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Horror roles that really messed up the actors' heads

Have you ever watched a horror movie and wondered how these actors get through such terrifying, disturbing roles? While many actors are highly skilled at guarding their personal and emotional well-being while playing haunting roles, others are not so lucky. From working with abusive directors, to method acting gone wrong, here are some actors who took on horror roles that really messed up their minds.

Jennifer Carpenter in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Jennifer Carpenter might've been fine with all the sinister surgical procedures going down on Dexter, but the actress got a case of the spooks during production on The Exorcism of Emily Rose. She told Dread Central that while she was filming the religious thriller, some strange things started happening to her after hours, like her radio randomly turning on in the middle of the night. "Two or three times when I was going to sleep my radio came on by itself," she said. "The only time it scared me was once because it was really loud, and it was Pearl Jam's 'Alive.'"

She wasn't the only one to experience such supernatural phenomena on the set, either; co-star Laura Linney's television repeatedly turned itself on at night during the shoot. Shiver. Carpenter later chalked up these happenings to some electrical issue with the hotel where they were staying, but she was also really glad the clock didn't read 3:00 AM when it happened, since that was such a horrifyingly significant time in the movie.

Liv Tyler in The Strangers (2008)

Despite getting mixed reviews, Bryan Bertino's low budget home invasion horror The Strangers made a hefty profit at the box office in 2008, raking in $82 million on a budget of just $9 million. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman star as a couple whose remote getaway becomes a nightmare after three torturous strangers in masks show up. Variety's Dennis Harvey was one of the critics who praised the movie, lauding the two leads for "credibly registering every hue of panic."

According to Tyler, her reactions were credible because she was legitimately terrified. When NewsBlaze asked her if she was actually scared on set, she replied: "Oh yeah. I mean, all the time. Absolutely. That's what is so real about The Strangers. Like, you'd be in bed at night trying to relax, and all of a sudden you hear a noise and you go, 'What was that!' And you wonder, are you brave enough to go check or not. Imagine if you went to look, and there's a person in a mask standing in your living room, with a butcher knife!"

Actress Laura Margolis (who plays the "Pin-Up Girl" intruder) revealed on the Blu-ray extras that she'd been told Tyler wanted to feel genuine fear during their scenes together. "I got strict instructions not to let Liv see me in my mask before we shot," she said (via ComicBook.com). "She didn't want to have to fake it, and so it was my responsibility to really scare her."

JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist (1982)

This creepy 1982 classic is widely regarded to be one of the most cursed film sets of all time. Among the many mysterious tragedies associated with the pic were when actor Oliver Robbins had a near-death experience with the clown puppet during production, young actress Heather O'Rourke died a few years after the movie's release from a misdiagnosed intestinal abnormality, and actress Dominique Dunne was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in her driveway.

Actress JoBeth Williams, who portrayed the mother to the movie kids, was also shocked to find out that screenwriter-producer Steven Spielberg insisted on using real human skeletal remains as props for the movie, and she started getting freaked out by something weird that happened in her home at the time. As she explained during her Reddit AMA, "Because we were supposed to be scared so much, I think everybody's nerves were hypersensitive. I didn't live in L.A. then, so I was in a rented apartment, and I began to notice that every night when I would come home from shooting, exhausted, fried, the pictures on the walls would be crooked. And I would straighten them. And the next day, I would come in, and the pictures would be crooked again." She later convinced herself that the chills were of her own making as she slammed the door too hard on her way out, but at the time, it gave her an understandable case of the willies.

Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring (2013)

The real-life ghost-hunting history of Ed and Lorraine Warren is freaky enough to put anyone on edge, but Vera Farmiga knew very little of her character's counterpart before signing the dotted line on The Conjuring and receiving her first paranormal encounter as a welcome gift. The actress told Cinema Blend that during her first round of research into Warren's work she had a brush with the beyond after she hung up the phone with director James Wan and opened her laptop to find "three digital claw marks, from the upper right diagonal to the lower left."

