Actors are incredible animals. The very best of them have an uncanny ability to show us a range of emotions and allow us, the viewer, to share in those feelings. In an intense moment, the audience needs to be able to feel the fear of the character or else the scene suffers. The more visceral the reaction from the actor, the tenser the scene feels for the viewer. If executed perfectly, the audience is transported into the scene. We experience it all alongside the actor. But how do actors accomplish this feat? Sure, some do it with ease in every performance, but not all actors have the same ability. Not all actors have mastered the craft. For this reason, many filmmakers create an atmosphere that allows actors to “feel” the scene. It makes sense that many actors perform better in a simulated environment. Many of these scenes are better because of it. Sometimes, however, this simulation process can get a little too intense.
We know that many filmmakers and even other actors go to great lengths to make the scene feel as real as possible. So, we decided to look at what this meant for the other actors involved, the actors who were forced to experience intense scenes. We went out and collected examples of actors who were put in danger in order to get a realistic shot. These actors were able to show fear because they were, in reality, scared. The next time you watch these films, you’ll understand how the actor made their fear so believable. It wasn’t an act. These people actually feared for their own safety, and these are the stories about how and why that came to be. Here are 15 Scenes In Which The Actors Were Actually Scared For Their Lives.
15. Crying Kids In It
Bill Skarsgard is getting a lot of attention for his creepy portrayal of Pennywise the clown in IT. It turns out that it wasn’t only the magic of film that made Skarsgard scary. He freaked kids out for real.
“It’s a really weird thing to go, ‘If I succeed at doing what I’m trying to do with this character, I’ll traumatize kids,’” Skarsgard said. “On set, I wasn’t very friendly or goofy. I tried to maintain some sort of weirdness about the character, at least when I was in all the makeup. At one point, they set up this entire scene, and these kids come in, and none of them have seen me yet. Their parents have brought them in, these little extras, right? And then I come out as Pennywise, and these kids, young normal kids, I saw the reaction that they had. Some of them were really intrigued, but some couldn’t look at me, and some were shaking. This one kid started crying. He started to cry and the director yelled, ‘Action!’ And when they say ‘action,’ I am completely in character. So, some of these kids got terrified and started to cry in the middle of the take, and then I realized, ‘Holy sh*t. What am I doing? What is this? This is horrible.’”
14. Hans Is Dropped In Die Hard
Hans’ (Alan Rickman’s) final scene in Die Hard is one of those iconic moments in cinema that everyone remembers. It’s such a classic scene. Rickman’s facial expression during the fall is perfect, encapsulating what it must feel like to be dropped unexpectedly. But surely, they rehearsed this. How did Rickman get the face perfect? Well, the director, John McTiernan, had Rickman and the crew rehearse this drop, a fall of 25-feet onto an airbag below, with a count of three. When it came time to get the proper shot, McTiernan started the count as normal but dropped Rickman on one. That’s why he was so convincingly shocked.
13. Squealing In Deliverance
The r*pe scene in Deliverance is considered one of the most unnerving scenes ever filmed. If only because it is so rarely seen on camera and the men involved in the scene were so rough and violent, the scene makes viewers’ skin crawl. Although much of the story behind this scene has been exaggerated by actor Burt Reynolds who said that penetration actually took place, it did not. But still, Ned Beatty, the actor playing the victim, has said that he felt like a victim during the shoot. He said the actor was very rough with him and acted out the scene in such a way that it truly scared him.
12. The Lawnmower Scene In Maximum Overdrive
Maximum Overdrive might just be one of the worst movies you’ll ever see, but you can see true fear in its frames. When Stephen King decided that he wanted to direct this film, no one had any idea what to expect. King is an author, not a director. They soon found out that King was also a coked-out madman during this time. High out of his skull throughout production, King figured that putting the actors in actual danger would be the best way for them to act scared. Take the lawnmower scene, for example. For this one, King used a remote-controlled lawnmower and left the blades in it. Even though people begged him to take out the blades because you can’t even see them, King said no. They started this machine up, chased a bunch of terrified people around, and even gouged out a cameraman’s eye. Seriously, the lawnmower ran over a stick and a splinter flew into a guy’s eye. He lost the eye and sued King and the production company. But the actors looked scared, so it must have been worth it.
