Halloween Special: Madness! Torture! Applause!S

The legendary Grand Guignol Theater in Paris was not a haunted house, but a serious dramatic enterprise that put on gruesome, faux-blood-splattered shows year-round for decades. It featured staged killings, mutilations and scenes of depravity and torture so realistic that audience members often fled the theater in terror — when they weren't transfixed by the grisly scenarios.

[See some insanely graphic Grand Guignol photos.]

The scene above, for example, was described thus by LIFE magazine: "Eye-gouging with surgical scissors by two insane women, jealous of a beautiful fellow patient who is about to be released, is a high point of Crime in a Madhouse, a Guignol classic."

But it turns out that even the most twisted imaginings of the famed theater's writers and actors couldn't compete with the real-life horrors unleashed during World War II. Audiences dwindled in the post-war years, and the Grand Guignol closed for good in 1962.

"We could never equal Buchenwald," the Grand Guignol's final director, Charles Nonon, told TIME magazine. "Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality."

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com. Picture This is his weekly (and occasionally more frequent) feature for The Stacks.

Photo: Hans Wild—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images