Those marks would make a second unsettling showing in Farmiga's Conjuring experience the day after she finished shooting the first film and returned to her home in New York. She woke up to find a similar set of markings on her thigh. "It was these three, very distinct, what looks like claw marks, that long nails or long fingertips … could make," she explained. Even though she chose not to "give into the fear" of the moment, she said "there's clear evidence of some strangeness that's occurred. My husband did not do that to me. I did not scratch some mosquito bite. It's inexplicable."

Patrick Wilson in The Conjuring 2 (2016)

When it comes to this genre, Patrick Wilson is something of a scream king. The actor's filmography is filled with freaky fare, including the Insidious series, Hard Candy, Bone Tomahawk, and, of course, The Conjuring films. It was the second installment in that latter franchise that freaked the actor out the most, though.

According to him, there was a "pretty trippy" moment during production involving a curtain haunting that led the crew to bring in a priest to bless the set. "It was a huge curtain that went from the floor to the ceiling, which was sort of waving violently and there was no door open or fan on, no nothing. That was a very, very odd occurrence because nothing else was moving around it and nothing was blowing. You didn't even hear any air, but you watched these curtains sort of violently going," he told Metro. Wilson considers himself a skeptic and all, but all his supernatural screen play may have gotten the better of him at this point because he's admitted to believing his own house may be haunted now. "I've heard people on two different occasions say they've heard kids' laughter in the middle of the night in my house," he told The Independent.

Veronica Cartwright in Alien (1979)

The chest-bursting scene from Alien ranks among the most iconic moments in all of sci-fi film history, and perhaps that's partly because the cast involved in the scene really didn't know what was about to happen to them on the set and were genuinely disturbed by it. Director Ridley Scott explained his reason for letting the creature's big reveal happen in real-time during the shoot, saying, "The reactions were going to be the most difficult thing. If an actor is just acting terrified, you can't get the genuine look of raw, animal fear."

Indeed, his approach to eliciting sincere scares worked. As actress Veronica Cartwright later remembered, "You see this thing start to come out, so we all get sucked in, we lean forward to check it out … all of a sudden it comes out. I tell you, none of us expected it. It came out and twisted round." Sigourney Weaver, too, got lost in the moment, saying, "All I could think of was John [Hurt]. I wasn't even thinking that we were making a movie." Cartwright is credited with having the most intense reaction of all because, per writer Ronald Shusett, "when the blood hit her, she passed out."

Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street is remembered as a genre-defining classic that introduced an iconic movie villain, but the late horror helmer actually struggled to get it financed. Speaking to Filmmaker magazine in 2015, Craven explained that studios were "afraid of making a film that had blood in it" at the time, but a struggling New Line Cinema decided to take a chance on Nightmare and newcomer Heather Langenkamp was cast in the role of Nancy Thompson.

"I didn't feel like I was at all aware that I was going to be led into this chamber of horrors that I would have to deal with," Langenkamp told Rolling Stone. "Every day, Wes presented me with something that would make me shift my mentality: 'OK, today, I am going to be in a bathtub all day long.' It lasted eight or nine hours… There was lots of pruning."

To achieve the famous bathtub scene in which Freddy Krueger's hand emerges from between Nancy's legs, Craven modified the tub so a man in a scuba suit could lie beneath Langenkamp. "So Jim [Doyle, VFX engineer] is blindly plunging that thing between my legs," the actress recalled. "One time it's too far to the right, next time it's too far to the left, then it's way too fast — and Wes just patiently waited until he got the take that he wanted."

Shelley Duvall in The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick absolutely wrecked the psyche of actress Shelley Duvall during production of his adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining. Among the most harrowing tales from the storied set of the acclaimed pic was his consistent mistreatment of Duvall, including telling others on set not to sympathize with her when she was upset and dogging her work. The film was shot in chronological sequence, so as the viewer watches her character unravel onscreen, it's worth noting that it was also happening in her real life.

