Certain TV shows love to send their audiences cowering behind their couches, but we usually assume the actors involved were just, you know, acting. After all, despite what you’ve heard about method actors, most performers prefer to keep scary stuff as fake as possible. The blood is made from corn syrup, the fires are under control, and you had a nice chat with the guy in the clown suit at the craft services table over breakfast.
But just as horror shows all start with a nice normal day that goes catastrophically wrong, sometimes TV actors find themselves in scenes that produce a very real fear response. And sometimes, just reading the script tips them off that they’re about to have a rough day at work. From intense death scenes and dangerous stunts to jump scares that proved way too heart-jolting, these are TV scenes that terrified actors in real life.
Ellen Pompeo was forced to shoot a scene that injured a stuntwoman
"Grey’s Anatomy’s" Dr. Meredith Grey has come through multiple life-endangering moments, including nearly drowning, being held at gunpoint, and surviving an airplane crash, followed by several days of being trapped in the wilderness. But one of her most memorable near-death experiences came in season two, when Grey was nearly blown up by a bomb that had been stuck inside a patient. Actress Ellen Pompeo remembers it well, too.
For the explosion scene, a stunt double was strapped into a cable that jerked her backwards down a corridor. According to Entertainment Weekly, on the first take, she whacked her head on the floor and got a concussion. Peter Horton, who was directing the episode, wanted more shots, so he asked an already exhausted Pompeo to step in.
There was a huge fight, where Pompeo told Horton, "A f***ing professional stuntwoman just gave herself a concussion doing it. … Now you want me to try it?" In the end, Pompeo relented, although she claimed they used the first take anyway. However, Horton insists they did use footage with the actress, adding, "We never would have put her in jeopardy. We pulled her much slower than we pulled the stunt double."
This Game of Thrones fight scene intimidated Iain Glen
Signing up for "Game of Thrones" pretty much guarantees that you’ll be trading blows and blades eventually. That action component appealed to Iain Glen, who played Jorah Mormont, the disgraced knight who transitioned from spying on Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to becoming one of her most loyal servants.
As Glen explained to Elle, he loves stage fighting, but he was intimidated by the scale of Jorah’s gladiatorial scene, which saw him take on multiple adversaries in the same hectic sequence. "I was pretty fearful," he said, adding, "When it’s that extensive of a fight — I was fighting various people with different weapons — things can happen. Accidents can happen." Fortunately, everything worked out — for Jorah and Glen — and the scene became one of his favorite memories of working on "Thrones." "The whole gladiatorial sequence … was a very hard week and I loved doing that," he told Entertainment Weekly. "So for the action side of things, that sequence encapsulated it."
While that was the scariest scene to shoot, a different one proved too scary to watch. Glen admitted to Variety that he couldn’t bring himself to watch Jorah fight in the Battle of Winterfell because he was too emotionally invested in the character.
This Breaking Bad death traumatized everyone on set
"Breaking Bad" never shied away from grisly and tragic deaths, but there was one that really shook up the cast and crew.
Krysten Ritter knew from the start that her character Jane from "Breaking Bad" had to die. Jane chokes on her own vomit after taking heroin, while Walter (Bryan Cranston) stands over her. Ritter said that during shooting, the crew struggled to watch the terrifyingly authentic scene, and that she also had to take breaks because it was too overwhelming. Her mother can’t even talk about it.
Another parent who struggled with the scene was Cranston. Via Variety, he said that as he was watching Ritter pretending to choke, he suddenly saw his own daughter in her place — his worst fear coming to life. It’s the one scene from a very dark show that still makes him emotional.
Jane’s death also featured in Aaron Paul’s worst scene. His character Jesse tries to revive her, which involved Paul pounding on Ritter’s chest while she wore a special rig. Talking about the scene in 2019, Paul said he and Ritter cried during shooting, adding, "I just couldn’t come back from it."
This jump scare terrified the actor jumping out
Usually, the only person safe from a jump scare-induced heart palpitation is the person jumping out. But Victoria Pedretti is so good at playing a ghost that she even scared herself in one especially heart-lurching scene.
In the Netflix series "The Haunting of Hill House," Pedretti plays Nell, one of the inhabitants of the titular house, who survives the ghosts in her childhood home only to die when she returns as an adult. Later on in the series, Nell’s sisters get into an argument while driving to the haunted mansion — and Nell’s ghost bursts between their seats, shrieking like, well, a very distraught ghost.
