‘Remember it’s a performance...’
An Interview With Ash Pryce, Co-Founder of the Edinburgh Horror Fest
The UK has a thriving circuit of horror film festivals, but Edinburgh has something else as well: a mixed arts event covering theatre, comedy, magic, spoken word, seances, cabaret, spooky tours and more, which coincides with Hallowe’en each year (or – since we’re north of the border – Samhuinn).
The Edinburgh Horror Fest was co-founded by a booze-fuelled team of local performers and Fringe veterans. These were the magician and mentalist Ash Pryce, comedians Alexander Staniforth and Oliver Giggins, actor Michael Daviot, and producer Emily Ingram(1). The inaugural event ran in 2016 across four locations, including the wonderfully-named Banshee Labyrinth – which is currently advertised as ‘Scotland’s most haunted pub’(2) – and Otherworld Books, which sadly shut its doors in 2018. During that first weekend, horror fans enjoyed readings of ghost stories, a séance, ‘gothic vaudeville’, and several other events.
Since then, the festival continues to run, adapting to the unique circumstance of a global pandemic: ‘With so many events not happening,’ they announced in 2020, ‘the Edinburgh Horror Festival refused to lay down in the grave and has risen, zombie-like, to present a series of fun and freaky online shows in the lead up to Hallowe’en’(3). They’ll be back in 2021 for more supernatural shenanigans, and virtual shows will remain part of the programme.
We took the opportunity to ask co-founder Ash Pryce some questions about horror, the festival – including how people can start their own – and his work as a mentalist and spooky magician, including shows like How to Be a Psychic Conman.
Ellis: How long have you been a horror fan, and what are your favourites? Are there any obscure gems that our readers might not know about?
Ash: I’ve always been a fan of horror really. Even before I knew what the genre was I always enjoyed that aesthetic. When I was a kid me and friends would go out to the local park looking for evidence of a ghost train that allegedly derailed on old tracks (we never found anything). I’m more a fan of the spooky and supernatural personally, and I’ve never been a huge fan of slashers. That’s not to say they’re bad, just not my horror. I think the term horror is so broad that it can be difficult to zero in on what we’re talking about at times. I know ‘horror’ fans who almost exclusively watch and enjoy slashers and exploitation movies and shows and they really don’t do it for me. A good ghost story or something supernatural is what gets me hooked. I think The Changeling (Canada, Peter Medak, 1980) with George C. Scott is not just my favourite horror but a contender for my favourite film outright, with only A Matter of Life and Death (UK, Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1946) fighting for top slot (another movie that, though not horror, does play with horror tropes – the whole realm of ghosts and the afterlife, even if not scary). I also really enjoy The Mothman Prophecies (USA, Mark Pellington, 2002). Looking at my collection, there are just tons of ghost stories. I think if readers haven’t seen them, then digging out the BBC’s Christmas Ghost Stories is a good place to spend some time – they’re a series of mostly adapted ghost stories from the likes of Dickens and M. R. James and they’re really unnerving. I think The Signalman (UK, BBC, 1976) with Denholm Elliott is definitely worth digging out – it’s only 40 minutes and is probably Dickens’ best-known ghost story after A Christmas Carol. There was also a Nineties TV series called Chiller (UK, Yorkshire Television, 1995) that’s available form Network DVD that’s worth a look in.
E: One of your shows is called How to Be a Psychic Conman, and you’ve done lots of talks for sceptic and humanist groups. How do you balance your love of the spooky with your interest in critical thinking?
A: So I think there’s an idea that the two must clash – that you can’t be a fan of the spooky and debunk it. But I don’t think that’s the case – if anything, the sceptical side opens up a lot of different ways to engage with the paranormal world. Some of the most fun spooky nerds out there are firmly on the sceptical side.
My journey toward scepticism absolutely began with my love of the world of the spooky. I used to work for a ghost tour in Edinburgh and going into the underground vaults day in, day out for two years gives you a really unique insight into people’s behaviour and you start to see how and why people react to certain things. That started me on the road to scepticism and I never lost my interest – in fact, I think you need an appreciation for the source material (for lack of a better phrase!) when debunking – in fact, I don’t even like the word debunking, it feels like it’s attacking and that’s not good. I don’t think it’s really a case of balancing it because for me there’s nothing out of balance with a love of the supernatural as a concept, as an idea and demonstrating and exposing techniques of frauds.
I don’t think enjoying science fiction is at odds with being a scientist for example – so I don’t see being a sceptic as somehow putting me out of balance with a love of the supernatural. I’ve also mellowed a lot in recent years – when I started I was probably emulating that fiery James Randi style of takedown which isn’t so much of a problem when dealing with actual charlatans, but with the world of psychics and the supernatural, you’re dealing a lot of the time with regular folk and I can’t in good conscience apply the same level of vitriol toward them as one might toward the Peter Popoffs of the world. Popoff for those who don’t know used to pretend to be psychic, but his wife was secretly feeding him info through an earpiece. The people at his events were sick, and injured, and were being taken advantage of. Sadly even after the exposure and bankruptcy, he’s returned providing miracle solutions to your debt worries… if you send him some cash.
