Acting in Horror: Playing Fear

I recently posted an acting tutorial about playing fear in Horror (well, it’s nearly Halloween, isn’t it…). You can find all my tutorials on my YouTube channel. Here’s the blog post that supplements that video.

Fear in and of itself is generic and if an actor were to just act ‘scared’ or portray ‘fear’ then it’d be two dimensional and obviously acting. There’s a paradox in acting that we want the audience to forget we’re acting. We can’t look like we’re acting. The more we force looking natural, the more we look like we’re acting. Therefore, you can’t just play ‘scared’ as a general emotion. Fear and the nature of being scared will evolve and change in relation to the context your character is in.

There are different types of fear and you can’t act one generic fear and apply this to all scenarios. I mentioned in a previous blog post that there are different types of fear: for instance, we have lingering terror, nervousness, shock, dread, panic, being wary, even suspicious and whatever else you can think of. However, in addition to there being different types of fear, each type of fear can be interpreted differently. For instance, who knows what ‘dread’ is like definitively? As well as this, each actor has their own personality and will approach these different types of fear in their own way. What’s more is these different types of fear will be more appropriate than others in certain contexts (or literal situations). Therefore, rather than forcing one type of generic fear onto a scene, react to the scene itself. Know your character’s agenda: what are they looking for, what do they want, what is their objective? Again, we’re talking about Stanislavski’s units and objectives here.  But once you know your character, you can know how to act scared in a certain scene. For instance, it’s no use screaming at a ghost if your character isn’t scared of ghosts. Likewise, it’s no used acting suspicious in front of a ghost when your character is petrified of ghosts and most likely to be frozen in terror.

It may sound self-evident but a useful way to access fear on the set of a Horror film is to meditate on the horror of the situation your character is supposed to be in. American Movie Company writes that:

“You may wish to take a few moments before filming a particularly gory scene to meditate on the darkness of what is about to occur. Imagine what it might be like to step onto that set and actually lose your life…or see someone else lose his/hers.”

American Movie Company [18/09/20]

I can personally vouch for this approach and did this when I played the Girl Sacrifice in COVEN OF EVIL (2020) and it helped me access some level of fear. It wasn’t generic fear either, I remember wanting to cry I was that scared. Crying isn’t something I’d immediately associate with generic fear.

COVEN OF EVIL (2020) Available on Amazon Prime NOW

Another tip is to really play those calm moments. I’ve talked about this in a previous blog post, but a way you can act scared during shocking jump-scare moments is to make yourself super calm so that when that shocking thing happens in the scene, you react to it involuntarily. You want to avoid actually acting scared. So, this will help you tap into those instinctive ‘in-the-moment’ thoughts. It’s crucial you genuinely relax in the calm moments, though. You mustn’t anticipate the shocking thing at all. Relaxing before a shocking thing can be easily done on the set of a horror film actually, because, almost always before that scary shocking moment in a scene there’s a calm. As viewers, we’re on edge during this calm moment because we’re anticipating something shocking. As actors, however, we must lean in to this calmness and let it envelop us.  American Movie Company writes that:

“One of the biggest elements of horror films is the shock factor. As an actor, you can learn to use this convention to your advantage. In most horror films, there is a scene that seems relatively benign, or a scene that begins calmly. Don’t ignore the importance of this peacefulness. If anything, you should play the calmness to its fullest potential. The calmer you are in the scene, the bigger the pay-off will be when the shocking action occurs.”

American Movie Company [18/09/20]

This next tip is my favourite because it sounds counter-intuitive but it isn’t. It’s to play the opposite (so, act brave instead of scared). In moments of intense emotion, aspiring actors wallow in it, give themselves to the emotion they think they should portray even though it’s not realistic. By intense emotion, I mean anything where things get a bit more dramatic, such as crying, shouting/arguing, laughing, elation, terror, heartbreak. In moments of such intense emotion, it’s more realistic to play away from it: in other words, play the opposite. If you think about it, this is how people are in real life usually. This will also heighten the emotional intensity in the scene and make things more entertaining for the audience. For instance, if you want to play scared, you don’t ‘play scared’, you ‘play brave’ in a scary situation.

Now for some established ‘actor training’ techniques: Substitution. Often in Horror films, characters are running from ghosts and monsters and all sorts of weird things that most likely don’t happen in real life. How then is an actor supposed to portray an adequate reaction to such things? Well, substitution is a useful technique if you’re having trouble relating to a character’s circumstances. This is where you substitute your character’s situation for a similar one you’ve actually lived through. For instance, maybe you’re playing a character who is terrified of a ghost so you think of a time you were scared of something, maybe a massive spider, and then mentally superimpose that feeling onto your character. Uta Hagen writes about substitution in Respect for Acting. On p. 35, she writes:

“I use substitution in order to ‘make believe’ in its literal sense– to make me believe […], in order to send me into the moment-to-moment spontaneous action of my newly selected self on stage.” 

Uta Hagen,  Respect for Acting, p. 35

Hagan adds that she doesn’t want any actor doing this at the expense of their sanity: acting shouldn’t be traumatic. And it shouldn’t, I can’t stress this enough myself: do what is comfortable for you. Yes, acting is hard work but it should be an expression of yourself, not a suffering.

If the aforementioned techniques aren’t for you, then you can also work with the physical body itself to get psyched up for that horror scene. This might be more easy-going on your mental state than substitution or meditating on the horror of the scene (everyone is different though, and that’s OK). There is the theory that if you can trick your body into physically behaving in a certain way, then your feelings will change in relation to that. The website thrillist interviewed actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead who said she likes to ‘exert energy before going into gasp mode’:

“[Acting scared] is a lot about energizing. I tend to do a lot of silly, physical things to try to get there. I feel like if I can trick my body into thinking this is real, then it kind of helps the emotions. I do a lot of, like, causing myself to hyperventilate. It’s a lot of running in place and push-ups. If I don’t have a lot of space, I’ll get my body in a really weird position and hold my breath for a long time. I probably look insane. But it’s a trick as opposed to just being super organic, coming at it emotionally, which is really hard. I think fear is one of the hardest things to manifest out of nothing. You kind of have to do some little tricks sometimes.”

How to Act Terrified, Courtesy of ‘Cloverfield’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘ in thrillist

So, in theory, if your body thinks its scared, you’ll feel scared (or at least look like you feel scared).

Again, take caution. Acting isn’t about traumatising yourself, so work with what you find comfortable. Some people will prefer focusing on the physical, some will prefer more mental or emotional manipulation via Substitution or just meditating on the horror itself. You just have to find what works for you.

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