Pedretti told Decider that Nell wasn’t trying to scare her sisters. As she explained, "It came from a deeper place and a real need, so that’s why it’s so loud and immediate." But it still terrified everyone involved. "I knew it was happening [and] I screamed — at myself!" she admitted. Her co-star, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, confessed that watching it got him, too, telling Pop Sugar, "I watched [that episode] the other day, and I was so, so scared. I screamed, and I was still scared, so I screamed again."
Tony Sirico worried that crossing this line would have real repercussions
Tony Sirico didn’t need to do research to play Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri, "The Sopranos"’ lovable psychopath. As a kid in Brooklyn, he was in and out of prison on major charges. He also understood that even gangsters have rules, and he worried that one scene in the show might trigger repercussions in his offscreen life.
In season four, creator David Chase has Paulie kill his mother’s frenemy, Minn (Fran Anthony), during a burglary gone wrong, but Sirico initially refused to do the scene. According to Vanity Fair, he told Chase, "I come from a tough neighborhood. If I go home, and they see that I killed a woman, it’s going to make me look bad." But Chase insisted … and it had to be with his bare hands. They eventually compromised on a pillow suffocation.
Sirico wasn’t exactly being paranoid when he worried that laying hands on a woman might get him in trouble. He’d been shot — twice — for kissing someone else’s girlfriend. Fortunately, in this case, his neighbors were more understanding. "They loved the show. They didn’t care what we did," he said.
Austin Nichols thought his on-screen death scene might go very wrong
If you shudder when watching a character die in a spectacularly gruesome way, spare a thought for the actor living the scene, especially when it comes to the cast of "The Walking Dead." The zombie show has delivered some of the most spectacularly gruesome deaths on TV, but maybe the most shudder-inducing of all was watching Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) gut Spencer (Austin Nichols) in broad daylight in season seven.
Nichols wasn’t crazy about that moment, either. He was padded with a special chest plate and a bag filled with fake blood and guts, but Morgan had to use a real razor to split open the bag. "I was afraid that he would puncture the chest plate and actually cut me — because he comes at me really hard and really fast," Nichols told Entertainment Weekly. Luckily, Morgan got it right in the first and only take.
While dying was scary, coming back as a zombie was all fun. "It was cool to do … all this fun stuff with the zombie make-up and zombie contacts," Nichols revealed, confirming what most "Dead" Heads long suspected. After his character’s dramatic death scene was over, he said, "I just stood up and started screaming. And I just started yelling ‘YEAH! That was awesome!’"
Did a real spirit cameo in American Horror Story: Coven?
Like everyone who isn’t an aspiring medium, Gabourey Sidibe prefers her ghosts to be special effects. But a supernatural experience made her think a real spirit showed up for one scene in "American Horror Story: Coven."
In episode 12, Sidibe’s character, Queenie, recites a Latin spell to conjure an audience with Papa Legba, the gatekeeper to the spirit world. During "An Evening with the Women of American Horror Story," Sidibe said that as she spoke the words, the light fixture above her started to shake, and she felt like she couldn’t move. While shooting another part of the scene, the light fixture crashed to the floor, and she felt a finger running up her chin to her bottom lip, which started to swell.
Sidibe and a makeup artist went to a trailer to wait for medical treatment … and started hearing scratching noises on the walls outside. They only stopped when the makeup artist said a prayer and clapped her hands. Completely freaked out, Sidibe refused to say the Latin summoning words again. But she relented when the other actors struggled to get the hang of them. This time, her top lip swelled up. "Do not do this at home you guys," she warned.
This onscreen lifeguard was terrified of water scenes
One of the first victims of the ever-growing Mindflayer in "Stranger Things" Season 3 was Heather the lifeguard, played by Francesca Reale. In a telepathic trance, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) finds Heather in a bathtub full of ice, where she pleads for help before being dragged down into the water by an unseen force.
Shooting the first half of the scene was creepy for Reale, who spent a day "drowning [herself]" (via Cinema Blend) in the bathtub. And things only got scarier. For the part of the scene where Heather is pulled underwater, Reale was in "a pool with a black bottom." She added that the darkness made it "terrifying" because she hates "any body of water that has a black bottom."
Adding to the waking nightmare, there was a mechanism attached to her foot which pulled her down. And she had to hold her arms above her head — like she was reaching for Eleven — and scream, both without creating bubbles, while keeping her eyes open. Reale admitted that "it was incredibly hard," but she said that she enjoyed the chance to do a stunt, and she’s game for more (perhaps with the lights on.)