There are of course a lot of sceptics who outright dismiss the paranormal and believers in quite insulting ways – and I know a number of paranormal sceptics who face a lot of push back from the ‘legitimate’ sceptic community because some in that community see the paranormal as not worthy of any time. I find that sad, and a bit insulting really. But I don’t really associate with being part of a Skeptic Community much these days – it’s become a pretty toxic environment.
E: As a performer, how do you make horror part of your act? Who or what are your biggest influences?
A: My shows have evolved a lot over the years. When I first started out well over a decade ago now, I never intended to become a magician. Nor did I really intend to become a Horror/Paranormal Magician. That kinda just happened. At first, it was solely about the exposure of fraud – and when you’re talking about psychic deception, it’s near impossible to do so without invoking magic. Whether it’s James Hydrick blowing on a pencil to make it move ‘telekinetically’ or it’s some combination of psychology and physics enabling you to do some table tipping, magic is a prominent element.
My magic interests developed as a result of my psychic interests, and that led to mentalism (Sometimes called Psychic Magic). Now a lot of people’s experience with mentalism is Derren Brown, and he’s played up the psychological angle, but mentalism itself very much grew out of the Spiritualist movement – more so than from the magic world. So my interests in the Victorian era, magic, and the spooky naturally pointed me toward that style of mentalism. The Victorian Spiritualist movement is probably the biggest influence on what I do – I’ve taken a lot of what the bolder frauds would do and mixed it with theatre and some modern mentalism techniques to create the style of magic I do. What makes it horror is really a combination of elements and a lot of the time the venue is as important an aspect as what’s done on the stage. I used the Banshee Labyrinth during the Before Times (and hope to again after the apocalypse) which is part of Edinburgh’s Underground Vault network – so the atmosphere itself does a lot of the heavy lifting! I also like to weave stories and tales into what I do, and then of course there is the magic itself.
Mentalism by its very nature can be unsettling – the idea that someone could possibly get inside your head is unnerving. When you add in the location, the Victorian elements and the contents of a mentalist’s toolbox you can create unsettling, memorable and creepy experiences. As mentioned, I have done things for sceptics groups – when I was trialling my latest show ‘Ash Pryce: Paranormal Illusionist’ I did it with sceptics groups – and even they felt unnerved by parts of it which for me is pretty conclusive evidence I have something that creates an authentic spooky experience. Really it is a combination of factors that help create that spooky experience. You see some magic tricks marketed as ‘Spooky or Scary magic trick’ and it’s just a standard card trick but they’ve replaced the Kings and Queens with pictures of Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster and I feel that’s cheating slightly – just because your trick includes a picture of Dracula does not make it spooky, or scary or a horror magic routine. It needs a combination of factors – and an understanding of both theatre and the world of the paranormal is what elevates a standard trick to a spookier level.
E: The Edinburgh Horror Fest is a mixed arts event including theatre, comedy, magic, and more. Where did the idea come from? How did the pandemic affect you in 2020?
A: Massively! It completely changed what we could and couldn’t do. In Scotland we had far tighter restrictions on live performance than our southern neighbours in England, so doing anything on stage was absolutely off the table. The most we managed in terms of ‘live’ theatre was an outdoor walking tour, limited in numbers and scope. Everything else was online. Now, these included recordings of previous sets, but also a lot of original content from performers created specifically with digital streaming in mind.
One thing the pandemic has done is it’s fused elements of film and theatre, almost creating a new style of performance that is neither theatre nor film but its own unique art form. So we saw a lot of that, my own contribution was a mix of documentary and scenes from previous magic shows. It was a very, very different experience and even when things return to normal, we plan to keep a digital element.
The genesis for the Edinburgh Horror Festival (EHF to the cool kids) began in 2015. Myself and a few other performers each had shows of a horror nature and one of them was planning to stage it that Hallowe’en at the Banshee Labyrinth. I mentioned my magic show and somehow we ended up doing a night of various horror performances for Hallowe’en. There was me doing my magic show ‘Haunted’, there was actor Michael Daviot (who later joined the first EHF committee) reading Poe’s The Raven and there was comedian Ross Hepburn – who organised that night – performing his incredible show ‘Beetlejuiced’ about how the Tim Burton movie influenced his young Autistic self.
The following year I wanted to do more so sat down with a couple of other performers – writer/ actor Oliver Giggins and comedian Alex Staniforth – who I’d been working with, and over way too many pints we came up with the Edinburgh Horror Festival. At the start it was just an idea to do a night of our own shows… then the booze began to flow and we got a little bit ambitious, went to the Banshee Labyrinth to see if they could accommodate the idea and suddenly what was supposed to be a night of a few performer friends chatting about ideas for staging two or three shows became The Edinburgh Horror Festival – running across the Hallowe’en weekend of 2016. It really just developed organically as we threw around more ideas and more people came on board. The following (painfully hungover) day we reached out to a few others we knew and they all thought it was a great idea so we opened up submissions, looked for a few additional venues and before we knew it we had an actual Festival on our hands. We were quickly joined by Mike who I’d worked with in 2015, and Emily Ingram – a wonderful producer who joined us late in the first year. That first EHF weekend is one of my best memories from almost 20 years in the arts.
