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TV Scenes That Terrified Actors In Real Life

Certain TV shows love to send their audiences cowering behind their couches, but we usually assume the actors involved were just, you know, acting. After all, despite what you've heard about method actors, most performers prefer to keep scary stuff as fake as possible. The blood is made from corn syrup, the fires are under control, and you had a nice chat with the guy in the clown suit at the craft services table over breakfast.

But just as horror shows all start with a nice normal day that goes catastrophically wrong, sometimes TV actors find themselves in scenes that produce a very real fear response. And sometimes, just reading the script tips them off that they're about to have a rough day at work. From intense death scenes and dangerous stunts to jump scares that proved way too heart-jolting, these are TV scenes that terrified actors in real life.

Ellen Pompeo was forced to shoot a scene that injured a stuntwoman

Grey's Anatomy's Dr. Meredith Grey has come through multiple life-endangering moments, including nearly drowning, being held at gunpoint, and surviving an airplane crash, followed by several days of being trapped in the wilderness. But one of her most memorable near-death experiences came in season two, when Grey was nearly blown up by a bomb that had been stuck inside a patient. Actress Ellen Pompeo remembers it well, too.

For the explosion scene, a stunt double was strapped into a cable that jerked her backwards down a corridor. According to Entertainment Weekly, on the first take, she whacked her head on the floor and got a concussion. Peter Horton, who was directing the episode, wanted more shots, so he asked an already exhausted Pompeo to step in. 

There was a huge fight, where Pompeo told Horton, "A f***ing professional stuntwoman just gave herself a concussion doing it. ... Now you want me to try it?" In the end, Pompeo relented, although she claimed they used the first take anyway. However, Horton insists they did use footage with the actress, adding, "We never would have put her in jeopardy. We pulled her much slower than we pulled the stunt double."

This Game of Thrones fight scene intimidated Iain Glen

Signing up for Game of Thrones pretty much guarantees that you'll be trading blows and blades eventually. That action component appealed to Iain Glen, who played Jorah Mormont, the disgraced knight who transitioned from spying on Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to becoming one of her most loyal servants.

As Glen explained to Elle, he loves stage fighting, but he was intimidated by the scale of Jorah's gladiatorial scene, which saw him take on multiple adversaries in the same hectic sequence. "I was pretty fearful," he said, adding, "When it's that extensive of a fight — I was fighting various people with different weapons — things can happen. Accidents can happen." Fortunately, everything worked out — for Jorah and Glen — and the scene became one of his favorite memories of working on Thrones. "The whole gladiatorial sequence ... was a very hard week and I loved doing that," he told Entertainment Weekly. "So for the action side of things, that sequence encapsulated it."

While that was the scariest scene to shoot, a different one proved too scary to watch. Glen admitted to Variety that he couldn't bring himself to watch Jorah fight in the Battle of Winterfell because he was too emotionally invested in the character.

This Breaking Bad death traumatized everyone on set

Breaking Bad never shied away from grizzly and tragic deaths, but there was one that really shook up the cast and crew.

Krysten Ritter knew from the start that her character Jane from Breaking Bad had to die. Jane chokes on her own vomit after taking heroin, while Walter (Bryan Cranston) stands over her. Ritter said that during shooting, the crew struggled to watch the terrifyingly authentic scene, and that she also had to take breaks because it was too overwhelming. Her mother can't even talk about it.

Another parent who struggled with the scene was Cranston. Via Varietyhe said that as he was watching Ritter pretending to choke, he suddenly saw his own daughter in her place — his worst fear coming to life. It's the one scene from a very dark show that still makes him emotional. 

Jane's death also featured in Aaron Paul's worst scene. His character Jesse tries to revive her, which involved Paul pounding on Ritter's chest while she wore a special rig. Talking about the scene in 2019, Paul said he and Ritter cried during shooting, adding, "I just couldn't come back from it."

This jump scare terrified the actor jumping out

Usually, the only person safe from a jump scare-induced heart palpitation is the person jumping out. But Victoria Pedretti is so good at playing a ghost that she even scared herself in one especially heart-lurching scene.

In the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, Pedretti plays Nell, one of the inhabitants of the titular house, who survives the ghosts in her childhood home only to die when she returns as an adult. Later on in the series, Nell's sisters get into an argument while driving to the haunted mansion — and Nell's ghost bursts between their seats, shrieking like, well, a very distraught ghost.

Pedretti told Decider that Nell wasn't trying to scare her sisters. As she explained, "It came from a deeper place and a real need, so that's why it's so loud and immediate." But it still terrified everyone involved. "I knew it was happening [and] I screamed — at myself!" she admitted. Her co-star, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, confessed that watching it got him, too, telling Pop Sugar, "I watched [that episode] the other day, and I was so, so scared. I screamed, and I was still scared, so I screamed again."

Tony Sirico worried that crossing this line would have real repercussions

Tony Sirico didn't need to do research to play Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri, The Sopranos' lovable psychopath. As a kid in Brooklyn, he was in and out of prison on major charges. He also understood that even gangsters have rules, and he worried that one scene in the show might trigger repercussions in his off-screen life.

