35 Horror Movie Actors Who Had Chilling Experiences On Set

It might be just make-believe, but shooting a horror film can still be pretty scary for those involved. A whole host of actors — including big names such as Janet Leigh, Ellen Burstyn, and Shelley Duvall — have suffered some form of trauma after signing up to appear in horror movies. Whether this is down to haunted sets or directors like the late William Friedkin letting things go a little too far, it all sounds suitably terrifying. Here's a look at some particularly chilling cases featuring some of the most iconic terror flicks ever made.

1. Shelley Duvall, The Shining

Legendary movie auteur Stanley Kubrick made poor Shelley Duvall enact The Shining’s exhausting bat-swinging scene no fewer than 127 times. This pursuit of perfectionism won it a place in The Guinness Book of Records for the highest number of takes filmed for a spoken-word scene. Duvall’s hands were left tender and sore as a result.

Duvall was also often required to spend half of her entire day simply yelling at the top of her voice. The actress admits that these tactics helped to coax an unforgettable performance from her, but she also labeled the experience of playing Wendy Torrance “almost unbearable.”

2. Marilyn Burns, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

It’s widely considered to be one of the most terrifying horror movies of all time, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre also put its leading lady through the wringer, too. In the famous dinner scene, Marilyn Burns had to endure constant blows to the skull with a fake yet weighty sledgehammer. She was also required to shriek for hours and hours on end.

Burns also had to endure the smell of both Leatherface’s costume and food which had long since passed its sell-by date. She later revealed to the website Terror Trap, “Afterwards, I was just so grateful it was over. I probably was the happiest girl alive.” And yet she still returned to the franchise on two separate occasions.

3. Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange

Malcolm McDowell also learned that Stanley Kubrick likes to push his actors to their limits while filming A Clockwork Orange. For one of the cult classic’s most disturbing scenes, the Brit assented to having his eyes pinned open for extended periods. This actually cost McDowell his sight! Happily, this unforeseen effect was only temporary.

As if briefly going blind due to his pinned eyelids wasn’t bad enough, McDowell also scratched his cornea, too. By this point, even Kubrick decided enough was enough. He called time on the scene and brought the star’s suffering to a merciful end.

4. Kyle Richards, Halloween

Kyle Richards wasn’t particularly affected by the filming of John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween. At the time, the actress was a little too young to fully understand its slasher storyline. But she was scarred for the rest of her childhood after seeing it unfold at the film’s premiere when she was just nine years old.

In an interview with the website Halloween Daily News in 2013, Richards revealed, "I had no idea what I was in for. Seeing it for the first time all pieced together was a very, very different movie. It was just really scary, and I really did sleep with my mom until I was 15 years old after that. I was terrified."

5. Linda Blair, The Exorcist

Linda Blair didn’t have a particularly arduous time on the set of The Exorcist. In fact, despite being covered in prosthetics to resemble a terrifying demon, the young teen treated the role like any other. But like Kyle Richards in Halloween, the problems started when the film was released.

At just 13 years old, Blair was hounded by both religious organizations and the press for her views on the film’s weighty themes. Faith, possession, and Christianity were just a few of the subjects she was quizzed on at the height of The Exorcist’s success. And it was this intrusion that unsettled her far more than any demonic makeup.

6. Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist

Linda Blair wasn’t The Exorcist’s only star to suffer. Ellen Burstyn, who played mother Chris McNeil in the controversial horror film, suffered years of chronic back pain following an on-set accident. The actress was injured in the scene where she was attacked by Regan. A stuntman yanked too hard on the wire tied around her waist.

Burstyn had previously expressed her concerns about the stunt. In fact, she specifically asked director William Friedkin — who passed away in August 2023 — to ensure she wasn’t pulled so hard. She told The Huffington Post in 2017, “Billy is one of those directors that is so dedicated to getting the shot right that I think some other considerations sort of fall by the wayside sometimes.”

7. Heather Donahue, The Blair Witch Project

Heather Donahue and her two co-stars were constantly on edge while filming The Blair Witch Project. The trio was kept largely in the dark plot-wise while shooting the late '90s horror classic in order to make their reactions more credible. But Donahue’s trauma continued when the film was released. Due to the film’s then-innovative found-footage style, Donahue had the unusual experience of seeing her own obituary.

The hyper-realism of the film meant that some people really thought Donahue had disappeared! The actress later told newspaper The Guardian, “It’s a complicated thing to be dead when you’re still very much alive and eager to make a name for yourself.” Donahue later abandoned life in front of the lens in favor of working as a screenwriter and author.