11. Shelley Duvall In The Shining
While the entire film shoot of The Shining was said to be very difficult for actress Shelley Duvall, there are two scenes in the film that the trauma she suffered on set was at its peak. The two scenes, the baseball bat scene and the door scene, were shot an incredible number of times. Stanley Kubrick was a perfectionist and he was known to shoot multiple takes, but there seemed to be something else behind his tactics. It was as if he wanted to push Duvall into the same mindset as her character. During the baseball scene, Duvall screamed, yelled, and swung that bat through a record number of takes—127 to be exact. Her puffy eyes and raspy voice in the final cut were the result of all these attempts. Afterward, she reportedly brought clumps of her own hair to Kubrick, hair that had fallen out due to stress. For the door scene, Kubrick took three days to get the shot he wanted. That meant Duvall was asked to scream for her life for three days and ruin more than 60 doors. The story goes that Jack Nicholson was so wild during these shots that Duvall was actually terrified for her life. Since both character and actor shared the name Jack, it’s been said that her impassioned cries to “Jack” were meant for Nicholson.
10. The Horse Head In The Godfather
When actor John Marley, Jack Waltz in The Godfather film, wakes up to find a horse’s head in bed with him, he looks absolutely terrified. The truth of the scene, no matter how disgusting, is that the horse’s head was actually real. During rehearsals, they used a fake head, but Francis Ford Coppola didn’t like the look of it. He had his people call around and found an already-slaughtered horse that they were able to use for the scene. They had the head shipped in and threw it in the bed (without telling Marley, of course) and then rolled the camera.
9. The Breathable Fluid In The Abyss
There are many scenes in The Abyss that required the actors to demonstrate panic and fear. Most of these were required during dives or while submerged in water. Although in the movie, the characters benefited from breathable liquid, the actors weren’t so blessed. Two of the film’s stars, Ed Harris and Elizabeth Mastrantonio, were put in very traumatic scenarios during filming. In one scene, Harris had to dive underwater while holding his breath. He would signal for air when needed, the camera would stop rolling, and a diver would come deliver oxygen. In one of these shots, Harris signaled for air, but the diver got stuck. Another diver had to help but he gave Harris an upside-down regulator which, when used, caused Harris to suck in water. During this event, the director, James Cameron, kept filming. So after he was rescued, Harris punched Cameron in the face. Since then, Harris has maintained, “I’m not talking about The Abyss and I never will.”
8. Dracula’s Threat In The Monster Squad
The Monster Squad is one of those amazing childhood movies that captures exactly what it was like to be a kid in a gang tasked with saving the world from classical monsters. Another thing this film captured perfectly was the true fear of a little girl. Actress Ashley Bank, who played Phoebe in the film, was given a cue to scream in her big encounter with Dracula (Duncan Regehr) at the end of the film. They shot this scene a few times with the camera zoomed in Dracula’s face in the shot. However, when they flipped it to get another angle, Regehr put in sharp fangs and red contacts, a move that really scared the five-year-old girl. The screams you hear in the film are Bank’s real terrified screams.
7. Poltergeist’s Electric Set
Over the years, there’s been a lot of talk about the set of Poltergeist and how many of the actors were uneasy on set. Some people blame the fact that the crew used real skeletons and messed with some bad juju. Well, for actress Jobeth Williams, her great fear wasn’t from the skeletons. In fact, the scene that has her swimming in mud pool with skeletons may have grossed her out, but her real fear came from all the lights and electrical wires near the pool. “I have this paranoia about electricity,” she said. “My real terror was that someone was going to drop a light in all that water. Everyone assured me that the lights couldn’t topple, but I was still nervous about it. So, Steven [Spielberg] put on wading boots and stood in the pool with me. He said, ‘If it gets you, it gets me too.’”