In The Complete Kubrick, Duvall detailed the personal torments she experienced, saying, "From May until October, I was really in and out of ill health because the stress of the role was so great. Stanley pushed me and prodded me further than I've ever been pushed before. It's the most difficult role I've ever had to play." She reportedly was so worked up during the shoot that she had to keep bottles of water nearby to stay hydrated through all of the crying that she did during production, and she even presented the director with clumps of her hair to show just how unwell she was at the time. It didn't help matters that Kubrick made Duvall do her baseball bat scene a record-setting 127 times.

Co-star Jack Nicholson later credited her part as "the toughest job that any actor I've seen had because 40 percent of that picture, she's hysterical," but he also thinks there was some useful method to Kubrick's madness. "He beat Shelley into that performance," he said. "If that was me, I don't know what I would do. I do not. I still wonder. You're supposed to be able to do it, but for four months? But she did. She's brilliant in the movie."

Maika Monroe in It Follows (2014)

On paper, the premise of It Follows sounds like some kind of raunchy exploitation throwback, but writer and director David Robert Mitchell executes his unusual story brilliantly. This critically acclaimed movie is centered around a group of teenagers plagued by a curse that gets passed from person to person like an STD. Sex is the only way to rid yourself of the curse, which manifests as a shape-shifting entity and follows you everywhere. "I read the script, and I thought it was… different," Maika Monroe told Glamour. "With a script like this it could go, you know, two ways: very bad or very good — and it all depends on who the director is."

Monroe (who stars as Jay Height, one of the unlucky teens afflicted by the terrifying phenomenon) grew up watching classic horrors like The Shining, but being in a horror movie herself turned out to be a lot more mentally taxing than simply watching one. "It was a very difficult shoot," she said. "Every day was another battle to face just in terms of acting and the screaming and crying and running. All of that every day is very tiresome."

Monroe revealed that she would sometimes be shooting through the night for 12 hours straight in "very creepy" locations. "The wheelchair scene was very difficult. It was the last day of filming, the last night of the fifth week, so you're mentally and physically exhausted at that point from switching back from day shoots to night shoots."

James Brolin in The Amityville Horror (1979)

James Brolin was initially hesitant to sign onto the 1979 adaptation of Jay Anson's true story-inspired novel The Amityville Horror because when he was courted for the job, there was no script to review. But he gave the book a look-see and got so frightened by what happened to him mid-read that he accepted the gig right then and there.

Brolin explained to The A.V. Club, "I was reading this novel at night and it's two in the morning. Well, I would hang my pants on the door of the bedroom, I'd throw them over the top corner of the main door coming into the bedroom, and all of a sudden the pants fell off the door and onto the floor. How I didn't hit my head on the ceiling, I have no idea, because I was at a scary part of this book, and so it surprised me that I started laughing after I recovered and said, I've got to do this movie!'"

Ryan Reynolds in The Amityville Horror (2005)

James Brolin wasn't the only Amityville lead to succumb to superstition associated with the series. The 2005 remake was also the site of some freakish coincidences, such as a dead fisherman washing up on the set's shore as filming geared up to begin. For Ryan Reynolds, the scariest moment happened after the real-life inspiration for his George Lutz character, Ronald DeFeo Jr., died just before the press tour for the movie kicked off.

"I think a lot of people make that stuff up to sell their movie, but there was some weird stuff that happened," Reynolds told MovieWeb. "A lot of the crew were waking up at 3:15 in the morning which was when all these atrocities in the house took place each time. I think it was a subconscious thing. You read the script and suddenly pop awake at 3:15 in the morning." He was also pretty freaked out by the house director Andrew Douglas settled on for the setting. "It's terrifying. You walk up and it's just upsetting. There's something about the house that's upsetting. There's something about the colors around it, everything was just a little upsetting."

