Acting for the Horror Genre

Acting Horror

Serious horror films require just as much preparation for a role as other genres. It's imperative that the audience believes in the world of the film. The believability of your character is an integral portion of that believable world.

Do your research. Ask yourself the following: What lies at the emotional core of your character? What motivates him/her? Why does he do the actions s/he does (pay particular attention to scenes where s/he puts him/herself in danger)?

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Acting with Blood...and Other Scary Things

Remember that any horror film you are acting in is a world that needs to come across as believable. True, it's not every day that you might get stabbed in the heart or have your friend's head fall in your lap, but it is your job as an actor to make these moments as real as possible.

You may wish to take a few moments before filming a particularly gory scene to meditate on the darkness of what is about to occur. Imagine what it might be like to step onto that set and actually lose your life...or see someone else lose his/hers.

Once that meditation has ended, however, forget it. You don't want to anticipate the dramatic moments once the cameras are rolling. Trust that the energy you called up during meditation will resurface when the time is right.

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Horror Acting: Calm Before the Storm

One of the biggest elements of horror films is the shock factor. As an actor, you can learn to use this convention to your advantage. In most horror films, there is a scene that seems relatively benign, or a scene that begins calmly. Don't ignore the importance of this peacefulness. If anything, you should play the calmness to its fullest potential. The calmer you are in the scene, the bigger the pay-off will be when the shocking action occurs.

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How to Scream

Believe it or not, many actors have a terrible time screaming convincingly. Acting in horror films almost always requires some sort of noise of distress at some point or another...usually it comes in the form of a scream. Here are a few tips to make yours a better one.

The Warm-up:

  1. Go far away from other people.
  2. Take a deep breath through your nose, filling your lungs. Feel your diaphragm lower.
  3. Drop your jaw open.
  4. Exhale through your mouth in one long forceful (but silent) ha-aaa.
  5. Repeat two or three times.

The Scream:

  1. Go far away from other people.
  2. Take a deep breath through your nose, filling your lungs. Feel your diaphragm lower.
  3. Drop your jaw open.
  4. Exhale through your mouth in one long forceful (but silent) ha-aaa.
  5. Repeat two or three times.

An important note: Screaming is very bad for your vocal cords. Be sure to drink fluids (preferably warm) before and after you need to scream.

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Playing Dead

Nothing ruins the magic of a horror film than being able to see the dead guy breathing. It happens, though. After long hours and many takes, the actor playing the newly-killed often is not aware when the camera is on him. Something as small as a breath can ruin the integrity of the entire film. Should you have to die in a film, here's how to make sure you are not the cause of the film's demise:

  • Always know when the camera is rolling, and when you are in the shot.
  • When your "body" is part of the scene and the scene's length is too long for you to hold your breath, take slow, shallow breaths.
  • Stay focused on keeping your breathing in your neck and throat. Of course, your lungs will be working, but this visualization on your part will help keep your chest cavity from moving.
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Suspense & Psychological Thrillers

Suspense films and psychological thrillers require a bit more subtlety than horror acting. Much of the time, the very nature of a horror film is to go over-the-top with fantastical elements and gore. Your acting can and should stay true to the feel of the film itself.

In suspense and thrillers, what frightens the audience is not the shock value of blood and guts, but the deeper fear hidden within our own minds. Investigate the deeper essences of our character and look in particular for pockets of fear in him/her that you can bring to your portrayal. Find his/her neuroses and discover where in the film they can be played for maximum benefit.

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Using Your Imagination

Oftentimes, actors need to act opposite things that are not there. This is particularly true for horror films that may have CGIs (Computer Generated Images) as monsters. In these scenes, you must rely on your imagination to create your scene partner.

As the director of the film to give you an idea of what this creature will look like. Try to get a hold of some sketches or models so that you have a better idea of how to react to it on-screen. The more you know about the creature, the more realistically you can react to it (or where it will later be placed by the film's graphics team).

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