Tati Gabrielle worried her Sabrina work would follow her home
"Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" leans much more heavily into occult practices than the show’s bright and bubbly predecessor. And despite playing powerful witch Prudence onscreen, Tati Gabrielle says she got chills when it came time to act out the resurrection ritual in Season 1.
Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka), Prudence, Dorcas (Abigail Cowen) and Nick (Gavin Leatherwood) sacrifice Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) to bring Tommy (Justin Dobies) back to life. The ritual involves walking deep into a dense forest in the dark, standing on a pentagram lit by candles, and chanting black magic spells to summon spirit hounds. Fine for witches, but the atmosphere made for a spine-tingling shoot.
As Gabrielle confessed to Coupe De Main magazine, "I was super terrified being out there at night, repeating these spells that are very real spells and feeling like we’re calling on these weird dark forces. … We prayed before we started the scene." Because the show draws on real magical practices, she worried that she might be messing with actual spirits. "I get freaked out sometimes, when I go home at night, thinking that a demon is gonna be lurking at the corner of my room," she admitted to Collider.
This What We Do in the Shadows actor had a fiery scare
Vampires aren’t afraid of much (except retribution from the vampiric council and throwing a bad orgy), but the humans who play them have very real concerns. For example, Natasia Demetriou, who plays the vampire Nadja in the mockumentary series "What We Do in the Shadows," didn’t feel so hot when a fire effect didn’t go as planned.
In a scene in the season one finale, three Staten Island vampires visit a church where they slowly start to burn up. Demetriou’s hands really were set on fire, and she wore gloves covered in special paste that’s supposed to burn without damaging skin. But the fire started getting out of control. "They thought I was just doing it as part of the scene," she explained to Stuff. "So it was like a good five seconds of me thinking I was going to lose my hand."
Showrunner Jemaine Clement thought the accidental effect looked great. But while, say, Tom Cruise’s on-set injury didn’t slow that famous former vampire down, Demetriou understandably broke with her character under fire. "I definitely ruined it by screaming, ‘help, help’ in my [English] accent," she admitted.
Cameron Britton’s hug terrified Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter
Not all monsters are supernatural. Netflix’s "Mindhunter" explores the FBI’s early attempts to understand what makes serial killers tick (and murder people). Jonathan Groff plays hostage negotiator turned serial killer investigator Holden Ford, who’s based on real-life FBI agent John E. Douglas. In the show, Ford forms a strange bond with real-life murderer Ed Kemper, played to terrifying effect by Cameron Britton.
Kemper killed and dismembered his grandparents, his mother, her friend, and six female hitchhikers in Santa Cruz, California, during the ’60s and ’70s. At 6’9", he’s physically imposing, and he has a high IQ. He’s chillingly eloquent in his descriptions of the violent crimes he committed. Watching the real Kemper or Britton’s version describe his motivations is spine-tingling — especially if you’re in the room.
Director and producer David Fincher deliberately kept Britton apart from the rest of the cast, to make their scenes even more intense. Groff admitted to Rolling Stone, "To be sitting in this room with him in Los Angeles, all by myself, was terrifying." In particular, Groff was freaked out by a scene in the season one finale where Kemper hugs Ford. Groff told Esquire that when he was just reading the scene with Britton, "The hair stood up on the back of my neck. That final scene was easy to act because he is truly terrifying."
Vera Farmiga was freaked out by this actor’s taunts
"Bates Motel" is overbooked with brutal murders (not to mention other acts of violence), but the scene that truly scared Vera Farmiga — who played unstable matriarch Norma — happened in the very first episode.
The motel’s former owner, Keith Summers (W. Earl Brown), breaks into the kitchen and sexually assaults Norma, but her son, Norman (Freddie Highmore), knocks him out. The pair handcuff Summers, and Norman goes to get the medical kit to treat his mother’s injuries. While he’s gone, Summers wakes up and tries to attack Norma, who grabs a kitchen knife and stabs him repeatedly.
The whole scene is disturbing to watch, but the part that freaked out Farmiga was the moment right before she had to pretend to stab Brown. During the "Bates Motel: After Hours" show, she explained, "The actor was saying the most perverse things to me in order to instigate me to sock it to him," including the incredibly eerie line, "You liked it."
"It was creepy," Farmiga said, a sentiment that sums up the whole series.