Amanda Wyss in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Another iconic scene from Wes Craven's A Nightmare of Elm Street depicts the violent death of Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss). Tina first encounters disfigured child killer Freddy Krueger during the opening scene of the movie, in which we see Krueger assembling his deadly glove before chasing the teen around a grimy boiler room. "We filmed the opening scene at this old prison called the Lincoln Heights Jail," Wyss told Rolling Stone. "It was so creepy and filled with such bad energy that it was terrifying just to be there."

The place was apparently so spooky that nobody would go anywhere alone, but the scariest part of all for Wyss was the unpredictability of Robert Englund (Krueger). "It totally was scary," she recalled. "The scene where he's coming up behind me, he would do it differently every take, so that I never knew when he was going to come up to me." The boiler room chase turns out to have been a dream, but as Tina would soon find out, that's where Krueger gets you.

The following night Krueger returns and practically guts Tina, who bleeds profusely as she seemingly floats towards the bedroom ceiling. "The first spin around it felt like I was falling, even though I was on the floor," she said, explaining how they built a rotating set. "Then I felt that if I wasn't falling, everything was going to fall on me. It was terrible. We had to stop. The terror in my death scene was 75 percent real."

Sandra Peabody in The Last House on the Left (1972)

Sandra Peabody, the star of Wes Craven's 1972 breakthrough thriller The Last House on the Left, had a rough go both onscreen and off, as her co-stars used very real threats to evoke the right level of fear in the actress' performance. As actor Marc Sheffler recalled on the film's home release commentary track, "she wasn't getting the scene, she wasn't at the anxiety level that she needed to be. So, we'd done it I don't know how many times … everybody was getting annoyed. So, I said to Wes, 'Give me a minute with her.' What I did was—you can't see it in the shot—but I took her over to the cliff, and I put her over the cliff and just grabbed her and said, 'If you don't get this f***ing scene right now, I'm going to drop you … and Wes'll shoot it, and we'll get a different scene, but it'll work because you'll be f***ing mangled."

If that wasn't disturbing enough, her other co-star David Hess doubled down on the threat approach by saying he'd actually assault her to get a better result from her reaction. He'd later get his chilly comeuppance by being chased on-screen by a character wielding a working chainsaw with no safety precautions in place at the set house.

Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

If you've seen The Silence of the Lambs, you'll understand why Anthony Hopkins made Jodie Foster feel uneasy. He gave an iconic performance as captured serial killer Hannibal Lecter, some of it from behind a creepy leather mask. Hopkins was apparently just as intimidating before he was dressed as Lecter, however. He and Foster met for a full read through of the movie beforehand, and she was so scared afterwards that she didn't speak to him off-camera for the rest of the shoot.

"I never spoke to him, he was scary," she admitted during an appearance on The Graham Norton Show. "The first day we had a reading [...] and by the end of it I never wanted to talk to him again. I was petrified." Foster kept this up right through to the last day of the shoot, going out of her way to avoid Hopkins. "We got to the end of the movie and really had never had a conversation. I avoided him, as best as I could."     

Hopkins went on to win Best Actor for his performance, but it turns out he wasn't anywhere near as calm and collected as he made Lecter appear. "It was the last day and he came up to me," Foster said. "I sort of had a tear in my eye, I was like, 'I was really scared of you,' and he said, 'I was scared of you!'"

Gregory Peck in The Omen (1976)

Richard Donner's 1976 creepfest The Omen has a rich history of freaky incidents that cast the antichrist-centric flick as one of the most cursed sets of all time, and actor Gregory Peck bore the brunt of the tragedy. His son Jonathan Peck shot himself just two months prior to production on the pic, and then his plane was struck by lightning—a shock that would also happen to the film's executive producer Mace Neufeld. The eerie happenings had everyone so spooked that producer Harvey Bernhard carried a cross on set and said, "the devil was at work, and he didn't want that film made."

