Acting Scared in Films

As it’s approaching Halloween, I thought I’d get into the spooky mood and talk about Horror films and acting in Horror. I have a bit of an affinity with Horror, mainly because the majority of acting work I get is in Horror films. I’ll start by talking about acting scared in films (this isn’t limited to Horror of course). I’ve made a video tutorial on this topic that you can find on my YouTube channel.

This tutorial should be useful for actors who might be working in Horror films, or any scenario where one has to play a character who is being scared for whatever reason (threatened, robbed, shouted at, or just generally scared of another character or object or someone who has a phobia.)

You could argue that there are two main overarching types of fear: lingering terror and quick fight-or-flight type fear. Within these overarching types you get sub-types like nervousness, defensiveness, terror, cowering in fear, screaming in shock, and so on.

Now, I’ve done some research, and one way in which you can generate the appearance of fear is through your imagination. That’s right, actually scare yourself. This is where many viewers switch off my YouTube tutorial. I understand why: it sounds self-evident and not worth sitting through a video for, but there’s something in it, I promise! I found a useful quote from Backstage magazine which sums this point up nicely:

Uta Hagen, in A Challenge for the Actor, makes it sound easy. She has a rodent phobia, so she simply imagines a mouse or a rat and promptly feels “ice-cold shivers, shudders of revulsion, and a compulsion to scream, leap in the air, or run away….” Hagen says imagining your most personally horrifying spectacle—whether it be “snakes, spiders, roaches, maggots, worms”—works for everyone. A doctor told her that such phobias are natural, a compressed symbol for the everyday and lifelong fears that we repress or don’t understand. George Orwell knew all about it; remember the dreaded Room 101 in 1984?

Backstage Magazine

If you have a phobia and a strong imagination, use it. Using your imagination in this way is very effective for lingering terror. Personally, I’ve tried this technique and it doesn’t work for me. I’ve imagined super hard a spider and they always end up looking little and cute in my head. I can’t scare myself enough. But that’s not a problem, there are other ways of generating fear.

The next technique is to relax. I find this really interesting and I think it can be useful for acting instant terror and shock and even genuinely screaming at jump-scare moments. The idea is to make yourself super calm so that when that shocking thing happens in the scene, you react to it involuntarily. You mustn’t anticipate the shocking thing at all. Once you anticipate it, you won’t be as shocked. You’ll have to feign shock, and this will look like you’re acting, and looking like you’re acting is just bad acting. Again, Backstage magazine explains this technique well, they explain how actress Wendy Philips has no ‘really powerful phobias’:

The key for her is physical relaxation—getting as far away as she can mentally and physically from the scary event-to-be—followed by total commitment. “You can’t psychologically sneak up on it,” she said. In a scene in the film Bugsy, Phillips had to slap Warren Beatty. She said they must have done the take 50 times. “Each time he came to the scene with complete relaxation, no anticipation,” she said. “Every take, that slap worked for him emotionally. I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know if I could do it. The more relaxed and innocent you can get yourself, the better chance you have of reacting involuntarily.”

Backstage Magazine

So, there you have it: the more you relax, the more you’ll be frightened.

If the aforementioned techniques are too weird for you, then not to worry, there are other techniques and head spaces you can explore in order to learn how to act scared. One of my preferred things to do is to think about the status of the characters in the scene (if you’re used to my video tutorials, you’ll be sick of hearing me say this). Basically, in every situation where a character is acting scared, there is something scary. It’s logical. Even if there’s nothing physical and the character is hallucinating, there’s something to be scared of. A good way to approach any role that involves two opposing energies such as a scared character and a scary character is to think about the status of these opposing characters.  One is high status (the scary character) and the other is lower status (the scared character). Now, as there are different types of fear, there are different levels of lower status. It’s not a simple case of ‘high status’ and ‘low status’. There is an in between. For instance, someone acting defensive is their way of fighting to regain a higher status, even though that’s not a successful way to do it. Status is something that can be expressed through body language. For instance, a lower status character feeling nervous would fidget and probably have tensed muscles. A higher status character feeling confident would be physically open and have relaxed shoulders. This leads me on to my next tip: body language.

There are different types of fear as I’ve already mentioned and so there are different ways of expressing different types of fear physically in the body. As I’ve mentioned, a character who is scared is of a lower status, and lower status characters have specific body language. They do not touch other characters or act comfortable when they are touched. This might be a gentle pat on the shoulder, it need not be anything serious. A lower status character would not initiate contact easily (this could be eye contact, physical contact, verbal contact). Their body is physically closed off or protected, they might have hunched shoulders or be looking down. They might fidget a lot. They might touch their hair, clothes, face, so on while they talk or are being observed by another character. Basically, having attention on themselves makes them uncomfortable. In some cases, they’d be internally squirming and this excess energy might unleash itself in fidgeting or nervous laughing.

My next technique looks at how someone scared might talk. Characters who are scared tend to demonstrate incomplete thoughts. For instance, they’ll rarely finish sentences in a complete thought and breath. They also move a lot more erratically than a character of higher status or than the character doing all the scaring.

If you want to see examples of the different types of body language and ways of talking, then you can do so in my YouTube tutorial ‘Acting Scared in Films’. Just head over to my channel! 

I should add that the acting techniques I discuss are by no means exhaustive and you might come up with your own. If you do have any more techniques then feel free to share these in the comments section of this blog or to my videos on YouTube (along with any questions or comments you might have).

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