Emma Roberts had a very normal response to this American Horror Story scene
Excessively creepy clowns have become a scourge of movies and even real life in the last few years. And sure, everybody knows all about Pennywise, but two of the earliest clown trendsetters were "American Horror Story: Freak Show’s" Twisty (John Carroll Lynch) and his accomplice, Dandy (Finn Wittrock), who burst maniacally onto our screens in 2014.
These clowns even scared "Scream Queen" and "Horror Story" veteran Emma Roberts. She had nightmares when shooting the show, and when she saw Twisty, her perfectly normal response was (via Today), "He’s going to chase me through a forest at 4 AM in the middle of nowhere? I don’t think so." In fact, Roberts’ character, Maggie, isn’t chased through a forest by Twisty. Instead, it’s Dandy, who’s wearing a different but also horrifying clown costume. It didn’t take much acting to get that scene right, and according to Roberts, "You get this adrenaline of fear where you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I know it’s fake but he’s right behind me and it’s really scary!’"
Rutina Wesley was very much alive when she was buried in True Blood
"True Blood’s" Tara Thornton went through a lot in her relatively short life. But the scariest scene for actress Rutina Wesley was the one in which Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) bury Tara, hoping to bring her back as a vampire after she was killed saving Sookie.
Tara is dead in the scene, but Wesley definitely wasn’t. And like anyone with a pulse, she didn’t enjoy being buried alive. In fact, she nearly had a panic attack. But since dead people can’t breathe, much less hyperventilate, she had to stay as still as possible. As she explained to Flare, "I remember my heart was beating so fast. … It took all my focus to not move an inch when the final shovel of dirt was thrown on my face. I think I might have actually inhaled some dirt that day."
Although it was terrifying at the time, Wesley admitted to Vulture, "It turned out to be a beautiful shot. That’s how you get it, you do it for real." That’s an admirable level of commitment, but maybe request fake dirt next time.
Kit Harington faced a real horde of soldiers for a Game of Thrones scene
As all of the murder, war, manipulation, and machination crescendoed toward the end of the seven-season run of HBO’s epic fantasy "Game of Thrones," those making a play to sit on the Iron Throne and rule over all of Westeros got a lot more aggressive and vicious in their quest. The second-to-last episode of Season 6, "Battle of the Bastards," depicted a bloody, pivotal battle for Winterfell, fought by the armies of would-be King in the North Jon Snow, and determined, fellow illegitimate heir Ramsay Bolton. Filming that elaborate, ambitious battle required 25 shooting days, 500 extras, 600 crew members, and 70 horses, according to Entertainment Weekly. This means that most everything that showed up on the screen was real — much to the terror of the actor who portrayed Jon Snow in one of his most trying moments, Kit Harington.
A massive horde of enemy combatants attack Jon, and that wasn’t done with CGI — there really was a large group of men running straight at, into, and on top of the actor. He’s buried under bodies at one point, all of which was a bit too much for Harington. "I’ve got a few fears, spiders being one of them, but the worst is my claustrophobia — I’m mortally afraid of crowds. I panic," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "It was one of the most terrifying things and most uncomfortable."
Madelaine Petsch filmed a Riverdale river death scene despite a profound fear of water
Debuting on The CW in January 2017, the very first sequence in the very first episode of "Riverdale" establishes that this dark teen mystery soap would play a lot differently than the old-fashioned, squeaky-clean Archie Comics upon which it was based. After some ominous establishing shots of the titular city, the action switches to the banks of the Sweetwater River, where identical twins Jason (Trevior Stines) and Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), dressed in white, board a small boat and head out, a journey that Jason won’t survive and which will leave his sister traumatized.
Even shooting that bit of fiction was tough for Petsch, who has a pronounced phobia of deep, large bodies of water, owing in part to a long-ago accident in a glass-bottomed boat. "I assumed they’d use a stunt double in the boat. When I got to set, they were like, ‘So we’re gonna put you in a wetsuit,’" she recalled to Glamour. Increasing her apprehension was that costar Stines was in charge of operating the boat, and he’d never done that before. "I was having a panic attack. No one knew I was freaking out." Petsch said. "I was terrified of stepping in the boat, but then I got in and Trevor was amazing. It was great therapy, but I was still terrified."
