Lin Shaye on the Evolution of Horror As Witnessed Through Her 204 Acting Credits

The Screamfest Ambassador also details how the ‘Grudge’ remake is her scariest role yet.

Lin Shaye Insidious
Blumhouse

For the past forty years, Lin Shaye has appeared in every variety of film experience. Western, horror, comedy, mystery, drama, whatever. She began her career in Mexico as The Parasol Lady for Jack Nicholson’s Goin’ South. Then her brother Robert launched New Line Cinema and planted her as the asylum receptionist in Alone in the Dark. From there she appeared in small, but significant roles in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Critters, The Running Man, and dozens of others.

In 2010, Lin Shaye starred as the psychic warrior Elsie Rainier in James Wan’s micro-budgeted but blockbuster horror Insidious. She became an integral figure within that franchise, securing her spot as one of the most recognizable faces within horror. The time had come to make it official, and this month, Screamfest named Shaye their official ambassador.

Screamfest is America’s largest, female-run film festival and 2018 marks its 18th year running. From October 9 – 18, the festival screens all manner of horror films at the TCL Chinese 6 Theaters in Hollywood. In the past they held premieres for Paranormal Activity, Let the Right One In, Trick ‘r’ Treat, and 30 Days of Night. Wes Craven, James Gunn, John Landis, and every other genre director worth their salt have supported them. Of course, it only makes sense to name Shaye as their ambassador.

But what does that term actually mean? I spoke to Lin Shaye over the phone during the kick-off week of Screamfest. We start the conversation with her defining her role as Screamfest ambassador, and the discussion naturally leads to an exchange about the horror genre itself. We also talk about how that field has evolved in the last forty years, the type of films that truly terrify her, and what it takes to succeed in the genre today. And, yes, we end the conversation with a few details about her role in the new Grudge remake from Nicolas Pesce.

Here is our conversation in full:

Congratulations on being named the latest Screamfest Ambassador.

Thank you.

What does that role exactly mean for you?

That’s a good question. I think it means acceptance on some level. I’m very aware of the festival, and over the years that I’ve lived in LA, I’ve been to films over the years that have been supported by the festival. When they asked me, when they put that forward, I was sort of flabbergasted because in my mind, I always think of an ambassador as a big important person. Or you hope they are. I’m not sure I fill that bill inside my own head. (Laughter) I feel like I’m a little funny person that loves what I do, but I think the fact that it says that I’ve been embraced by the fanbase of the horror genre is really exciting. I hope people like what I do because I love what I do. It’s very exciting to me that I’ve created, in other peoples’ minds and hearts, something of importance that gives that word ambassadorship the stature that hopefully, I’m giving it. The stature that they’re looking for. I’m very proud and feel very honored.

Well, you should because you are a staple of the genre. Whenever you appear in a movie, it is a blessing. This film gets the Lin Shaye stamp.

Wow. Wow. Thank you.

Well, it’s true. Insidious, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Critters. You are an ambassador. When you’re looking at horror today, what exactly are you looking for in a film?

I think it always goes back to a good story, and a story well told in that the horror elements are used not for sensationalism necessarily, ’cause that doesn’t particularly appeal to me, but to support your story and to move the emotionality of the story forward because fear is a very powerful emotion. If you’re using horror to stimulate fear in people or to make them consider and think about what they’re afraid of, that’s a very useful tool. There’s a lot of taboo with being embarrassed to be afraid or that fear means you’re weak, or all these different societal labels that are telling you what fear is supposed to be. I think in the film world, you’re in a silent place with a bunch of other people being able to experience your own fear. I think a good story stimulates self-investigation. About having the experience of being afraid, and usually, when you go home from a scary movie, you think about it.

I think it has value in terms of stimulating you thinking about what the experience was. Hopefully, it lessens reality, the fear of reality a little bit. I don’t know that it does (laughter), but I think horror is a very useful. I think that’s why people like it, is to be scared in public in a safe place is fun as opposed to horrifying.

Over your career, you’ve seen the genre evolve quite a bit.

Yes, I think I really have. Well, think back to some of the really old scary movies, the really scary ones. My scariest movies are Psycho and The Shining. I’m not sure why they’re so scary. I’m not a fan of gore particularly, but I think often what you don’t see is much scarier than what you do see because what you don’t see, you make up in your own head, which is usually the scariest place of all because you’re dealing with something. Fear, again, is a powerful emotion. I think some of the old films, they exemplify that as well. I think we’ve gotten much more graphic ’cause people need more. The world has become a smaller place, and the media has put real horror in front of us so blatantly and often, that I think that films are made sometimes like rougher and tougher. They need to work harder to make you scared because the real world is so scary right now.

