Horror Film Sets Even More Scary Than The Actual Movies

by David Sharp

It’s a director’s job to get the best performances possible out of their actors. So maybe it’s not shocking that egomaniacal auteurs with their name on the line will go to some pretty insane lengths to get the most out of their performers. But when the film you’re directing is a horror movie, and the look that you’re trying to capture is sheer terror, there have to be some limits on what’s considered humane, right? Right?

Well, maybe not as many as one might hope. Directors have shot in terrifying locations; they’ve broken their actors down psychologically; and they’ve put their cast and crew in genuine risk – all for the sake of selling a few more tickets.

For some actors, however, the director isn’t the (only) problem. Veteran actors who’ve survived some of the creepiest horror sets possible can attest to that fact. Whether it’s nearly drowning on a set with a very demanding James Cameron barking orders at you or making it through the night in a haunted hotel, actors on horror movies have lived through some pretty terrifying on-set situations.

Twilight Zone: The Movie, Where Multiple Children Lost Their Lives

Photo: Warner Bros./Fair Use

Steven Spielberg was already mad at John Landis, who’d been cutting corners and making risky choices since the start of production for The Twilight Zone: The Movie, before the real trouble on set even began. Landis and Spielberg were longtime friends and collaborators that were working together as two of the four directors hired to recreate episodes of the classic sci-fi/horror/existential philosophy TV show; however, the tragic events of the filming would end their friendship forever.

Landis, known for his dictatorial on-set style, had already made some, shall we say, questionable choices. He screamed at actors and technicians, forcing them to do things his way, even if it went against their better judgment. Landis skirted the laws about shooting at night, pyrotechnics usage, and he even chose to use live ammunition during some of the filming. But none of that even comes close to the horrifying events of July 23rd, 1982.

Veteran actor Vic Morrow was shooting a scene with two child performers named Myca Dinh Le, age seven, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, age six. He was supposed to scoop the kids into his arms and carry them to safety as a helicopter barreled down at them from the sky. The windy day required the crew to climb up 30-foot high scaffolding that was swaying as it was buffeted by the rotators of the helicopter. When some of the technicians balked at what they perceived to be unsafe conditions Landis furiously screamed: “Is there somebody on this electrical crew who’s not too chickensh*t to do the job?”

Despite the misgivings of the pyrotechnicians, the helicopter pilot, and basically everyone else on set, Landis insisted on going forward with shooting, ignoring warnings from his crew and goading the pilot to “get lower, get lower.” Though the exact order of events remain unclear, it seems that compromised audio due to the chaotic conditions led to one of the mortar effects being blown at the wrong time, destabilizing the helicopter. Vietnam War veteran helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo did his best to get his craft back under control but was unable to keep it from careening toward the three helpless actors.

Morrow, in a last selfless gesture, did his best to try to save the children from the crash, attempting to push them to safety into the nearby pond but was unable to escape the fast onrushing blades of the machine. Morrow and Le were decapitated by the propeller blades and, despite Morrow’s efforts, Chen was then crushed by one of the landing skids.

Though Landis was acquitted of manslaughter charges in the subsequent trial, the incident did lead to greater regulations in on-set safety that are still in place today. The multiple film production unions worked together unilaterally to ensure that accidents like the horrific Twilight Zone helicopter crash never happened again. But as well intentioned as they were, you know directors…

The Omen, Where The Devil Was At Work On Set

Photo: Gilbert Taylor courtesy 20th Century Fox

Even before the shooting began on The Omen, the production was given a few bad… well, you know.

Two separate planes – one carrying lead actor Gregory Peck and the other carrying producer Mace Neufeld – were both struck by lightningonly eight hours apart. Peck also came to the set only two months removed from having to tragically bury his son who had committed suicide. Unfortunately, these events were just the beginning of what stands today as one of the most enduring “cursed” movie myths.

The laundry list of creepy, unexplained, and awful things that happened on The Omen’s set include:

  • The trained stunt dogs freaking out and attacking their wrangler so viciously that they injured him, even through his animal protection suit.
  • The hotel the Neufeld was staying in being bombed by the IRA.
  • A private plane that the crew hired to transport props and set pieces mysteriously going down, crashing into another vehicle on the highway when it tried to land, killing everyone aboard.
  • Alf Joint, a stunt man working on the film, getting injured on the set of his next movie when he fell awkwardly from the top of a building during a stunt, claiming that he felt he was “pushed by an unseen force.”
  • Most bizarrely, Liz Moore, one of the designers for the film, getting killed in an automobile accident with special effects coordinator John Richardson. In a gruesome twist, Moore was cut in half during the crash in a scene eerily similar to the car accident in the film. Weirder still, the car was traveling to the Dutch town of Ommen at the time.