In season four, creator David Chase has Paulie kill his mother's frenemy, Minn (Fran Anthony), during a burglary gone wrong, but Sirico initially refused to do the scene. According to Vanity Fairhe told Chase, "I come from a tough neighborhood. If I go home, and they see that I killed a woman, it's going to make me look bad." But Chase insisted ... and it had to be with his bare hands. They eventually compromised on a pillow suffocation.

Sirico wasn't exactly being paranoid when he worried that laying hands on a woman might get him in trouble. He'd been shot — twice — for kissing someone else's girlfriend. Fortunately, in this case, his neighbors were more understanding. "They loved the show. They didn't care what we did," he said.

Austin Nichols thought his on-screen death scene might go very wrong

If you shudder when watching a character die in a spectacularly gruesome way, spare a thought for the actor living the scene, especially when it comes to the cast of The Walking Dead. The zombie show has delivered some of the most spectacularly gruesome deaths on TV, but maybe the most shudder-inducing of all was watching Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) gut Spencer (Austin Nichols) in broad daylight in season seven.

Nichols wasn't crazy about that moment, either. He was padded with a special chest plate and a bag filled with fake blood and guts, but Morgan had to use a real razor to split open the bag. "I was afraid that he would puncture the chest plate and actually cut me — because he comes at me really hard and really fast," Nichols told Entertainment Weekly. Luckily, Morgan got it right in the first and only take.

While dying was scary, coming back as a zombie was all fun. "It was cool to do ... all this fun stuff with the zombie make-up and zombie contacts," Nichols revealed, confirming what most Dead Heads long suspected. After his character's dramatic death scene was over, he said, "I just stood up and started screaming. And I just started yelling 'YEAH! That was awesome!'"

Did a real spirit cameo in American Horror Story: Coven?

Like everyone who isn't an aspiring medium, Gabourey Sidibe prefers her ghosts to be special effects. But a supernatural experience made her think a real spirit showed up for one scene in American Horror Story: Coven.

In episode 12, Sidibe's character, Queenie, recites a Latin spell to conjure an audience with Papa Legba, the gatekeeper to the spirit world. During An Evening with the Women of American Horror StorySidibe said that as she spoke the words, the light fixture above her started to shake, and she felt like she couldn't move. While shooting another part of the scene, the light fixture crashed to the floor, and she felt a finger running up her chin to her bottom lip, which started to swell.

Sidibe and a makeup artist went to a trailer to wait for medical treatment ... and started hearing scratching noises on the walls outside. They only stopped when the makeup artist said a prayer and clapped her hands. Completely freaked out, Sidibe refused to say the Latin summoning words again. But she relented when the other actors struggled to get the hang of them. This time, her top lip swelled up. "Do not do this at home you guys," she warned.

This on-screen lifeguard was terrified of water scenes

One of the first victims of the ever-growing Mindflayer in Stranger Things season three was Heather the lifeguard, played by Francesca Reale. In a telepathic trance, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) finds Heather in a bathtub full of ice, where she pleads for help before being dragged down into the water by an unseen force.

Shooting the first half of the scene was creepy for Reale, who spent a day "drowning [herself]" (via Cinema Blend) in the bathtub. And things only got scarier. For the part of the scene where Heather is pulled underwater, Reale was in "a pool with a black bottom." She added that the darkness made it "terrifying" because she hates "any body of water that has a black bottom."

Adding to the waking nightmare, there was a mechanism attached to her foot which pulled her down. And she had to hold her arms above her head — like she was reaching for Eleven — and scream, both without creating bubbles, while keeping her eyes open. Reale admitted that "it was incredibly hard," but she said that she enjoyed the chance to do a stunt, and she's game for more (perhaps with the lights on.)

Tati Gabrielle worried her Sabrina work would follow her home

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina leans much more heavily into occult practices than the show's bright and bubbly predecessor. And despite playing powerful witch Prudence on screen, Tati Gabrielle says she got chills when it came time to act out the resurrection ritual in season one.

Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka), Prudence, Dorcas (Abigail Cowen) and Nick (Gavin Leatherwood) sacrifice Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) to bring Tommy (Justin Dobies) back to life. The ritual involves walking deep into a dense forest in the dark, standing on a pentagram lit by candles, and chanting black magic spells to summon spirit hounds. Fine for witches, but the atmosphere made for a spine-tingling shoot.

As Gabrielle confessed to Coupe De Main magazine, "I was super terrified being out there at night, repeating these spells that are very real spells and feeling like we're calling on these weird dark forces. ... We prayed before we started the scene." Because the show draws on real magical practices, she worried that she might be messing with actual spirits. "I get freaked out sometimes, when I go home at night, thinking that a demon is gonna be lurking at the corner of my room," she admitted to Collider.

