To what extent are child actors in horror movies exposed to the macabre material they're working with? As it turns out, they're often (and surprisingly) barely exposed to anything bloodcurdling at all. Film editing is a remarkable art that, when done right, can make an IRL walk in the park look like a cinematic walk through a human slaughterhouse. As you'll learn from this list, many quintessentially creepy horror movie kids had no idea they were even being ominous.
Encountering horror movie children who didn't realize they were in horror movies isn't unusual; Danny Lloyd in The Shining famously had no clue he was starring in one of the scariest films of all time, and Linda Blair mostly had a lot of fun playing the fearsomely possessed Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. If you've ever wondered how kids in inappropriately adult films were sheltered from the proverbial storm filming around them, read on: the Freddy Kruegers and murderous dolls that have always scared you may be cuddlier than you think.
When Danny Lloyd was chosen to play little Danny Torrance in The Shining, director Stanley Kubrick was determined to make sure he remained sheltered from the horrors of the Overlook Hotel. According to lore, Kubrick was "highly protective" of Lloyd, who was only 6 at the time of the shoot; the director even opted to use dummies (as opposed to body doubles) as stand-ins for some of Lloyd's most harrowing scenes.
In the aftermath of Danny's encounter with the Woman in Room 237, for example ... when Wendy (Shelly Duvall) is carrying a traumatized Danny away while accusing Jack (Jack Nicholson) of choking him ... it was actually a lifesized dummy she was working with. Little Lloyd was none the wiser, and only realized the truth when he finally saw the uncut film years later.
In the meantime, he had a blast hanging out with the cast (especially Scatman Crothers, with whom he developed a special bond) and riding his Big Wheel up and down the halls of Elstree Studios. He was also charmingly thrilled about the money ("probably five or six hundred dollars!") his role brought him..
Heather O'Rourke, who tragically died at the age of 12, is beloved the world over for playing Carol Anne Freeling, the angelic little girl sucked into another dimension (via her closet) in 1982's Poltergeist. But the actual experience of shooting Stephen Spielberg's and Tobe Hooper's iconic horror film was apparently anything but scary.
Legend has it O'Rourke started her audition laughing and kidding around like a typical child; but her versatility quickly became clear when Spielberg asked her to scream, and she did so (or so the story goes) until tears ran out of her eyes. The rest of the cast described the sweet-yet-precocious O' Rourke as having "a calming influence" on the set. She also allegedly got to keep the goldfish Carol Anne owned, and enjoyed making Poltergeist so much she claimed thereafter that it was her favorite movie (along with Disney's Dumbo).
O'Rourke was said to have only been scared by one moment: the sequence in which she was funneled into the closet via wind machine. Spielberg, seeing her terror, told her she would never have to do to do the scene again. It was therefore shot in one take, and the rest is history.
When 13-year-old Linda Blair was cast as Regan in The Exorcist, concerns about the film's potentially psychologically damaging subject matter abounded. But director William Friedkin knew what he was doing: he had chosen Blair precisely because of her cheerful adaptability, and her range as an actress.
Though Blair, at 13, understood what The Exorcist was about in theory, she had no grasp of how disturbing the material actually was. In her mind, it was all simply acting. She claimed that many of its most bloodcurdling scenes didn't faze her, in some cases because she wasn't sure what was going on. Of the film's infamous crucifix masturbation scene, she recalled, "I didn't know what we were doing. I didn't understand the concept." Nonetheless, she shot the scene, jabbing the crucifix into a cushion nestled between her legs, and no harm was done.
Owen Roizman, a cameraman on the set, recalled, "Between takes, she was a 13-year-old girl, and she would be kidding around and doing silly things. And as soon as Billy [Friedkin] would say 'roll,' she would just ... boom! ... go right into the part."
Miko Hughes is still probably best known for depicting the adorably undead Gage in 1989's Pet Sematary, a role he has no memory of playing, given that he was three at the time of the filming. However, he has nothing but fond recollections of playing Dylan Porter in 1994's Wes Craven's New Nightmare. As he told Cosmopolitan,
"New Nightmare was my favorite film I ever worked on, just from a shooting standpoint. I have so many happy memories from that set... in general, working on a horror movie is no different than working on any movie. Turn the camera around and there’s 20, 30 people standing around, eating doughnuts, smoking cigarettes between takes, working, like any other set."
Hughes was so unaware of the nature of the material, he didn't even know what was going on in each scene beyond his own lines. Because of this, he ended up having the crap scared out of him in a key scene: "[T]here was a part where I actually got really scared. They didn't tell me that Freddy was going to pop out [in the hell scene at the end], I guess to get a good reaction. It ended up scaring me too much."