Producer Harvey Bernhard, who started wearing a cross on the set out of fear, explains all of the freak occurrences like this: “The devil was at work and he didn’t want that film made.”

Maximum Overdrive, Where You Could Lose An Eye On Set

Photo: Image courtesy of DeLaurentis Entertainment Group/imdb.com

Stephen King is the undisputed master of horror books.

Movies? Not so much. “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” proclaimed King in the trailer for Maximum Overdrive – a proclamation he’d have trouble living up to (but not for lack of trying). If King suffered from any problems as a director, ambition wasn’t one of them. But lack of experience and a massive cocaine habit were.

Silvia Giulietti, a camera assistant on the film, remembers the atmosphere on set like this: “[King] liked very much the extreme danger. Every day, we had a security because the movie was a very dangerous movie. Every day there were explosions. Was very dangerous. I was scared, sometimes. I was scared because I remember Stephen King had a kind of pleasure to see difficult situations.”

Actress Laura Harrington put it succinctly: “You just always felt like someone was going to die on this set.” There was an accident involving an ice cream truck that almost killed a cameraman; a hurricane struck the set during filming; and there was another incident where the crew had trouble putting out a stunt man doing a man-on-fire stunt.

King’s greatest miscue was during a scene involving a runaway lawnmower, which was being controlled remotely and shot from below. Everyone on set urged King to remove the blades from the mower (especially since they weren’t even visible), but he refused, saying “There’s no f*cking way. We have to be as real as possible.”

Real blades can really cut things, and, during the shot, the renegade lawnmower went, well, renegade, speeding past where it was supposed to stop and hitting the camera with the unremoved spinning blades. The blades sliced off a splinter of plastic and sent it flying, where against all odds it struck veteran director of photography Armando Nannuzzi in the eye. Nannuzzi was rushed to the hospital where surgery was performed to remove the piece, though ultimately he never regained sight in that eye. He did however return to finish out the project, because it takes more than being blinded by wanton negligence to stop Armando Nannuzzi. He also sued King and the studio for $18 million dollars, a suit that was settled out of court.

King, for his part, has since retired from directing after his one and only feature. When questioned about why he hasn’t directed again since Maximum Overdrive, King responded “Just watch Maximum Overdrive.”

Cannibal Holocaust, Which Resulted In A Real Murder Trial

Photo: F.D. Cinematografica/Fair Use

Cannibal Holocaust is a 1980 Italian found-footage horror film that is notorious for how realistic its depictions of violence and degradation are. And just how did director Ruggero Deodato get everything to seem so realistic? Well, whenever possible he just made it real.

The tiny village surrounded by lush, unimproved rainforest that traps the actors? A real tiny village surrounded by actual rainforest that was accessible only by private plane, trapping the actors on location.

The native peoples that don’t seem like actors? Those are residents of the village that spoke no English and may or may not have known exactly what they were signing on for.

And the animal slaughters depicted in the movie? Also 100% real. At least seven animals were killed on-camera for the film, a fact that led to the film’s banning in several countries on the grounds of animal cruelty (though, in fairness, the animals were all later eaten).

The film was so realistic that it led to Deodato actually being put on trial in Italy for the murder of his actors. Luckily for him, he was able to produce those same still-alive actors, which is pretty iron-clad evidence in a murder trial. Still, despite not being murdered, the actors did come away with a distinctly bad taste in their mouth after Cannibal, calling Deodato “a sadist,” “remorseless,” and “uncaring.”

Even given all that, there are still those that would claim that Deodato’s biggest crime was creating the found-footage genre.

The Innkeepers, Where Actors Received Phone Calls From Ghosts

Photo: Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing/Magnolia Pictures

When writer/director Ti West was shooting his 2009 film House of the Devil, he and his crew eschewed all the cookie-cutter corporate hotels and stayed instead in a quirky, old place called the Yankee Peddler Inn. The longer they were there, the more stories they heard about the hotel’s strange, possibly haunted history, and before long West had started a screenplay inspired by those weird tales.

That screenplay became The Innkeepers, which was then shot on location at the Yankee Peddler. As soon as the crew arrived for filming, strange things started happening: doors would swing open or slam shut. Lights would switch on and off. Phones would ring, and no one would be on the other line.