We weren’t as aware of that years ago, mostly ’cause of the media. You turn on the news, it’s the scariest thing there is. You don’t have to go to a movie to get afraid. I think the world of film has become a little bit more graphic than it used to be. It’s not so much the unknown, there’s a lot more gore, which I don’t find as scary as I do, again, the unknown or something that’s provocative that makes you think about something in a way that’s personal rather than just seeing a bunch of blood on screen. That is my preference.

To your point, especially in recent years ’cause the world has become really scary. It takes more courage to turn on the news than it does to turn on Insidious.

Totally, totally. I’d much rather watch Insidious than Donald Trump. Sorry, I didn’t mean to get political, but there is it.

(Laughter) Well, I led you that way, and I agree.

Yeah, yeah.

What does the horror genre offer you as an actor that maybe other genres don’t?

Figuring out the details of the personality and being true to the situation that you’re portraying, and to the person, you’re portraying. I don’t separate the way I work on something from whether it be horror, comedy, or drama. I pretty much look for the truth of the character, the truth of it’s about fear, really trying to find those places inside, which are pretty much at the surface. I’m both grateful and horrified by how vulnerable I am most of the time about everything. I cry more than anybody I know. But I also laugh more than anybody I know. It’s all surface. In a horror film, again, it’s figuring out what elements are going to create the effect that the director wants and the audience will want. It’s telling the truth.

So, The Shining is one of your favorite films, Psycho is another one. Both have been remade. The Grudge is another big movie in fandom, and I understand that you’ve got a significant role in the new remake. How do you feel about re-interpreting somebody else’s vision?

Well, Nicolas Pesce is I think, gonna be one of our great filmmakers. I can honestly say that. I wrote him a little note, I said, “He’s the Salvador Dali and Magritte of filmmaking ’cause he does something with a juxtaposition of imagery. It can be very mundane images, but he does something, the way he assembles them … can I say a bad word?

Sure, yes.

It scares the shit out of me. He has a very unique vision. The film is just called Grudge now. I don’t know why they dropped the ‘The’ but that’s really irrelevant. Grudge he even says is reimagined in a way you won’t imagine, you can’t imagine because he’s done something quite different with the idea. There’s still the core idea but there’s pockets of relationships that crossover that are fascinating. It’s a wonderful script, a wonderful script! It’s the scariest part I’ve ever had.

Oh, wow! That means a lot coming from you.

And I honestly mean that. It was unnerving, it was the hardest movie I’ve ever done I think. For that reason, because every scene had something so emblematically intense. It was a wonderful character, I don’t wanna say too much about it because I signed a disclosure!

I think it’s really going to knock people’s socks off because they’re not going to know what to expect and even when it starts, as it goes you don’t know what’s gonna happen next, you have no idea! I think he’s one of our next masters, I really do.

You’ve worked with so many filmmakers. What does somebody like Nick have that others don’t?

Ooh, that’s a great question. Partly it’s just who he is. He is twenty-eight years old. I mean he’s really a very young filmmaker who is unafraid, totally unafraid of his own vision; he’s not a big compromiser. I was very honored ’cause I always have ideas, that’s just how I operate, that’s one of the reasons TV is difficult for me because you’re not allowed to have ideas! (Laughter) Unless it’s your own show!

Pretty much it’s a writer’s medium and I have great respect for that but it’s not what I love doing best. What I love doing best is going “ooh, ooh, ooh, what about this?” Or “What if we try that?” and without knowing that Nicholas doesn’t particularly love actors that come up with their own ideas, I was cooking! I couldn’t wait to “Let’s try this!” or “What do you think about this?” Going back to my early acting days, one of the things that Uta Hagen taught me is, before a scene starts you gotta know exactly what you did right before you enter the scene. Often, what you bring in alters the course of the scene itself. If you just washed your hair, you might be doing something with your hands that gives you a behavior, which is what acting is.

I had a couple of ideas. I was nervous and I thought “He might not like this.” He bought everything I brought in! For me, the collaboration was really exciting and I think that he brings a specificity to his work. He is a great listener, but he won’t compromise his vision. He will let his vision grow based on your input, but he won’t compromise it and for me, that’s brilliant. Because then, you feel you’re in the right place in the right time with the right person because you know he’s guiding you right to where he wants to go with his vision and it makes you feel both very secure and very energized. I adored him. We really hit it off and I hope I work with him a bazillion times more!

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.