8. Veronica Cartwright, Alien

The cast of the seminal sci-fi horror Alien was kept in the dark about its most terrifying scene. In a bid to elicit “raw animal fear,” director Ridley Scott refused to warn actors about the terrifying moment that an alien bursts from John Hurt’s chest. And Veronica Cartwright had the most extreme reaction.

Cartwright actually fainted the moment she was splattered by fake blood. The actress later told The Guardian, “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.”

9. JoBeth Williams, Poltergeist

The Steven Spielberg-produced Poltergeist was rumored to have been cursed following a series of tragic events that befell many of its cast members. JoBeth Williams, who played Diane Freeling, is thankfully very much alive and kicking. But she still suffered while filming the 1982 horror.

During one particularly gruesome scene, Williams was forced to swim in a pool full of real skeletons. But this wasn’t for creative reasons. Despite Spielberg’s presence, Poltergeist was a relatively low-budget affair that didn’t have the cash to splash out on authentic-looking props.

10. Patrick Wilson, The Conjuring 2

Of course, it’s not just scream queens that can feel the after-effects of shooting a horror movie. Patrick Wilson wasn’t a particular believer in the supernatural before starring as paranormal investigator Ed Warren in the haunted house franchise The Conjuring. But that all changed after filming its sequel.

While speaking to The Independent, the actor revealed that there’s since been some potential paranormal activity in the New Jersey home he shares with his family. He said, “I’ve heard people on two different occasions say they’ve heard kids’ laughter in the middle of the night, in my house. And that used to freak my wife out.”

11. Janet Leigh, Psycho

Of course, scaring your lead actor half to death is nothing new. Alfred Hitchcock put various actresses through the wringer during his reign as the Master of Suspense in the mid-20th Century, none more so than Janet Leigh, also known as the woman at the center of possibly the most iconic horror scene of all time.

After playing the ill-fated Marion Crane in Psycho, Leigh allegedly refused to take a shower ever again. And even when she had a bath she always kept the shower curtain pulled back. She had to make sure she had a clear view of the door, and that every potential way into the room was secured.

12. Tippi Hedren, The Birds

Tippi Hedren also suffered for her art while filming a Hitchcock classic. Now, you might have thought that the dozens of feathered creatures that attack the actress in The Birds’ tense finale were props. But in order to make the scene as authentic as possible, the director enlisted the help of actual birds.

Unsurprisingly, Hedren didn’t walk away from the set unharmed. Ravens, gulls, and crows were allegedly thrown at her across five days of filming by several far more protected prop men. Inevitably, one of the many feathered missiles eventually gouged the actress’s cheek. Hedren has since repeatedly discussed just how harrowing she found the whole experience.

13. Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby was one of the most chilling films of the 1960s. But the biggest ordeal that star Mia Farrow had to endure during filming didn’t relate to any of its satanic rituals. Rather, it was the moment when director Roman Polanski insisted she eat raw liver.

Eating raw liver on camera not just once but multiple times would be tough for even the most carnivorous of actors. So you have to feel for Farrow, who had to do so in Rosemary’s Baby despite being a vegetarian! Perhaps the moment when she throws up after seeing her reflection in a toaster didn’t require much acting.

14. Dakota Johnson, Suspiria

Dakota Johnson confessed that she had to undergo therapy after being severely traumatized by the filming of the 2018 version of Suspiria. The actress plays a U.S. dancer who attends a Berlin academy in the 1970s that just happens to be a front for a witches' coven. And she told Elle magazine that her experiences on set were incredibly dark.

She said, “We were in an abandoned hotel on top of a mountain. It had 30 telephone poles on the roof, so there was electricity pulsating through the building, and everyone was shocking each other. It was cold... and so dry. The only thing that helped was dousing myself with oil every night.”

15. Sandra Peabody, The Last House on the Left

The Last House on the Left was one of the most controversial horrors to emerge in the 1970s, and its filming was the stuff of nightmares for the actress who played victim Mari Collingwood. Reportedly, Sandra Peabody was repeatedly scared senseless on set under the orders of its director, the legendary Wes Craven.

To heighten the film’s realism, Craven insisted that the co-stars who portrayed Mari’s attackers remained in character even when the cameras stopped rolling. As a result, Peabody found herself constantly petrified. She was so scarred by the experience that she hasn’t once attended any of the movie cast’s subsequent meet-up events.

