13 Horror Movie Sets As Terrifying As The Films Themselves

It's a director's job to get the best performances possible out of their actors. So maybe it's not shocking that egomaniacal auteurs with their name on the line will go to some pretty insane lengths to get the most out of their performers. But when the film you're directing is a horror movie, and the look that you're trying to capture is sheer terror, it can be a dangerous combination of conditions that often crosses over into flat-out illegality and tragedy.

Directors have filmed in terrifying locations; they've broken their actors down psychologically; and they've put their cast and crew in genuine risk - all for the sake of selling a few more tickets. For some actors, however, the director isn't the (only) problem. Veteran actors who've survived some of the creepiest horror sets possible can attest to that fact. Whether it's nearly drowning on a set with a very demanding James Cameron barking orders at you or making it through the night in a haunted hotel, casts and crews on horror movies have lived through some pretty terrifying on-set situations.

Photo: The Shining / Warner Bros.

  • 'Twilight Zone: The Movie,' Where Multiple Actors Lost Their Lives
    Photo: Twilight Zone: The Movie

    Steven Spielberg was already mad at director John Landis, who'd been cutting corners and making risky choices since the start of production for The Twilight Zone: The Movie, before the real trouble on set even began. Landis and Spielberg were longtime friends and collaborators that were working together as two of the four directors hired to recreate episodes of the classic sci-fi/horror/existential philosophy TV show; however, the tragic events of the filming would end their friendship forever.

    Landis, known for his dictatorial on-set style, had already made some, shall we say, questionable choices. He screamed at actors and technicians, forcing them to do things his way, even if it went against their better judgment. Landis skirted the laws about shooting at night, pyrotechnics usage, and he even chose to use live ammunition during some of the filming. But none of that even comes close to the horrifying events of July 23rd, 1982.

    Veteran actor Vic Morrow was shooting a scene with two child performers named Myca Dinh Le, age seven, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, age six. He was supposed to scoop the kids into his arms and carry them to safety as a helicopter barreled down at them from the sky. The windy day required the crew to climb up 30-foot high scaffolding that was swaying as it was buffeted by the rotators of the helicopter. When some of the technicians balked at what they perceived to be unsafe conditions Landis furiously screamed: “Is there somebody on this electrical crew who’s not too chickensh*t to do the job?”

    Despite the misgivings of the pyrotechnicians, the helicopter pilot, and basically everyone else on set, Landis insisted on going forward with shooting, ignoring warnings from his crew and goading the pilot to "get lower, get lower." Though the exact order of events remain unclear, it seems that compromised audio due to the chaotic conditions led to one of the mortar effects being blown at the wrong time, destabilizing the helicopter. Vietnam veteran helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo did his best to get his craft back under control but was unable to keep it from careening toward the three helpless actors.

    Morrow, in a final selfless gesture, did his best to try to save the children from the impact, attempting to push them to safety into the nearby pond but was unable to escape the fast onrushing blades of the machine. Morrow and Le were struck by the propeller blades and, despite Morrow's efforts, Chen was then trapped under by one of the landing skids.

    Though Landis was acquitted of charges in the subsequent trial, the incident did lead to greater regulations in on-set safety that are still in place today. The multiple film production unions worked together unilaterally to ensure that accidents like the horrific Twilight Zone helicopter mishap never happened again.

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  • Even before the shooting began on The Omen, the production was given a few bad... well, you know.

    Two separate planes - one carrying lead actor Gregory Peck and the other carrying producer Mace Neufeld - were both struck by lightning only eight hours apart. Peck also came to the set only two months removed from having to tragically inter his son who had taken his own life. Unfortunately, these events were just the beginning of what stands today as one of the most enduring "cursed" movie myths.

    The laundry list of creepy, unexplained, and awful things that happened on The Omen's set include:

    • The trained stunt dogs freaked out and turned on their wrangler so viciously that they injured him, even through his animal protection suit.
    • The hotel the Neufeld was staying in being bombed by the IRA.
    • A private plane that the crew hired to transport props and set pieces mysteriously going down, colliding into another vehicle on the highway when it tried to land, killing everyone aboard.
    • Alf Joint, a stunt man working on the film, getting injured on the set of his next movie when he fell awkwardly from the top of a building during a stunt, claiming that he felt he was "pushed by an unseen force."
    • Most bizarrely, Liz Moore, one of the designers for the film, was in a fatal automobile collision with special effects coordinator John Richardson. On a weird note, the car was traveling to the Dutch town of Ommen at the time.

    Producer Harvey Bernhard, who started wearing a cross on the set out of fear, explains all of the freak occurrences like this: "The devil was at work and he didn't want that film made."

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  • Stephen King is the undisputed master of horror books.

    Movies? Not so much. "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself" proclaimed King in the trailer for Maximum Overdrive - a proclamation he'd have trouble living up to (but not for lack of trying). If King suffered from any problems as a director, ambition wasn't one of them. But lack of experience and a massive coke habit were.