E: The festival includes spoken word performances of ghost stories, harking back to the Victorian tradition of reading them aloud. Is this a lost art? How do modern audiences respond, and what’s the secret of a successful reading?
A: I don’t know if it’s a lost art more than it’s a niche one. Much like anything that isn’t a ‘traditional’ theatre show really. Scotland’s history of poetry and oral storytelling is quite extensive – I mean, we have an entire night dedicated to the national poet, or bard, Rabbie Burns. So the tradition is fairly alive and well in Scotland, but it comes under the category of Spoken Word – which isn’t a bad thing of course but does mean that it gets wrapped up with a lot of other performance styles.
Spoken Word is probably the most varied art form in terms of what goes under the umbrella so can be difficult to sell to people who ‘don’t like poetry’ because that’s what many people see it as. But storytelling definitely works and is popular – in fact the show that got the most views in the 2020 Horror Fest was a storytelling show of M. R. James tales. I think the secret of a successful reading, if there is one, is to remember it is a performance. A good spoken word/storytelling show can comfortably cross the line into theatre, indeed one of my favourite shows was ‘Pickman’s Model’ by Noni Townshend which was listed as theatre but could very easily come under the storytelling banner too. That’s where the good storytellers sit – in the grey area between ‘spoken word’ and theatre.
E: What are your thoughts on the domestic horror scene? Does Scotland have a distinct horror culture to the rest of the UK?
A: I think a lot of Scotland’s horror scene is definitely inspired and derived from its own unique folklore and spooky history. A lot of the best tales pull their details from that history. It’s worth remembering that the UK and then colonies craze of witch trials and hunts began in Scotland when James VI was convinced a coven of witches had cursed him. In fact, though there had been a limited number of witch trials before James, the big event that was the catalyst for all of this began just a mile from where I live in a place called Tranent, where a young woman called Gilly Duncan was tortured by her employer under suspicion of witchcraft. That started James’ obsession and it’s an obsession that ultimately reached across the Atlantic – without that first event, we might not have seen things like the Salem Witch Trials.
And of course, we have a huge pagan population that celebrates Samhain. So we have the history, and that’s given rise to a culture fascinated by the paranormal and horror. We have entire industries based around it – the most popular touristy things to do here are ghost and witch related. And that’s before we look at the movie scene which thanks to places like Hex Studios over in Fife are seeing a great explosion culturally. Then of course we have the psychic world – Arthur Conan Doyle was an obsessed Spiritualist, and the first person to be called a ‘psychic’ by William Crookes in the 1870s was born just outside Edinburgh (Daniel Dunglas-Home [Hume] born in Currie). So Scotland, and more specifically Edinburgh, has long had a connection to the world of horror or spooky entertainment. I’m surprised a live theatre horror festival hadn’t appeared before we came along – it’s one of those things that seems so obvious in retrospect.
E: Lastly: as the chair of a festival, what advice would you give to someone who wanted to start their own spooky event…?
A: Well I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you get a few beers in and let your imagination run wild but it won’t hurt! But if we’re talking about how we started with a small one-off, which is a great way to begin – get some friends together, decide on what you want to do. Find a venue that is willing to host you – loads of pub spare rooms and function rooms are available usually for free – and just put it on. It sounds simplistic but, well, it is – you decide on the show – maybe you want to do a reading of Edgar Allan Poe. Find a venue, and stage it. There is so much public domain work that even if you can’t create something from original if you’re a good performer you can carry a story.
To be honest, the practicalities of staging a production are probably harder than finding and performing a show itself, being on stage is the easy part – you need to secure a venue, but also you need to do marketing. Never underestimate the power of a good Facebook boosted post – I’ve sold out entire shows with a £10 boost of a post. Look at what works best in an advert, a post, design a flyer and poster and get them out there. Does your venue have the right PRS license or do you need to secure one (not that expensive and easy to navigate the site)? Give yourself at least 6 weeks before show date to have all your marketing out there. Have someone doing front of house – even if it’s just checking names off a list.
A lot of what makes an event successful isn’t the event itself but the promotion, the marketing, the team around you. How much should you charge? Well if you’re unsure, you could always do a donation/ pay-what-you-can show – sometimes I’ve done those and earned more than I would have had it been ticketed. Try new things. It might seem daunting but if you have support you can do it, and with us (hopefully soon) coming out of the lockdown restrictions we are going to see a boom in people wanting to see shows and go out and do things – the next few years could see a new era of artistic expression and work and we need to seize that as soon as we’re able. Start planning now – chose your show, contact some venues and say ‘Hey, when this is over do you fancy this?’ Make friends with people on Twitter and reach out to others – remember, the worst they are likely to say is ‘no’. Follow me if you want: @ashpryce – but have fun. That’s the most important thing.
Many thanks to Ash Pryce for taking the time to answer our questions! You can visit the website for the 2021 Edinburgh Horror Festival here.