Star Sara Paxton recalls receiving a tweet from a stranger in the middle of the night telling her not to stay on the third floor… which of course is where she was staying (and reading that tweet, presumably). “I decided not to ask him why.”

Perhaps most spooky is West’s story about how they picked the room to shoot in:

“In the film the most haunted room is the Honeymoon Suite. That’s where the ghost stuff started in the hotel. The only reason I picked the room that I picked to shoot in, was because it was big enough to do a dolly shot. No more thought went into it other than pure technical reasons. So when we’re finishing the movie, I find out that the most haunted room in real life, is the room I picked to be the haunted room in the movie. It could be a coincidence. It’s weird that it happened that way”

The Abyss, Where The World Almost Lost Ed Harris

Photo: Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox/imdb.com

The Abyss was a lot of things. Fun to make was not one of them,” said Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who played Lindsay Brigman in the James Cameron-helmed underwater thriller.

The set of the 1989 film wasn’t haunted, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t terrifying. Cameron constructed two giant shooting tanksespecially for the film on the grounds of the Cherokee Nuclear Power Plant in South Carolina. The small tank was a mere 150,000 gallons, and the large tank was an unfathomable 7.5 million gallons, 55 feet deep, and over 200 feet across.

The shooting days were long and arduous, and Cameron was relentless and unforgiving with his actors, pushing them to do their own swimming stunts, often without the aid of scuba gear. For his part, Cameron remembers it as a difficult film as well. “I knew this was going to be a hard shoot, but even I had no idea just how hard. I don’t ever want to go through this again.”

Ed Harris was required at one point to do an insane three-minute underwater shot with no gear to aid him except his own tough lungs. During one take, he and co-star Leo Burmester completed their swim, as they had in rehearsal and the previous take, only to find that the ladder that led to the surface wasn’t where they expected it. Panicking and running out of air, they finally spied the ladder which had been moved even further away without anyone telling the actors. Harris and Burmester made it to the surface in time to avoid drowning (or you probably would have heard more about the incident), but that still left Harris furious with Cameron, a grudge he holds to this day.

The Conjuring, Which Conjured Paranormal Activity For All Of Its Actors

Photo: Image courtesy Warner Bros Entertainment Inc./The Conjuring

The Conjuring is a 2013 film dealing with the series of paranormal events that beset the Perron family in the 1970s. When production on the film began, strange events started happening again, both on set and in the Perron home.

Phone lines cut in and out or went dead all together; the hotel that everyone was staying in caught fire; and actress Vera Farmiga experienced strange feelings of dread when she read the script and even had a bizarre incident involving claw marks supposedly appearing on her laptop screen. Whenever the real Perron family appeared on set, they were surrounded by a strange windstorm that didn’t seem to be affecting anyone else around them. Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor’s character in the film) had stayed back in Atlanta due to misgivings about the project, but she started feeling a dark presence again immediately upon the start of shooting. She later fell ill and had to be rushed to the hospital.

Director James Wan had an incident where his normally docile dog began barking uncontrollably at one specific spot in his home. “Then she did something even creepier,” said the director, “She started tracking whatever she was staring at, which was nothing, across the room. I was freaked out. It was at that very moment I knew the story had gotten into my psyche and was really affecting me in a big way.”

The Shining, Where Stanley Kubrick Became A Demon

Photo: Ben Snooks/flickr.com/CC BY-SA 2.0

Shelly Duvall has reported being terrorized by a demon on the set of The Shining – a demon by the name of Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick was known as a control freak on all of his films, but on the set of The Shining – and with Duvall in particular – he took it to a whole new level. The shoot lasted for 13 months, and Kubrick wanted Duvall to be as thoroughly freaked out as possible through basically all of it. He did his best to create “an atmosphere of fear and isolation” for Duval, screaming at her, intimidating her, and forcing her to do take after take. Remember that iconic scene where Duvall’s character crawls up the stairs backwards while clutching the baseball bat to her chest? Kubrick made her do over and over again a reported 127 times.

By the end of shooting, her body was breaking down, and Duvall had started to get sick. “From May until October I was really in and out of ill health because the stress of the role was so great,” said Duvall about her performance. “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.”

The Possession, Where Fires Started Without Explanation

Photo: Picture courtesy Ghost House Pictures/imdb.com

The Possession is the story of a young girl who gets (spoiler) possessed by an evil spirit living inside a “Dybbuk Box” – an ancient Judaic container for evil spirits. The film was, in theory, based on true events, and during the shooting, the actors started thinking that the set might’ve been possessed as well. Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan recalled a number of eerie phenomena occurring, especially during the scenes where they were filming the material associated with the demon itself. “[Lights] would explode, all of a sudden you’d get hit with cold air – and in the middle of scenes, it didn’t really happen in between.”

