Venture into the 'Fresh Air' crypt for a Halloween horror fest
Ever wonder what keeps Stephen King up at night, or which movie scenes make Jordon Peele jump? For Halloween this year, Fresh Air is reaching back into the crypt (aka the archives) and pulling out some of our favorite interviews with masters of the horror genre.
In addition to King and Peele, we talk with Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins about how he humanized Hannibal Lecter, the oh-so-sophisticated cannibal of The Silence of the Lambs. And Carrie star Sissy Spacek remembers sneaking into the theaters in New York City to watch audiences jump at the sight of her hand stretching up from the grave at the end of that film. Plus, we hear from actor Mercedes McCambridge, who voiced the devil in The Exorcist; George Romero, who directed Night of the Living Dead; and Kathy Bates, who starred in the 1990 film Misery.
So read on — if you dare! (And be sure to click on the audio link on this page for the full, spooky experience.)
interviewed in 1992 and 2013
TERRY GROSS: What did you like about being scared when you were young?
STEPHEN KING: I like the total surrender of emotional control. It was very important to me and I would almost be willing to say sort of a life-saver. I'd been raised in a family where emotional control was a really important thing. You weren't supposed to show you were afraid. You weren't supposed to show that you were in pain, or frightened, or sad. Happiness was permissible, as long as it didn't go too far, because then one might be considered to be almost insane if one got too happy. So that emotional control was sort of a requirement.
My brother David was crazy about Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. That was his emotional release. It's all a form of emotional seduction. And for me, the terror was what really appealed to something that I think is probably just inside people, that there isn't any logical way to explain it. But I loved it and I loved giving up that control. ...
My childhood was pretty ordinary, except from a very early age I wanted to be scared. I just did.
KING (speaking in 2013): At some point, a lot of interviewers just turn into Dr. Freud and put me on the couch and say, "What was your childhood like?" And I say various things, and I confabulate a little bit, and kind of dance around the question as best as I can. But, bottom line: My childhood was pretty ordinary, except from a very early age I wanted to be scared. I just did. I was scared. Afterwards, I wanted a light on because I was afraid that there was something in the closet.
My imagination was very active, even at a young age. For instance, there was a radio program at that time called Dimension X, and my mother didn't really want me to listen to that because she felt it was too scary for me. So I would creep out of bed and go to the bedroom door and crack it open. And she loved it. So apparently I got it from her, but I would listen at the door. And then when the program was over, I'd go back to bed and quake.
GROSS: Why is [Alzheimer's] the thing you're most afraid of?
KING: I'm afraid of losing my mind.
GROSS: Losing your memory.
KING: Mm hmm. Well, you don't just lose your memory. You lose your mind. Basically, you lose your identity, your sense of who you are. Here's what I'm saying: As we get older, our fears, in some way, sharpen and become more personal. ... We have more of a tendency to focus on things that we know are out there. We fear for our families. We fear for our mental abilities. We fear diseases. These are very real fears.
Joran Peele, director of Get Out
interviewed in 2017
GROSS: You've said that you knew by the time you were 13 that you wanted to make a horror film. How did you know that?
JORAN PEELE: I was a very scared child. Not so much of life, but of the demons that lurked in the dark, and horror movies terrified me. I'd love watching them, but then at night, I would just be up in sweats all night. At some point, I swear, Terry, it was like my mind just shifted in order to cope with these fears. And I sort of became obsessed with this idea of mastering my own fear that if I could do what these great horror people did, that I would be wielding this power as opposed to being a victim to it. That's what happened: I fell in love with horror films.
GROSS: [You] made a list of your favorite types of scares in movies. What are some of those scares that made it to your list?
PEELE: Well, there is the scare from The Shining, where we are turning a corner or entering an area and these little two little girls are waiting for us at the end of the hallway. And there's also in Silence of the Lambs when we meet Hannibal Lecter, this arriving to this person who's been waiting for us. There's something about that that is just scary. The notion of depth we have there's a scene [in Get Out] where Walter is running through the field of the night straight at Chris and this was inspired by the plane sequence in North by Northwest. There's this visceral reaction that happens when you're watching a film and something is barreling towards the camera. It's almost like a natural instinct from back in the days when there's a lion coming at us, like your DNA is telling you just squat and run ... play dead or run or do something.
One of the big techniques that I use in this film is inspired by things like The Blair Witch Project, which is that terror works almost better than horror. And it's actually Stephen King's distinction ... the fear of what's to come. And I think that that is the most important type of fear to use in a horror movie. If the audience knows it's heading somewhere dark, then you don't have to overload us with these horrible moments. The audience is doing the work the entire time. The audience's imagination will do a better, more personalized version of the horror than you can actually paint. With something like The Blair Witch Project, which is 89 minutes of people running through the woods and one minute of a guy standing in a corner. On paper, it shouldn't work, but it was so effective.
Anthony Hopkins, who played Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs
interviewed in 1991
ANTHONY HOPKINS: The thing is, if you're playing an evil character ... if you're playing someone who's mad, the thing is, is not to play him mad, but to play the opposite, play him as ultra-sane. If you're playing somebody who's evil, play the good side of him. And that makes it more scary because you humanize him, because nobody is all evil, nobody's all good, whatever those terms mean, but nobody is all one thing. So what I do as an actor is to find out what the other side of the character is. And I found out with [Hannibal] Lecter that, in fact, I think his problem is, or his peculiar psychology is that he is so in control of himself, mentally, spiritually, physically, whichever way. He's so totally in control of every aspect of his thinking that he is completely mad because nobody can be in that much control. It's as if he is so sane he's flipped over into the world of the dark and the irrational.