This What We Do in the Shadows actor had a fiery scare

Vampires aren't afraid of much (except retribution from the vampiric council and throwing a bad orgy), but the humans who play them have very real concerns. For example, Natasia Demetriou, who plays the vampire Nadja in the mockumentary series What We Do in the Shadows, didn't feel so hot when a fire effect didn't go as planned.

In a scene in the season one finale, three Staten Island vampires visit a church where they slowly start to burn up. Demetriou's hands really were set on fire, and she wore gloves covered in special paste that's supposed to burn without damaging skin. But the fire started getting out of control. "They thought I was just doing it as part of the scene," she explained to Stuff. "So it was like a good five seconds of me thinking I was going to lose my hand."

Showrunner Jemaine Clement thought the accidental effect looked great. But while, say, Tom Cruise's on-set injury didn't slow that famous former vampire down, Demetriou understandably broke with her character under fire. "I definitely ruined it by screaming, 'help, help' in my [English] accent," she admitted.

Cameron Britton's hug terrified Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter

Not all monsters are supernatural. Netflix's Mindhunter explores the FBI's early attempts to understand what makes serial killers tick (and murder people). Jonathan Groff plays hostage negotiator turned serial killer investigator Holden Ford, who's based on real-life FBI agent John E. Douglas. In the show, Ford forms a strange bond with real-life murderer Ed Kemper, played to terrifying effect by Cameron Britton.

Kemper killed and dismembered his grandparents, his mother, her friend, and six female hitchhikers in Santa Cruz, California, during the '60s and '70s. At 6'9", he's physically imposing, and he has a high IQ. He's chillingly eloquent in his descriptions of the violent crimes he committed. Watching the real Kemper or Britton's version describe his motivations is spine-tingling — especially if you're in the room.

Director and producer David Fincher deliberately kept Britton apart from the rest of the cast, to make their scenes even more intense. Groff admitted to Rolling Stone, "To be sitting in this room with him in Los Angeles, all by myself, was terrifying." In particular, Groff was freaked out by a scene in the season one finale where Kemper hugs Ford. Groff told Esquire that when he was just reading the scene with Britton, "The hair stood up on the back of my neck. That final scene was easy to act because he is truly terrifying."

Vera Farmiga was freaked out by this actor's taunts

Bates Motel is overbooked with brutal murders (not to mention other acts of violence), but the scene that truly scared Vera Farmiga — who played unstable matriarch Norma — happened in the very first episode.

The motel's former owner, Keith Summers (W. Earl Brown), breaks into the kitchen and sexually assaults Norma, but her son, Norman (Freddie Highmore), knocks him out. The pair handcuff Summers, and Norman goes to get the medical kit to treat his mother's injuries. While he's gone, Summers wakes up and tries to attack Norma, who grabs a kitchen knife and stabs him repeatedly.

The whole scene is disturbing to watch, but the part that freaked out Farmiga was the moment right before she had to pretend to stab Brown. During the Bates Motel: After Hours show, she explained, "The actor was saying the most perverse things to me in order to instigate me to sock it to him," including the incredibly eerie line, "You liked it." 

"It was creepy," Farmiga said, a sentiment that sums up the whole series.

Emma Roberts had a very normal response to this American Horror Story scene

Excessively creepy clowns have become a scourge of movies and even real life in the last few years. And sure, everybody knows all about Pennywise, but two of the earliest clown trendsetters were American Horror Story: Freak Show's Twisty (John Carroll Lynch) and his accomplice, Dandy (Finn Wittrock), who burst maniacally onto our screens in 2014.

These clowns even scared Scream Queen and Horror Story veteran Emma Roberts. She had nightmares when shooting the show, and when she saw Twisty, her perfectly normal response was (via Today), "He's going to chase me through a forest at 4 AM in the middle of nowhere? I don't think so." In fact, Roberts' character, Maggie, isn't chased through a forest by Twisty. Instead, it's Dandy, who's wearing a different but also horrifying clown costume. It didn't take much acting to get that scene right, and according to Roberts, "You get this adrenaline of fear where you're like, 'Oh my god, I know it's fake but he's right behind me and it's really scary!'"

Rutina Wesley was very much alive when she was buried in True Blood

True Blood's Tara Thornton went through a lot in her relatively short life. But the scariest scene for actress Rutina Wesley was the one in which Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) bury Tara, hoping to bring her back as a vampire after she was killed saving Sookie.

Tara is dead in the scene, but Wesley definitely wasn't. And like anyone with a pulse, she didn't enjoy being buried alive. In fact, she nearly had a panic attack. But since dead people can't breathe, much less hyperventilate, she had to stay as still as possible. As she explained to Flare, "I remember my heart was beating so fast. ... It took all my focus to not move an inch when the final shovel of dirt was thrown on my face. I think I might have actually inhaled some dirt that day."

Although it was terrifying at the time, Wesley admitted to Vulture, "It turned out to be a beautiful shot. That's how you get it, you do it for real." That's an admirable level of commitment, but maybe request fake dirt next time.