Indeed, later occurrences would underline Bernhard's suspicions, as an animal handler for the pic was mauled by a tiger the day after shooting the safari park scene, an assistant for the special effects artist John Richardson was beheaded in a car crash that took place near a road sign which read "Ommen, 66.6 km," and the crew narrowly avoided certain death by not taking the plane they were originally scheduled to use for aerial shots, which ultimately crashed and killed everyone on board.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan in The Possession (2012)

Jeffrey Dean Morgan might be playing a savage, bat-slinging brute of the zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead, but he got pretty worked up over his work in The Possession. He told io9 that he and his co-stars were so freaked out by the real story of the dybbuk box that they made sure not to take it lightly during filming. "I'm a skeptic, look, I'm not going to lie," he explained. "That being said, there was some weird goings on on set. Lots of light bulbs exploding. Just overall kind of creepiness … 'Don't mock the box' was sort of the mantra that we lived by while we were filming this."

He purposefully steered clear of the real box that was the subject of the 1994 Los Angeles Times article that inspired the film because, as he said, "I didn't want to get scared. It might have freaked me out a little bit too much, to be honest. Somebody wanted to bring the box to the set, the real box. I was adamantly against it. If you go and you look at what has happened to people that have had contact with an actual dybbuk box, it's not good stuff … Why risk that?"

Bill Skarsgard in It (2017)

Capturing the essence of Pennywise the Clown for the 2017 cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's It would be no easy feat for anyone. Not only was there a prior portrayal by Tim Curry that'd informed the nightmares of an entire generation of kids in the 1990 TV miniseries version, but the character is about as evil as evil gets. Unlike many villains, there are no human or redeeming qualities to latch onto to make an actor feel better —It's just terrible, through and through. Understandably, for Bill Skarsgård, the process of suiting up as the child-killing freak was no picnic.

The actor told Entertainment Weekly that the process of spending time with this character was like a "destructive relationship" that he was relieved to end when his part wrapped. Even the sweet release of putting away Pennywise's period costume wasn't enough to keep the creepy vibes at bay during his slumber, however. 

"I was home, done with the movie, and I started having very strange and vivid Pennywise dreams," Skarsgård told EW. "Every night, he came and visited. It was in the shape of either me dealing with him, sort of Pennywise as a separate entity of me, and then also me as Pennywise in circumstances that I didn't appreciate. Like, I'm Pennywise and I'm really upset that I'm out in public and people are looking at me." Sounds awful, but it couldn't have been too bad — Skarsgård signed on to reprise his role for It: Chapter Two.

The cast of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Tobe Hooper can be a cruel, cruel dude. Not only did The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's writer-director frighten people out of their seats when he unleashed his skin-mask-wearing maniac Leatherface (played by Gunnar Hansen in the original) into the cinematic world, but he also scared the daylights out of his own cast by concealing the character's revolting look from them until it was action time.

Hooper withheld the ultra creepy appearance of Leatherface from his stars until the cameras started rolling for the sake of drumming up some hyperrealistic shrieks, and it worked. Hansen told Esquire that the torment of poor Sally (Marilyn Burns) at the dinner table was as brutal for the actress portraying her as the character itself. "The whole dinner scene is burned in my memory," he explained. "I think just because of the misery of it. At that point we were really just on the verge of mental collapse. And Marilyn told me about how awful it was for because she was terrified … just being tied to a chair and then having these men looming over her constantly, she said it was really unnerving. I think that whole scene was certainly the most intense part of the movie, and I think all of us were slightly insane by then." Burns herself later told Hansen, "I thought you were really going to hurt me. You couldn't see through your stupid mask."

The entire cast of The Blair Witch Project (1999)

While The Blair Witch Project is a movie that's probably laughed at more than it actually scares people, the disturbing ways in which the directors tormented and haunted the cast are scary enough on their own. Filmed over an eight-day camping trip (if you can call it that), there was little interaction between the cast and directors, aside from daily meetings to provide the actors with more supplies and instructions for where to go next. To authentically scare the cast, directors stalked the actors during the day, rattled their tents while they were sleeping at night, and intentionally gave them less food as the days progressed so that they became more and more angry and exhausted.