16. Bill Skarsgård, It

Bill Skarsgård is another Hollywood star who found that remaking a classic horror can wreak havoc on your mental state. The actor famously took over Tim Curry's role as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the 2017 big-screen version of It. And speaking to Entertainment Weekly in January 2018, Skarsgård admitted that the character haunted his dreams.

He said, “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."

17. Alex Wolff, Hereditary

“I don’t think you can go through something like this and not have some sort of PTSD afterwards.” That’s how Alex Wolff described working on one of 2018’s most unsettling movies, Hereditary. The actor was at the center of one of its most disturbing scenes, the moment when Peter’s head is continually smashed on a desk by an unknown force.

Wolff told Vice, “When I started talking about it, all these flashes with all this [stuff] I went through sorta came back in a flood. It kept me up at night. To where I got into a habit of emotional masochism at that point of just trying to take in every negative feeling I could draw from.”

18. Isabelle Adjani, Possession

Isabelle Adjani certainly committed herself fully to her role in Possession. In fact, she had to undergo therapy after playing Anna in the cult 1981 horror flick. Directed by Andrjez Zulawski, Possession sees Adjani play the wife of an international spy whose behavior becomes increasingly strange after she files for divorce.

She starts acting so bizarrely that her soon-to-be ex-husband even starts to wonder whether she’s been possessed by a demon. Adjani later declared she never wanted to play a character like that ever again. Isabelle Adjani won the first of her five César Awards (like a French Oscar) for her performance in Possession.

19. Jennifer Carpenter, The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Jennifer Carpenter hasn’t watched a scary movie since filming The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The actress got spooked out by several strange things that occurred during the shoot, including the clock radio in her room turning on at random times throughout the night. And while filming one particular scene, Carpenter ended up fainting.

However, this wasn’t anything supernatural-related. After taking an antihistamine to combat her hay allergy during the barn-shot finale, Carpenter began to feel her heart race. And combined with a full day of constant screaming, the actress eventually passed out, scaring the rest of the cast and crew in the process.

20. Jennifer Lawrence, Mother!

You have to admire the lengths that actors will go to successfully portray their characters, no matter the demands. Often those demands are physical, but in the case of Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!, it was the psychological exertions that were the most intense. So much so that the actor retreated to the Kardashians for help. Not literally, though.

Lawrence spoke about filming Mother! on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “I had to do this one scene, I had never gone that dark before, so I started getting scared of myself a couple days beforehand and I was like… I need a tent, away from the extras, just because I didn’t know what I would do,” Lawrence revealed. “So in there I just had a computer playing the Kardashians,” the star added. Whatever it takes, Jen.

21. Oliwia Dabrowska, Schindler’s List

The real-life events depicted in Holocaust movie Schindler’s List are far more horrific than anything you’ll see in a fictional scary movie. It’s why Oliwia Dabrowska, aka the Girl in the Red Coat, was left scarred for life after watching the Oscar-winning classic aged 11. Responsibly, director Steven Spielberg had advised her to wait until she was 18 before watching the finished film.

Darbrowska was only a toddler when she actually appeared in the World War II epic. But she still found herself repeatedly bombarded with questions about the film’s dark subject-matter while growing up. Indeed, in 2013 Dabrwoska admitted to the Daily Telegraph that she even used to feel ashamed of her part in the movie and tried to keep it under wraps.

22. Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring

Sometimes simply the act of researching for a movie is enough to throw up strange events. In the case of Vera Farmiga, star of The Conjuring, gathering online information resulted in a sinister discovery. The star recalled to the regional newspaper Pittsburgh Post-Gazette how “digital claw marks” had inexplicably appeared on her computer screen.

But for Farmiga, things were to get a little more twisted. One morning, the actor woke up and noticed that a bruise was on her thigh — accompanied by three mysterious scratches. Director James Wan also recalled how his dog growled at an unexplained presence. And then there was the time a strange breeze surrounded members of the Perron family, a.k.a. the protagonists of the real-life haunting the movie is based on.

23. Crew members, Insidious

The atmosphere of a well-made horror movie should be as unsettling as the events themselves, right? Well, sometimes that very ambiance can unnerve the cast and crew themselves. Such was the case during the making of Insidious. Some of the 2010 movie was filmed in a hospital, making the fact that set workers often felt unwell during filming seem even more eerily coincidental.

In fact, crew workers on Insidious were struck down in unison in one particular incident that occurred in the basement of the Linda Vista Hospital, where the film was made. Staff were moving old patient records when all involved began to feel sick and heavy, needing to take a break as a result. After that, crew members formed groups to go into certain parts of the hospital. Chilling.

