“Experience” is a regular feature
by Ashley Peldon
published in The Guardian, April 8, 2022
If I see a bug, I will scream. I’ll shriek when I’m scared or startled. It’s just so natural, it comes right out.
This ability to scream was a huge part in getting my first acting jobs. I grew up in New York in the 1980s, where my sister and I had been scouted as child actors. By the time I was seven I’d got a major role in the film Child of Rage, which meant doing long scenes of shouting and screaming. In the audition I had to perform these outbursts, yelling to show the agony experienced by the character.
The film told the true story of a girl who had suffered severe abuse as a child and had what we now understand as reactive attachment disorder: she had never learned love and didn’t know how to have trusting relationships, so acted out violently. On reflection, that film shifted my entire career and personal journey.
As a family we moved to Los Angeles so my sister and I could continue working while we finished school. By my 20s I’d done more than 40 films and TV series. In search of a quieter life, in the late 2000s I made a shift from being an on-camera performer to a voiceover actor. I was lucky to get parts where I was able to really use and play with my voice a lot, and screaming became something that I was known for.
You have heard my scream in Free Guy, Paranormal Activity and Scream (2022). My work often comes in at the post-production stage (after filming has taken place). I pick up additional screams and voice acting for the on-camera actors. Sometimes they don’t have the time to achieve the sound the director wants, or I can offer a different vocal quality to the performance.
As a scream artist you have to know the subtle differences between screams and determine whether they should peak at certain points, or remain steady for a very long time. I have to think: ‘OK, the character is scared here, but are they scared because their life is in danger or are they just startled?’ Those screams will sound very different. Ghost stories, for example, will often use a shrill, harsh scream because we need the audience to also experience fear.
We are like stunt people, doing the hard stuff that could be damaging to an actor’s voice or is out of their range. When the dinosaurs are attacking in the 2015 Jurassic World movie, and you see people running, my screams are in that sequence. When I recorded it, I saw that the characters were grabbing at their hair, falling and then getting up, so I tried to match that and create all of the energy and movement in the sound.
We do a wide variety of screams as actors, and there’s a difference between what we do in reality and what we expect to see on screen. In real life, a lot of people would just suck in their breath and not release any noise when they are frightened, but that’s not as dramatic when it’s shown on screen. In my own life I happen to be a natural screamer and will let out a scream if I’m startled.
You often think of the classic screams of Fay Wray in King Kong and Janet Leigh in Psycho. Those are beautiful screams, but they are from the damsels. Now, we have a lot more strong rage from women on screen. There are fewer of the “terrified female” jobs and more for provocateur-type characters. I’ve been able to witness such a shift in the industry, as women are getting stronger roles where they’re fighting and baring their emotions – like the female superheroes taking the forefront in action films and television programmes.
There are many different screams: of fear, anger, rage. Screams of joy and success, and that raw, embodied scream of female empowerment. There’s the wailing of grief and pain, and screams of effort and fighting.
The most difficult screams for me are those portraying grief, when you’re watching someone having to express such pain or trauma. I’m an empathic person – and also hold a PhD in psychology – so I find getting connected with emotion easy, but it also carries a weight with it.
Thanks to my unique career, I probably scream more on average than the normal person would. There’s something really relaxing about it. After a big day of screaming I feel lighter and brighter. When I’m not working, I take care of my voice with the typical things like drinking tea, but I did lose it once by getting a little too excited on the rides at Disneyland with my kids.
As told to Naomi Larsson.
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