are we pushing horror film actors too far?

Actors are putting their mental health at risk for movies that push the boundaries of fear.

by Emily Kirkpatrick
07 June 2018, 9:51pm

image via Hereditary/YouTube

Hollywood lore is filled with reverential stories about famed method actors who dove so deeply into a role they almost permanently lost themselves in character.

Take for example the movie mythology surrounding losing and gaining weight at a rapid, unhealthy clip, a feat known amongst thespians to result in an almost guaranteed Oscar nom. Christian Bale dropped 60 pounds for his role in The Machinist, while Robert De Niro gained 60 for his part in Raging Bull. Then there's the experiential masochist school of acting with stars like Billy Bob Thornton, who put crushed glass in his shoes to make his limp more authentic in Sling Blade; Jack Nicholson, who checked himself into a psychiatric ward for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; and Shia LaBeouf, who joined the U.S. National Guard to prepare for his part in Fury. And, of course, there's Daniel Day Lewis. A man who in preparation for The Crucible built his own 17th century house using only the tools America's settlers would have used and, while shooting Lincoln, refused to break character ever... even when he was texting. His costar Sally Field went so far as to say of Lewis, "I never met him. Never. I met him as Mr. Lincoln."

All of the above can be an effective (if extreme) process for getting into a different headspace. But what happens when getting into character doesn't just involve an actor putting themselves in temporarily uncomfortable situations, but actually damaging their own mental health indefinitely?

Lately, a spate of horror film stars have confessed to suffering from serious trauma due while shooting films heralded for their over-the-top grotesqueness and scream-a-minute plotlines. The most recent actor to cite mental health issues triggered by a role is Alex Wolff, one of the stars of Hereditary, a film which was dubbed “the most insane horror movie in years” and “two breathless hours of escalating terror.” He told Vice, “I don’t think you can go through something like this and not have some sort of PTSD afterwards,” adding the he was in "a pretty raw and volatile state while filming."

"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," he continued. "I forced it upon myself rather than the opposite of what you’d usually do in life, which is sit on the heater until it starts to burn and you jump up immediately. I had to do the exact opposite of that and absorb the pain and let it burn. It’s a reverse emotional thing." And he's hardly the first actor to make such troubling claims.

Dakota Johnson, who will star in Luca Guadanino's remake of Suspira, coming out in November, has said that she had to enter therapy after shooting the film. She told Elle, “[Filming Suspiria], no lie, fucked me up so much that I had to go to therapy. 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 as shit, and so dry.”

And last year, during the press tour for her film mother!, Jennifer Lawrence announced that the film had taken a serious toll on her psyche as well. "I never lose myself in a movie," she told Deadline, "This is the only time I’ve lost myself. I couldn’t tell my body that none of it was real. I kept on hyperventilating.” In a cover story for Vogue, she added, "I had to go to a darker place than I’ve ever been in my life. I didn’t know if I’d be able to come out OK.” To cope, the actress had the crew create a "Kardashian tent" where she could decompress between shots, complete with pictures of the Kardashians, Keeping Up with the Kardashians playing on a loop, and gumballs, or as Lawrence called it, "My happy place.”

All of this begs the question: are we pushing these actors way too far? Getting into a role à la Daniel Day Lewis and making everyone call you by your character's name 24/7 is one thing, but forcing people into fictional situations that elicit real life psychological distress over and over again in the pursuit of bigger, crazier scares is something else entirely. It's no secret that few films score bigger numbers at the box office than scary movies. And if the Saw and Human Centipede franchises have proved anything, it's that the more visceral and disgusting they are, the better. But over the past couple of decades, the quest for these types of thrills has been escalating exponentially. No longer satisfied with the easy jumps and gross-out scares of yesteryear, filmmakers a desperate for a chilling psychological component, and aren't afraid to push actors to the edge in order to get it. And while a movie might cause you some mental distress for the two hours you watch it, that's only a tiny fraction of the time the actor's actually had to live inside that world, internalizing that total mindfuck.

All of this is not to say we have to stop making movies that scare the pants off us. But it is to say that if we want to keep making and consuming films that are looking to achieve these even bigger, more existential scares, we also need to consider the mental health of the people providing us with this fresh nightmare fodder, before we've pushed them over the brink.

Jennifer Lawrence
dakota johnson
think piece