24. Ti West, The Innkeepers

Ti West recalled to the local newspaper The Litchfield County Times that he found inspiration to write the movie The Innkeepers after his real-life experience residing at an inn in Connecticut. West was filming The House of the Devil at the time and had his interest piqued by employees of The Yankee Pedlar Inn, who regaled the director with some of the happenings at the very same inn. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but weird [stuff] did happen,” West later told Interview magazine.

West returned to The Yankee Pedlar Inn to film The Innkeepers, and he started to experience weird goings-on himself. “Lights have turned off and on by themselves in my room. My phone rang and no one was on the line, which the hotel staff says happens all the time,” West told Interview. “There are nights when I wake up in my room, and it feels like somebody is in there,” he added.

25. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Natasha Calis, The Possession

The Possession is a spine-tinglingly spooky horror movie directed by Ole Bornedal. It tells the story of a young girl who purchases an old antique box. Shockingly, she is then possessed by an evil spirit who inhabits that very same box. The story is based on the Jewish folk tale of the dybbuk: a similarly malicious spirit who inhabits living people. The legend was strong enough to leave many of the cast and crew uncertain.

Two of the movie’s actors — Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Natasha Calis — told the website Gizmodo that they would stay well clear of the dybbuk box that is said to have been the inspiration behind The Possession. “There were some weird goings-on on set,” Morgan reported. “Lots of lightbulbs 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,” the actor added.

26. John Leonetti, Annabelle

Annabelle was made as a spinoff to The Conjuring, which itself was a movie that experienced its fair share of unexplained events behind the camera. And just like the movie that inspired it, Annabelle suffered from behind-the-scenes goings-on. As well as an incident involving a light fixture that exactly mimicked a death scene in the movie, director John Leonetti admitted that he believed the set to be haunted.

Leonetti recounted to The Hollywood Reporter a freaky discovery that was made while filming Annabelle. “We went into the apartment where we were shooting, and in the transient window above the living room window. It was a full moon, and there were three fingers drawn through the dust along the window, and our demon has three fingers and three talons,” Leonetti recalled. “[The markings] were being backlit by the moon. I have a picture! It was sick,” the director also said.

27. Alin Bijan and Billy Zane, Ghost of Goodnight Lane

Every now and again you get a case of art imitating life, and that certainly seemed to be true in the making of Ghost of Goodnight Lane. In the movie, an individual discovers a murdered co-worker in a film studio. The story was loosely based on events surrounding film sets that were supposedly haunted in real life. No one was quite sure if it was a good idea or not when director Alin Bijan made the decision to film his production on one of those very sets.

Bijan settled on a location that had seen no fewer than five deaths throughout its history. Unsurprisingly, that fact created a negative vibe among the cast and crew, who were probably freaked out of their minds when there were unexplained electrical problems and falling fixtures. Star Billy Zane was also not the only set member who claimed to have heard their name being called by unidentified voices, either.

28. Tony Todd, Candyman

Special effects take care of most of the gory stuff you see in horror movies these days. But back in 1992, that wasn’t so much the case. Take the infamous “bee scene” from Candyman, for example. Actor Tony Todd literally had a mouthful of bees while shooting the scene in which a swarm buzzes out. Todd was smart enough to negotiate a $1,000 payout for each sting in his contract, however.

Director Bernard Rose later spoke about how gutsy it was for Todd to literally have live bees in his mouth. “All Tony had was a dental dam to prevent them going down his throat. He was very courageous — it’s such an unsettling and stunning image when the bees emerge from his mouth,” Rose told the U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper. Oh, and in case you’re interested, the actor felt the sting of an angry bee on 23 occasions, equating to quite a nice little bonus.

29. Lupita Nyong’o, Us

Part of being a great actor is being able to fully immerse yourself in the role you are playing. One performer who certainly took this to heart was Lupita Nyong’o, who played the character of Adelaide Wilson/Red in the 2019 horror flick Us. “She really kind of spooked me out a little bit,” co-star Shahadi Wright Joseph told entertainment website Buzzfeed News after filming wrapped.

Nyong’o decided not to drop her character between scenes so she could keep up the intensity and feeling of the role. “She would really get into character and wouldn’t talk. It was kind of creepy,” added her co-star Wright Joseph. It certainly worked, as Nyong’o successfully scared the pants off audiences in most scenes that she starred in. Sounds like she freaked out the other stars too.