    Silvia Giulietti, a camera assistant on the film, remembers the atmosphere on set like this: "[King] liked very much the extreme danger. Every day, we had a security because the movie was a very dangerous movie. Every day there were explosions. Was very dangerous. I was scared, sometimes. I was scared because I remember Stephen King had a kind of pleasure to see difficult situations."

    There was an mishap involving an ice cream truck that almost struck a cameraman; a hurricane struck the set during filming; and there was another incident where the crew had trouble putting out a stunt man doing a man-on-fire stunt. 

    King's greatest miscue was during a scene involving a runaway lawnmower, which was being controlled remotely and filmed from below. Everyone on set urged King to remove the blades from the mower (especially since they weren't even visible), but he refused, saying "There’s no f*cking way. We have to be as real as possible."

    Real blades can really cut things, and, during the take, the renegade lawnmower went, well, renegade, speeding past where it was supposed to stop and hitting the camera with the unremoved spinning blades. The blades sliced off a splinter of plastic and sent it flying, where against all odds it struck veteran director of photography Armando Nannuzzi in the eye. Nannuzzi was rushed to the hospital where surgery was performed to remove the piece, though ultimately he never regained sight in that eye. He did however return to finish out the project, because it takes more than being blinded by wanton negligence to stop Armando Nannuzzi. He also sued King and the studio for $18 million dollars, a suit that was settled out of court.

    King, for his part, has since retired from directing after his one and only feature. When questioned about why he hasn't directed again since Maximum Overdrive, King responded "Just watch Maximum Overdrive."

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  • Cannibal Holocaust is a 1980 Italian found-footage horror film that is notorious for how realistic its depictions of aggression and degradation are. And just how did director Ruggero Deodato get everything to seem so realistic? Well, whenever possible he just made it real.

    The tiny village surrounded by lush, unimproved rainforest that traps the actors? A real tiny village surrounded by actual rainforest that was accessible only by private plane, trapping the actors on location.

    The native peoples that don't seem like actors? Those are residents of the village that spoke no English and may or may not have known exactly what they were signing on for.

    And the animal slaughters depicted in the movie? Also 100% real. At least seven animals were slain on-camera for the film, a fact that led to the film's banning in several countries on the grounds of animal cruelty (though, in fairness, the animals were all later eaten).

    The film was so realistic that it led to Deodato actually being put on trial in Italy for the homicide of his actors. Luckily for him, he was able to produce those same still-alive actors, which is pretty iron-clad evidence in a trial. Still, despite not being terminated, the actors did come away with a distinctly bad taste in their mouth after Cannibal, calling Deodato "a sadist," "remorseless," and "uncaring."

  • When writer/director Ti West was shooting his 2009 film House of the Devil, he and his crew eschewed all the cookie-cutter corporate hotels and stayed instead in a quirky, old place called the Yankee Peddler Inn. The longer they were there, the more stories they heard about the hotel's strange, possibly haunted history, and before long West had started a screenplay inspired by those weird tales.

    That screenplay became The Innkeepers, which was then filmed on location at the Yankee Peddler. As soon as the crew arrived for filming, strange things started happening: doors would swing open or slam shut. Lights would switch on and off. Phones would ring, and no one would be on the other line.

    Star Sara Paxton recalls receiving a tweet from a stranger in the middle of the night telling her not to stay on the third floor... which of course is where she was staying (and reading that tweet, presumably). "I decided not to ask him why."

    Perhaps most spooky is West's story about how they picked the room to shoot in:

    "In the film the most haunted room is the Honeymoon Suite. That’s where the ghost stuff started in the hotel...So when we’re finishing the movie, I find out that the most haunted room in real life, is the room I picked to be the haunted room in the movie. It could be a coincidence. It’s weird that it happened that way"

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  • "The Abyss was a lot of things. Fun to make was not one of them," said Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who played Lindsay Brigman in the James Cameron-helmed underwater thriller.

    The set of the 1989 film wasn't haunted, but that doesn't mean it wasn't terrifying. Cameron constructed two giant shooting tanks especially for the film on the grounds of the Cherokee Nuclear Power Plant in South Carolina. The small tank was a mere 150,000 gallons, and the large tank was an unfathomable 7.5 million gallons, 55 feet deep, and over 200 feet across.

    The shooting days were long and arduous, and Cameron was relentless and unforgiving with his actors, pushing them to do their own swimming stunts, often without the aid of scuba gear. For his part, Cameron remembers it as a difficult film as well. "I knew this was going to be a hard shoot, but even I had no idea just how hard. I don't ever want to go through this again."

    Ed Harris was required at one point to do an insane three-minute underwater take with no gear to aid him except his own tough lungs. During one take, he and co-star Leo Burmester completed their swim, as they had in rehearsal and the previous take, only to find that the ladder that led to the surface wasn't where they expected it. Panicking and running out of air, they finally spied the ladder which had been moved even further away without anyone telling the actors. Harris and Burmester made it to the surface in time to avoid drowning (or you probably would have heard more about the incident), but that still left Harris furious with Cameron, a grudge he held for years.

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