The real object that the Dybbuk box was based on is a hundreds-of-years old wine box that had been surrounded by accounts of strange events for years. When its owners offered to bring it to the set, the actors all politely declined; however, days after shooting ended, a mysterious fire started in the warehouse where the props were being stored in case of reshoots. The fire destroyed everything – including the replica Dybbuk box used during the filming – and no trace of arson or electrical fire was ever discovered…

The Birds, Where It Was Difficult To Tell Who The Fiercest Predator Was

Photo: Teaser Screenshot/Wikimedia Commons

It turns out that there isn’t much difference in playing a woman that’s being horrifically attacked by birds and just being a woman that’s being horrifically attacked by birds.

For actress Tippi Hedren on the set of – what else – The Birds, the effect was pretty much the same – she was being constantly barraged by beaks, talons, and feathered bodies, and her safety was by no means guaranteed. Director Alfred Hitchcock is known for getting marvelously fearful performances out of his lead actresses, mainly through sheer awfulness, and he insisted on real birds as much as possible in order to elicit as much real terror in his actors as possible.

To attract the birds, Hedren and the other performers would have raw meat smeared on their hands and in their hair, and in the famous attic scene, Hitchcock went so far as to tie trained attack gulls to Hedren’s costume so that they (and she) couldn’t get away. When one clawed her face near her eye she stormed off the set, then collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment.

Oh, and those were just the attacks from the birds; the attacks from Hitchcock himself were another kind of horror all together…

The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, Where The Paranormal Controlled The Electronics

Photo: Image courtesy Sony Pictures/imdb.com

In The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the characters on screen debate the potential reality of demonic possession and the existence of the paranormal. Off the screen, the actors on the production were given their own evidence in the argument.

Laura Linney claimed that her TV would turn itself on and off in the middle of the night, and star Jennifer Carpenter had a similar complaint about her radio. Apparently, several times it popped on at 3:00 am, each time playing (creepily) the chorus of Pearl Jam’s “Alive.”

Perhaps even creepier than those accounts is the verified fact that many of the contorted positions that on-screen Emily finds herself in aren’t dummies or CGI at all – they’re just Carpenter twisting her body into those positions on her own. The flexible actress practiced for hours in front of a mirror until she found the positions that she thought were most unsettling, and it must have worked – she was cast on the spot after her audition.

Pulgasari, Where The Actors Were Kidnapped And Held Hostage On Set

Photo: babeltravel/Wikimedia Commons

Oh, poor Shelly Duvall, forced to do a bunch of takes. Poor Tippi Hedren got a scratch on her cheek. Ed Harris had to swim a whole 15 feet further before nearly drowning. Those performers were all at least on set of their own free will.

That’s more than can be said for South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Chang Son Hui, who were kidnapped by the North Korean lunatic and noted cinephile Kim Jong-Il and forced to make this monster movie for him.

Pulgasari is a Godzilla-esque retelling of an ancient North Koran myth about a giant metal-eating monster, and in many senses, the production was all a director could ask for: Shin was given plenty of money; Jong-Il was hands-off with the production notes, and he stayed away from the set. On the other hand, with most productions, you don’t have armed guards standing around making sure that you can’t return to your friends and family.

The two eventually did escape in Vienna during the press tour and have since returned to their home in South Korea, and Jong-Il has since passed the torch of mania (and love of films) on to his son, Kim Jong-Un.

The Ghost Of Goodnight Lane, Where The Set Ghosts Got Ticked Off

Photo: Image courtesy Alin Bijan for Media World Studio/imdb.com

Strange things had been happening on the sound stage of Texas-based production group Media World Company for a long time – so long, in fact, that they had a log dating back to 2010 that cataloged all of the strange goings-on at the set.

Among the things that staff recorded were multiple accounts of equipment moving or going missing, lights flickering, and even the strange appearance of an ethereal male form on set. These occurrences became the basis of a screenplay by producer Alin Bijan for a film called The Ghost of Goodnight Lane.

Once filming began, the activity intensified, with lighting equipment falling from the ceiling, and crew members reportedly hearing their names whispered by disembodied voices. After all of the stories surrounding The Ghost of Goodnight Lane’s production, perhaps the most believable is that after the film’s release, it’s entire audience disappeared mysteriously.

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