30. Will Sampson and Zelda Rubinstein, Poltergeist II: The Other Side

Due to the success of the original movie, Poltergeist II: The Other Side was commissioned and brought to the screen in 1986. And much like the original, many supernatural events happened behind the scene of Brian Gibson’s film. It certainly wasn’t helpful when actor Will Sampson, who played Taylor the Medicine Man in the film, decided to perform an on-set exorcism to rid the vicinity of “alien spirits.” Far from just immersing himself in his character, Sampson was a real-life shaman.

Another actor on Poltergeist II: The Other Side was Zelda Rubinstein, who played the part of Tangina Barrons. Yet Rubinstein was troubled during filming by a smear of light blur caused by a photograph being taken. She was later led to believe that that blur had occurred simultaneously with her own mother dying.

31. James Brolin and Ryan Reynolds, The Amityville Horror films

The Amityville Horror is a story based on real-life events. Those events have twice been made into films, and both versions have experienced behind-the-scenes quirks, to say the least. Actor James Brolin is said to have accepted a part in the 1979 version only after a pair of his pants inexplicably dropped from a hanger just as he reached a scary section of the script. But if that can be classified as “strange,” then it is nothing compared to what went on in the 2005 remake.

Not long before the start of filming, a dead body washed up on shore right on set. Star Ryan Reynolds and other actors and crew members also found themselves regularly waking at 3:15 a.m. That, in itself, would be strange, but it just so turned out that 3:15 a.m. was a special time. The movie is based on a series of murders — and they happened at exactly that time.

32. The cast and crew of The Omen

The Omen was a terrifying piece of cinema, but events surrounding the production of the film proved to be equally as frightening. In fact, The Omen must lay claim to having one of the most eventful production periods of any movie ever made, starting with the tragic loss of star Gregory Peck’s son in a shooting accident before filming had even begun. Unfortunately, that was just a precursor to the things to come.

Things went from bad to worse for most of those involved in making The Omen. Peck’s plane was struck by lightning, as was that of Mace Neufeld, the executive producer. But most terrifying of all was a car accident involving John Richardson, the movie’s special effects designer. As a result, passenger Liz Moore was decapitated in an event chillingly reminiscent of a scene from the movie itself. Plus, the accident happened on Friday, August 13, 1976. That’s Friday the 13th.

33. The cast of Twilight Zone: The Movie

Some events behind movie productions are so notorious that they fundamentally change the industry. And so it was with Twilight Zone: The Movie, the 1983 big-screen version of the popular TV series. It was during the filming of director John Landis’s segment that a terrible helicopter crash occurred, killing three cast members, two of whom were child actors who had allegedly been given jobs illegally.

The accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie led to litigation. Ultimately, the defendants, including the director Landis and the pilot, Dorcey Wingo, were cleared on involuntary manslaughter charges. Yet the consequences were profound. “The Twilight Zone accident created my job,” said Chris Palmer, a risk-management consultant, to Slate. “It was a sea change in the movie industry. No one in risk management was ever on set before then,” Palmer added.

34. Patrick Wilson, The Conjuring 2

Once again, Patrick Wilson experienced some pretty strange things while filming The Conjuring 2. The crew of the movie was reportedly equally terrorized by an inanimate object that behaved in a rather spooky way during filming. “It was a huge curtain that went from the floor to the ceiling, which was just sort of waving violently, and there was no door open or no fan on; no nothing,” Patrick Wilson later told entertainment wire WENN.

Clearly, Wilson was pretty spooked out by the whole moving-curtain incident, as he had more to say about it. “That was a very, very odd occurrence because nothing else was moving around it and nothing else was blowing,” Wilson added. “It was pretty trippy,” the actor told WENN. Trippy enough to get a priest in to rid the set of negative energy, by all accounts.

35. Myra Jones, Psycho

Yes, Janet Leigh's experience filming Psycho was far from the worst on set. Many people don't know that a member of the movie's production was the victim of an upsetting real-life murder. The victim was Janet Leigh’s stand-in, Myra Davis, who went by the professional name Myra Jones. The perpetrator was a handyman called Kenneth Dean Hunt. What was Dean’s motive for the killing of Jones?

According to author Robert Graysmith, the murderer was obsessed with Psycho and wanted to murder the body double Janet Leigh used for the shower scene. But unfortunately for Myra Davis, he got her stand-in instead. "Everyone confused them," Graysmith told The Guardian, "even a murderer." The murder took place in 1988, and Kenneth Dean Hunt was sentenced to life without parole in 2001.