions that pushed the sensitivities of theatre audiences to the very limits. And so, the Grand Guignol tradition was born.
Beginning in 1897 when Oscar Metenier opened the Theatre du Grand Guignol in Paris’ Pigalle district, his productions often faced serious problems with censors determined to shut him down. The name comes from "the Theatre of the Great Puppet" and specialized in a naturalistic form of horror that could be as graphic and shocking as Metenier dared to make it. Along with blatant references to sexual matters, many of Metenier's characters were prostitutes, vagrants, and street children showing a side of life that had been carefully hidden from polite Parisian society. But it was when Metenier stepped down and was replaced by Max Maurey in 1898 that the Grand Guignol theatre truly discovered the power that horror had over an audience.
According to legend, Maurey measured the success of his various productions by the number of people in the audience who fainted during a performance. He even hired a house doctor who tended to any patients in need (whether or not this was a real doctor seems open to question). His greatest triumph was in discovering and promoting the plays of Andre de Lorde (later christened “the Prince of Terror.”) From 1901 to 1926, de Lorde was the chief playwright for the Grand Guignol (despite being forced to work as a librarian during the day to make ends meet).
Of all the complex themes that de Lorde explored in his plays, the one recurring theme for which he is best known was insanity. In an era when mental illness was becoming better understood due to the rise of psychiatry and psychology as legitimate sciences, de Lorde often drew on actual psychiatric cases to flesh out his characters. He also explored many of the themes linked to mental illness and altered states of consciousness (including plays using exotic drugs or hallucinations as plot devices). Much like in Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, Grand Guignol plays also showed characters teetering on the very edge of sanity as they wrestled with their own dark selves. Some stories were even set in lunatic asylums, a novel innovation at the time. Hypnosis was also a popular theme and stories of sinister hypnotists enslaving innocent (and usually female) victims always went over well with audiences.
To ensure that his plays were as accurate as possible, Andre de Lorde began researching mental illness and soon became acquainted with Alfred Binet. Discovering that Binet was an enthusiastic fan of Grand Guignol theatre, du Lorde quickly established a working partnership that would endure until Binet’s unexpected death in 1911.
Many of the plays de Lorde and Binet wrote together involved maniacal characters who preyed on the innocent and the unwary. They also featured psychological themes and the graphic portrayals of sex and violence with such classics as “Les Invisibles,” “'L'Obsession,” and “'L'Expériment horrible.” One later play, “A Crime In The House of The Insane” would be released by de Lorde in 1923 with Binet listed as co-author. All of these plays were marked by Binet’s personal experiences with mental illness as seen in his patients giving them an air of realism that had never been shown before on stage. Not surprisingly, their productions were often shut down by censors, either in France or in other countries whenever the Grand Guignol theatre company went on tour. Despite the censorship, the Grand Guignol tradition spread to other parts of Europe and would have a powerful influence on horror in the decades that followed.
Still, Grand Guignol plays began to fade in popularity during the first three decades of the Twentieth Century. Largely a victim of his own success, Andre du Lorde found audiences eventually becoming jaded by the various psychological dramas being performed on stage. At the same time, theatres faced new competition due to the rise of the motion picture industry. Rather than attend elaborate theatre productions, moviegoers could simply pop into the nearest movie theatre to see horror movies that were slowly matching Le Theatre du Grand Guignol for chills.
There was also the growing competition from real-life horrors as well. As Europe survived the first world war, the prospect of a second world war and the growing menace of Nazism and Fascism made Grand Guignol horror seem almost quaint by comparison. Certainly, many of the imaginary horrors being presented on stage could hardly match the rumours about what was happening in Nazi Germany, not to mention postwar revelations about what had been perpetrated in Dachau and Auschwitz. By the 1950s, the age of Grand Guignol productions was effectively over as movies, and eventually television, filled the role they once played.
But Grand Guignol has not been completely forgotten. Many of the creative elements that Andre du Lorde and Alfred Binet brought to the stage have survived to influence generations of horror fans. If their surviving plays seem tame by modern standards, this was only because horror audiences have come to take the thrills and chills pioneered by Lorde and Binet for granted.
It's probably not a coincidence that French film directors and producers have become early pioneers in psychological horror with films such as Les Diaboliques (1957) and Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960). These early French films would go on to redefine horror cinema around the world and confirm the power that psychological horror can have.
So spare a thought for Alfred Binet the next time you see films such as Psycho or The Silence of the Lambs. His impact on modern horror has been far greater than you might think.