James Marsters’ worst day as an actor arrived while shooting a Buffy the Vampire Slayer attack scene
The relationship between fated vampire killer Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and ageless, vicious vampire Spike (James Masters) on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was all kinds of complicated. He wanted to kill her, she wanted to kill him, and then he became an undead living experiment with an implant that removed his desire to kill, all while his strong feelings toward Buffy evolved from seething hatred into deep love. But somewhere in the middle, by the Season 6 episode "Seeing Red," Spike was still an evil monster, capable of and willing to commit unspeakable acts, such as sexual assault.
According to Marsters, creator Joss Whedon urged "Buffy" writers to take their worst and darkest real-life memories and put them into scripts. "Seeing Red" was informed by a staff writer’s recollection of trying to win back an ex by forcing them into a sexual encounter, so the script called for a desperate Spike to try that with Buffy. "It was the hardest day of my professional life. I was curled up in a fetal position in between takes. I can’t watch scenes like that," Marsters told The A.V. Club. "It was just unbelievably hard. But again I’m glad we did it. Spike was evil, and I think a lot of people forgot about that."
Euphoria filmed in a creepy, deadly, decommissioned hospital
Having already explored issues like mental illness, addiction, desperation, objectification, predatory behavior, and death, HBO’s provocative teen drama "Euphoria" went to some very serious and intimidating places throughout its first season. Filming that first set of episodes ended with the cast and crew literally filming at a seriously intimidating place: in and around a decommissioned medical institution that was reportedly and supposedly still occupied. "We were on these weird grounds, out there shooting, all night, and no one mentioned that the grounds were haunted," actor Algee Smith (Chris McKay) told Collider. Co-star Sydney Sweeney (Cassie Howard) explained that "Euphoria" filmed by an old mental hospital, supposedly closed up after a resident escape led to the deaths of 40 staff members. "And now they say the place is haunted," Sweeney said. "We were exploring, and all of the lights were off and we went into the basement, where there was a morgue. It was the creepiest place that I’ve ever been to, and we were filming there, all day and all night. Nobody mentioned, ‘Hey, people get murdered.’"
Ghost Whisperer triggered claustrophobia and a panic attack for Jennifer Love Hewitt
The 2005-’10 CBS series "Ghost Whisperer" concerned the supernatural abilities of Melinda Gordon, an antique store owner who can see and talk with ghosts, forced to spend her free time helping those unsettled spirits take care of whatever problem is keeping them in a state of limbo. Most every episode ends with the ghost happily crossing over to the afterlife, but not without some tremendous emotional struggle and physical toil on the part of Melinda, portrayed by Jennifer Love Hewitt.
In a 2007 "Ghost Whisperer" episode, Melinda’s quest to help out a ghost left her stranded and stuck in a narrow underground tunnel. "We were literally in a room the size of a small bathroom with 25 crew members for 14 hours," Hewitt told FanBolt. "It was really tough because my character was supposed to be freaked out but I had to get myself really calm in order to even get myself to go in." When the director asked Hewitt to replicate her character’s claustrophobic reaction, she wasn’t really acting. "They were like, ‘Now hyperventilate and pretend you don’t like small space,’ and I said, ‘I don’t like small spaces.’" The scene took 14 hours to shoot, leaving Hewitt spent and unnerved.
Salem’s Lot freaked out its child stars
In 1979, only the second ever adaptation of a Stephen King book hit screens — a "Salem’s Lot" miniseries, about a small town ravaged by vampires. Directed by Tobe Hooper, better known for "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "Poltergeist," the "Salem’s Lot" limited series featured one of the scariest and thus most indelible TV moments of the time. Young Ralphie Glick (Ron Scribner), transformed into a pale-faced, monstrous vampire, floats outside the bedroom window of his brother Danny (Brad Savage) and scratches at the glass, imploring him to let him in for some inevitably chilling savagery.
The look in Scribner’s eyes is complicated and inscrutable, and it came not from an actor trying to best convey his character, but rather extreme discomfort. "It was probably the pain from the contact lenses digging into my eyeballs," he told Vanity Fair. Danny ultimately doesn’t survive his brother’s vampirism, and this led to Savage having to film a funeral scene as an undead boy. Seemingly dead, Danny hangs out in a coffin until he can drink the blood of gravedigger Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis). "Honestly, out of my whole childhood career, that was the creepiest experience," he said. "They literally put me in a coffin and lowered me down eight, 10 feet into a hole," where Lewis shoveled dirt onto the coffin when he was inside it. "That was probably the most damage done to my psyche."