6. The Sadness Of Soylent Green
Although it’s not the image of an actor who is “scared,” we wanted to include the story from the set of Soylent Green because of how powerful it is. While we acknowledge that some people refute whether Charlton Heston actually was in on this or not, we will present the story as it’s commonly told. During the filming of Soylent Green, actor Edward G. Robinson was dying. He would pass away just 12 days after filming wrapped. Directly prior to filming his character’s emotional death scene, Robinson informed his co-star, Heston, about his failing health. Moved by Robinson’s performance during this scene coupled with the distressing news, Heston’s tears in the film are said to be actual tears of sadness. He was overcome with emotion and his moving performance in the final cut is proof of that.
5. Trauma On Last House On The Left
When Wes Craven was making Last House on the Left, he really had no idea how to maintain a controlled environment for the cast. Many of the actors involved have some regrets about being in the film because of the sick nature of it and the experiences had on set. Sandra Cassell (Peabody), for example, had an especially traumatic experience. The actors playing her attackers would rarely get out of character and this terrified Cassell. During the attack scenes, the actors would threaten her, such as the time when Marc Shaffer held her off a cliff and threatened to drop her just to get her fear bubbling over. During an assault scene, actor David Hess was whispering to her that he was actually going to assault her. Later, when Hess’ character is attacked by a chainsaw, there were no safety precautions used. That was a real chainsaw, and he was really terrified.
4. Switching Guns At Close Range
Christopher Walken is known as a man who likes his guns safe. It is said that during every scene that requires a gun, Walken checks the weapon himself to ensure that his scene will be safe. We’re assuming that this started during the Russian Roulette Deer Hunter scene, but we have no proof of that. Knowing Walken is uneasy about guns, Sean Penn did the most Sean Penn thing ever on the set of At Close Range. In preparation for a scene involving a gun being pointed in Walken’s face, Walken inspected the gun that was to be used. Right before “action” was called, Penn ran off and grabbed another gun, not allowing Walken to check it out. The camera then started rolling and Walken’s onscreen reaction to the gun was real.
3. Hanging With Back To The Future 3
According to several people on set and Michael J. Fox himself, the actor was very nearly killed while filming the hanging scene from Back to the Future 3. They took a few different shots of the scene that required a closeup of Fox hanging. He was asked to stand on a box to get the shot, but the result wasn’t realistic. They then tried it without the box. Fox put his fingers between the noose and his neck and got a couple quick shots. On the third attempt, however, Fox was unable to get his fingers in the right spot. He quickly passed out. In his autobiography, Fox wrote, “I swung, unconscious, at the end of the rope for several seconds before Bob Zemeckis, fan of mine though he was, realized that even I wasn’t that good an actor.”
2. Hanging With The Mummy As Well
Considering this is the second example of an accidental hanging on set, you’d think they would find a different method for shooting these scenes. Either way, Brendan Fraser, on the set of The Mummy, was accidentally hanged like Michael J. Fox. “They killed me for 18 seconds,” Fraser said of the accident. “I was hanging from the noose standing on a board,” he explains. “Take one, and Steve [Sommers, the director] said, ‘The noose doesn’t match the stunt guys’. Can we bring up the tension a little bit, and we’ll have it.’ They did the take and the camera was on a spin that goes 180 degrees and it shows the prisoners shouting, and then comes down on me at the end of the noose. I figured, ‘I’ll get oxygen and hold my breath,’ and I was up on my toes and something went wrong, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up.” Apparently, the actor had to be resuscitated.
1. Lion And Tigers And Gangrene In Roar
If you’ve not seen or at least read about Roar, you’re missing out. Created by then-husband and wife, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren, Roar is a movie that was made over a 10-year period. Telling the story of a family home that is overrun by wild animals, Marshall, Hedren, and their daughter (then 14 years old), Melanie Griffith, actually lived with these animals for much of the filming. Though they boast that no animals were injured in the filming process, people were. They call Roar the most injury-plagued film ever made. More than 70 injuries occurred, including serious bites, clawings, and gangrene to both Hedren and Marshall. The most serious of injuries came to the cinematographer, Jan de Bont, when he was scalped by a lion. This injury took 220 stitches to repair the damage. Griffith was mauled by a lion whose claws caused serious facial damage. The young girl needed more than 100 stitches and reconstructive surgery. Griffith quit for a time, saying, “Mother, I don’t want to come out of this with half a face.” The attacks in this film, and the fear in the faces of the actors is all real.