GROSS: I don't know if this is connected to the control you see the character [of Hannibal Lecter] having, but you rarely blink in the movie. I mean, the eyes have a fixed stare and they're wide open all the time.
When you're playing a character like [Hannibal Lecter], you have to like him.
HOPKINS: Yes. Well, I didn't analyze much about the part. I mean, I just had a hunch on how to play him. First of all, when you're playing a character like this, you have to like him. The actor has to somehow like him. And I think there's something very terrifying about people who are unblinking. It's that they are so certain they have no doubts, no uncertainty, and they're so certain that makes them terrifying. If you look at all the great, monstrous political leaders in a century, you know. ... They rise to power because they're so certain they have no doubts. Their minds are already made up. Somebody said of Hitler, a journalist who interviewed Hitler in 1936, before the war, she said, "Hitler has in his library 1,000 books. He hasn't read any one of them, but of course he doesn't need to because his mind is already made up." And I find that the most apocalyptic, frightening vision of a man, and I think it's the same with Lecter. He knows with absolute certainty what he is and what everyone else is around him.
Mercedes McCambridge, who voiced the devil in The Exorcist
interviewed in 1981
GROSS: How did you figure out what the right speech [for the voice of the devil in The Exorcist] would be? And the wheezing sound?
MERCEDES McCAMBRIDGE: I had to vomit on the screen, you see the green vomit from the girl's mouth, the bile, and it comes out in a projectile kind of way. Well, what it is, is pea soup with corn flakes in it to make the bumps of it. Now, I had to make that sound and the way I finally did it, and it was only through stumbling and invention again, as [Russian theater practitioner Konstantin] Stanislavski says, you utilize it.
I would have them bring me apples, sections of apple, and I would put a whole bunch of those mushy apples in my mouth. And then from a Dixie cup, I would put in two eggs that had been just broken into the cup, not mixed up, just the yolk lying there looking at you, two of those. ... I had to time that precisely to the frame by swallowing these sections of apple, which were to be the lumps and then the eggs down to mid-gullet and then forcing the diaphragm muscles and then throwing it up on the eight microphones covered with a tarp. Oh, that's very hard to do! You have a hard time doing that. Again, Stanislavski says you can utilize anything that's ever happened to you. All my life I wheezed, particularly when I was smoking. Thank God. I don't know if I could play the demon in the same way now because I don't smoke anymore.
George Romero, director of Night of the Living Dead
interviewed in 1988
GROSS: Tom Savini, who's done a lot of the special effects for your movie, said in his book that he wasn't happy with how the stage blood photographed in Dawn of the Dead, which is the second in your zombie trilogy. And I wonder if you felt that way, too?
GEORGE ROMERO: I liked it. Tom and I will always argue about it. I like the fact that it looked comic book. Tom felt it looked too bright red, it didn't look real. And I feel that that helps ease the ease, the pain a little bit...
GROSS: How did you come up with the way you wanted the zombies in your zombie movies to walk? Did you demonstrate for them how you wanted them to look?
ROMERO: No. It's funny, when you have 40 people in makeup looking at you and you're trying to direct them and tell them what you want them to do, if you make the slightest little arm movement and then in the next shot, everyone makes that arm movement. I pretty much leave it up to them and just ask them to do whatever they think a zombie might do if it had just recently come back [from the dead] and had stiff limbs ... because truly, if you demonstrate at all, then all of a sudden you get everyone doing exactly that. And the only way that I've found to keep everyone doing their own thing is to let them do whatever they want to do.
Sissy Spacek, star of Carrie
interviewed in 2012
GROSS: In the final scene, after you've been dead and laid to rest, the Amy Irving character comes to visit your grave and there's beautiful music playing and suddenly your hand shoots out from beneath the earth and everybody in the audience screams or jumps. The director, Brian DePalma, suggested getting a stunt person, a body double to do that part, just like the hand coming out of the grave. But you insisted that it be your hand and that you [would] be buried. When you see the film with other people ... are you glad it's your hand when you see people's reaction to that scene?
SISSY SPACEK: Oh, absolutely. I laughed about that — I do all my own foot and hand work and always have! When I was in New York and Carrie came out, I would go to theaters just for the last 5 minutes of the film to watch everyone jump out of their chairs. Because if you know it's coming, the film ends, as Brian said, about eight times, and so your people are all relaxed, the music is really beautiful and relaxing and all of a sudden that comes up and people just go crazy.
Kathy Bates, star of Misery
interviewed in 1990 about the film's infamous hobbling scene
KATHY BATES: I put a board between his legs and I break his ankles.
GROSS: This is the scene that you walk away thinking, "Oh, gosh, I hope I don't think about this scene very often." It really hurts to watch it.
BATES: Yeah. My sister, who's had a problem with her ankles, said it was particularly difficult for her.
GROSS: What did you actually hit?
BATES: Well, I actually hit a prosthetic leg that was built for us by the special effects team ... and they built a couple of really very realistic legs that we used in that particular shot.
GROSS: Did this image haunt you?
BATES: No, it was more of a technical problem for me, Terry. And I think it was more of a difficult shot in terms of camera angles. And so we'd gone through it several times. That was what I was more interested in, was trying to get it right than anything else.
GROSS: What was your reaction when the first time you saw it on screen?
BATES: I thought it looked great. I couldn't believe it worked so well.
Danny Miller and Roberta Shorrock produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.
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