Ellen Sandweiss in The Evil Dead (1981)

Long before Sam Raimi redefined the superhero movie with 2002's Spider-Man, he made a little video nasty by the name of The Evil Dead. In the winter of 1979, the director headed into the Tennessee woodlands with a small cast that included former schoolmate Ellen Sandweiss, who starred in a few of Raimi's early Super 8 films. She took part in The Evil Dead's infamous tree rape scene, though she didn't know just how disturbing an experience it would be when she signed up.

"That scene initially was supposed to just be a 'tree attack' scene, the rape part kind of evolved as we were shooting it," she told Love-It-Loud. "It was pretty grueling, shooting in the cold, in the middle of the night, getting scraped up by trees, not a whole lot of fun. People were quite shocked when they saw it, but not quite as shocked as I was." Sandweiss wasn't kidding about people being shocked by the movie: The Evil Dead was banned in the UK, and didn't pass British censors until 2000.

"I think the film remained a cause for debate because it was so over the top and unrelenting in its violence," she continued. "Of course, like any other notoriety, it only served to make the film more popular. In terms of my career, it did put me on the cult film map, even though it was as the 'tree-rape chick.' In this business, you take what you can get!"

Kyle Richards in Halloween (1978)

You might know Kyle Richards now as a real housewife of Beverly Hills, but before she was a TV star, she was a child actress in John Carpenter's Halloween. After seeing the premiere of the movie, Richards was so terrified that she reportedly had to sleep with her mom until she was 15, always imagining someone hiding under her bed or behind the curtains, waiting to get her. Needless to say, Richards never acted in another horror film again. Unless you count her continued appearances on the actual horrorshow that is Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, that is.

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Mia Farrow went through quite a few traumatizing experiences while working on Roman Polanski's American film debut, Rosemary's Baby. A strict vegetarian, Farrow was asked by Polanski if she wouldn't mind eating raw chicken liver for a scene. Little did she know she would be forced to consume it over and over again for different takes. On top of that, Farrow was served divorce papers from her then-husband, Frank Sinatra, on-set and in front the entire cast and crew. If that's not traumatizing, we're not sure what is.

Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick's highly controversial A Clockwork Orange is disturbing enough to the viewer, let alone to the actor who starred in it. For the famous brainwashing scene in the film, lead actor Malcolm McDowell allowed his eyes to be pinned open for every take. Unfortunately, McDowell didn't leave unscathed: the physical torment caused him to suffer from temporary blindness and a scratched cornea. We imagine the psychological effects were even more painful than that.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963)

While filming The Birds, Hitchcock tormented his star actress, Tippi Hedren, both on- and off-set through manipulation, sexual slurs, and obsessive behaviors. The tipping point for Hedren was when Hitchcock lied about the use of real birds in a particular scene. Instead of the mechanical birds used in the rest of the film, Hedrin was duped into acting with live ones that were hurled at her over a week of filming. She left the set bruised, bloodied, and emotionally scarred.

Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973)

As the child star in one of the most iconic horror movies of all time, Linda Blair has experienced lasting effects from The Exorcist. Blair admits that when filming the movie at 13 years old, she didn't really know what was going on. To her, it was simply acting. The real trauma occurred after The Exorcist's release in 1973, when Blair found herself faced with a litany of questions about possession, faith, and Catholicism that she simply wasn't prepared to answer. "To me The Exorcist was a work of fiction," she later told Dread Central. "I didn't realize then that it dealt with anything in reality, and so when the press kept asking me about all the devil stuff, it just kept adding to the pressure I was under, and it was just an awful thing to go through as a teenager."

Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960)

Here's another incident from a classic Hitchcock horror film. Janet Leigh was never quite the same after starring as Marion Crane in Psycho. Traumatized after watching herself in the famous shower scene, Leigh became too afraid to take showers and from that point forward, and only took baths. Regarded by many as one of the darkest horror films in history, Psycho affected not only Leigh but others involved with the film as well, Hitchcock included.