Horror movies are often viewed as little more than lurid entertainment that exploit base human emotions for a quick profit. However, the ways that horror is represented onscreen both reflects and informs contemporaneous societal fears—or, to quote the king of horror Stephen King, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” If you’re a performer hoping to break into the world of monsters, madness, and murder, here’s everything you need to know about horror movie acting.
“Evil Dead Rise” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Emotional complexity: Acting in a horror movie is no different from any other genre. While fear is a prevalent emotion, portraying it throughout the entire film would be one-dimensional. Instead of simply striving to act scared, aim for authenticity and emotional complexity.
Commitment: Commit yourself to the craft as you would for any other role. Think, for example, of the differences between Toni Collette’s devastating portrayal of grieving mother Annie Graham compared to Tara Reid’s portrayal that one critic called “incomparably blank” as Aline Cedrac in the critically panned “Alone in the Dark.” Colette’s commitment to the role is evident in her acting. “For me, what makes a great performance in a horror movie is commitment to the scene and approaching the character as though they don’t know they are in a horror movie,” says Clarke Wolfe, who starred in the horror films “Malum” and “Satanic Panic.”
“For instance, when I started working on my character Dorothea in ‘Malum,’ director Anthony DiBlasi and I talked a lot about her being the most devout and the most confident member of her congregation,” she adds. “She doesn’t know she’s in a horror movie—this is her version of ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told.’ So I tried to keep those thoughts in mind as I was making my way through a movie with very heightened circumstances, remembering that my performance needed to be especially grounded and committed. Hopefully that makes it all the more effective (and scary!) for the audience watching it onscreen.”
Fitness: Being in good shape is often essential for starring in a horror movie. Whether you play predator or prey, stalker or victim, you’ll likely be required to run extensively. You may need to navigate uneven terrains such as forests, riversides, or overgrown cemeteries. You may also need to handle weapons, endure challenging physical tasks, or receive fight training.
“Candyman” Courtesy Universal Pictures
Perfect your scream: Unless you’re acting in a slow-burn horror film, you’ll likely need to know how to give a killer scream time and again—without hurting your voice. To do so, try using less air: Open up your throat, create a rattle in your soft palate, keep your neck and back steady, and bend your legs slightly. Most importantly, remember to always do a warmup and cooldown so that you don’t injure your throat.
Use your experience: When in doubt, return to the lessons of teachers such as Uta Hagen, who encouraged students to use moments where their real-life emotion overlapped with the emotions of the scene. Have to play across from a killer clown, but you don’t find clowns particularly scary? Remember a time you did feel afraid, and use those feelings—both mental and physical—to your advantage.
Try to “survive”: Always remember that age-old acting question: What’s my motivation? In a horror movie, “it’s the need to survive that actually creates fear, not the fearful situation itself,” says acting teacher Ivana Chubbuck.
Know how to play dead: If your character experiences a most unfortunate demise, you’ll need to know how to play dead. To do so convincingly, learn to control your breathing; understand the different stages of dying and what they look like; try to truly embody the dying experience; and remember that context matters. Dying from being murdered by Samara from “The Ring” appears very different from being killed by Ghostface from the “Scream” franchise.
Get cast: Look for opportunities to audition for horror films in our comprehensive casting call database. Make sure that you have footage attached to your profile. According to the director of “Hide/Seek,” Matt Newton, “Having some kind of a reel…made the process easier, and if someone didn’t have a reel, we were less open to seeing them.” Professional headshots, an honest playable age range, and the ability to respond to horror film production demands will all make you stand out.
“Pearl” Courtesy A24
“If you ask me, it’s always a good time to act in a great horror movie,” says Wolfe. “A great script is a great script, but I do believe that there are added benefits to acting in a horror movie.” These include:
Gaining experience: Experience is a necessity for any early-career actor. Since many horror films are student or indie productions, it can be easier to get your foot in the door and begin building your acting résumé.
Building a fan base: “Horror fans are some of the most loyal fans out there,” Wolfe notes, “and they tend to support their favorite performers throughout all the phases of their career.” If a fan enjoys your acting in a horror film, they are likely to follow you into other non-genre projects in the future.
More opportunities: Because the genre is constantly evolving, that means its role types and opportunities are, too. For example, while women in classic horror tended to be cowering victims, today, roles include the likes of Danai Gurira’s modern warrior arc on “The Walking Dead,” Mia Goth’s heartbreakingly demented turn in “Pearl,” and Jessica Lange’s multiple fear-inducing roles on “American Horror Story.”
“Midsommar” Courtesy A24
Protagonists: Classic horror films often feature protagonists with roles such as:
- The virginal final girl
- The jock
- The mean/bad girl
- The skeptic
- The scholar/helper
Antagonists: Classic horror films usually set up a binary of protagonists versus the external other. The “other” could be:
- A supernatural monster such as a ghost, vampire, or werewolf
- A killer on the loose
- The secret/hidden maniac
As genre films have evolved and become more mainstream, Wolfe says, “the traditional tropes that we all know about the characters in a ‘horror movie’ have been deconstructed.” In postmodern horror films such as “It Follows,” “The Cabin in the Woods,” and “Split,” the delineation between protagonists and antagonists tends to be more blurred.
“Depending on the role, the antagonist doesn’t necessarily know they’re the villain of the story,” Wolfe explains. “They often believe they are the hero of their story.” This means that whether you’re portraying a frightened final girl or a neglected child turned vengeful ghost, “a non-judgmental attitude about the material is really important for the actor,” Wolfe says.
“Halloween Kills” Credit: Ryan Green/Universal Pictures
Horror films boast a dedicated fan base, and many renowned actors actually began their careers in the genre.
- Jamie Lee Curtis started as the original final girl—the last character left alive to confront the villain—in “Halloween” before earning an Oscar in 2023.
- Jennifer Aniston’s first film role was in “Leprechaun.”
- Johnny Depp’s debut was in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
- Patricia Arquette’s debut was in “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.”
- Tom Hanks made his first feature film appearance in a horror movie called “He Knows You’re Alone.”
- Leonardo DiCaprio’s first feature role was in the creature feature sequel “Critters 3.”