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Sepia filtered selfie imaged of Darren Bousman in glasses with a lightly stubbled beard
Famed and fear-inducing Hollywood horror director Darren Bousman is here to talk all things harrowing, hellish and Halloween-y!
Darren Bousman

How to Scare Like a Pro… from a Famed Horror Director!

We talked to Darren Bousman, a movie director, writer and professional scarer, about all sorts of spooky things

Neil Patrick Harris is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Wondercade. In his spare time he also acts — fairly well, too, as his Tony and Emmy Awards can attest.

October 26, 2023 1:18 pm

Darren Bousman, a movie director, writer and great friend, has been scaring the pants off audiences for years, and I’m thrilled to have him as a special guest in our Halloweek spectacular. We caught up to talk about his preferred methods for terrifying people, his new book for kids, and an absolutely batshit wild (scientific term!) Halloween party (a SWAT team may or may not have been involved). Boooo-m. -NPH

Neil Patrick Harris: Darren, what’s your favorite way to scare people? (In your films, not your personal life.)

Darren Bousman: For me, the scariest thing in movies, or novels, is humanizing a killer or monster. Yes, truly evil presences are scary, sure…but it’s easy to write off monsters as make-believe. Yet, when you give a killer, slasher or monster real emotions, and real struggles, it’s upsetting. The scary movies that have stayed with me are the ones where the bad guy is “sort of” justified in his reasoning. He may be unhinged, but there is some real human thing motivating their killing. Why does this scare me? Because you see these people and think there is enough there to connect with, to reason with, but at the same time, they are capable of horrible and heinous things. That is just…frightening.

NPH: Beyond the screen, what’s your favorite way to scare people? I’m partial to donning a dress and wig and waiting in someone’s shower with a kitchen knife until they need to wash, but that sometimes takes hours…

DB: I am an expert bullshit artist. I have made a career off it. Outside of movies I create immersive theater, and immersive activations for people. [Neil Note: Darren helmed my 45th birthday immersive adventure, and it was one of the best / worst / triggering / most challenging days of my life.] One of my sweet spots is blurring the lines of reality. Or breaking the fourth wall to not know what is real, and what isn’t.

The easiest way to explain this: We all go to haunted houses on Halloween, we know that people will jump out and go BOO! Yet, we allow ourselves to be scared. We are anticipating it, and still jump. So, how do you take that to the next level? Well, you make the jump “boo” scare be the misdirect to the real scare. Example: You are in a haunted house, and you are being chased by a demonic nurse. She is running after you with a prop needle. She chases you into a corner, there is no escape! She jabs you with a fake needle! Everyone laughs! And then, the demonic nurse breaks. She becomes her real self, the actor hired by the haunt. And she looks worried! She calls a safe word, and the stage manager of the haunt comes running over. The stage manager takes your arm, and looks at where she stabbed you! He grabs his cellphone and calls for a medic.

This is how I scare. I set an expectation of the scare, then break the fourth wall and take it further, so the real scare happens in the “Wait…what? Is this real or part of the haunt?”

 Um, yeah. Not sleeping well tonight. Tell me about the most epic Halloween you’ve ever had.

DB: Oh my God, do you have a few hours? This is going to sound made up, but I assure you it’s true.

One of my movies with the 3-letter word had just come out, and it was number one at the box office. I wanted to celebrate! So, Shawnee Smith, the main actress in the film, and I decided to throw a Halloween party on Halloween night for our friends in the Hollywood Hills. We hired a party planner, and spent a ton of money to have this epic celebration. However, we tried to keep the guest list tight. No more than 150 people. However, on the night of the event the word got out, and our invite got passed around and around.

The night of the party, Shawnee was on Jimmy Kimmel. I went with her, and after the interview we headed to the party. And as we arrived on the street: pure chaos. Literally hundreds of cars, bumper to bumper. We ended up getting out of our car and walked up the street. We got to the house, and it looked like a Spirit Halloween store had exploded on the lawn: hundreds of people, yelling and screaming, trying to get in. Security — which we hired — was screaming to all the people, “WE ARE AT CAPACITY. GO HOME!” And as we made our way through to the entrance, a bouncer said, “You can’t come in. We are full!” Remember, this was something we paid for.

Long story short, I jumped the fence and entered through the back, and it was literally insanity personified. So as I am standing there, in the middle of this hellscape, we see these huge spotlights coming in through the windows. Everyone starts cheering…. I run over to the window: LAPD helicopters. (Notice I say “copters.” As in multiple.) They were circling the house, and over a loudspeaker they were trying to break up the party.

At this same moment, about a dozen officers busted in screaming, “Party’s over!” Now, everyone is drunk, and just cheering, because surely this isn’t real…surely these are just guests in costumes, right? Nope. We were shut down by L.A.’s Finest, and, rightfully so — we were a hazard to the entire neighborhood. With all the cars…no one could get in or out of their houses.

So, yeah, my Halloween party being shut down by SWAT was pretty epic.

NPH: Love it! And as if the breaking into your own party and the multiple helicopters weren’t enough, you dropped a bombshell in the beginning: a 150-person guest list is tight? Sigh, I want to be like you when I grow scary. I’m sure Wondercaders got a kick out of reading that. Speaking of reading, what’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

DB: Well, one of my favorite scary books is from Clive Barker’s Books of Blood called The Yattering. Highly recommend. Scary and fun. However, if I may self-promote, I just wrote a kids’ book about being scared called But Daddy, We Are Scared, which is about my kids who are scared of everything. So, I wrote a little Halloween book for them that was actually just released!

NPH: I can’t tell if that’s terrific fathering, or exploiting your kids for your own financial gain. I’m super fine with both. Now, to wrap things up: Last year, I asked Wondercade readers to submit their scariest short stories (50 words are fewer). Wanna have a go?

DB: The ritual ended. The Demon appeared before him.
“Choose,” said The Demon.
The Man thought, “When? No! How?”
The Demon peered into The Man’s soul. “—water.”
Above him, the sky rumbled, a trickle of rain fell. “I drown?”
The Man pleaded, “Now?!”
The Demon grinned. “That wasn’t your question.”

NPH: Um, okay, thanks, now I’m gonna be scared next time a raindrop falls on me. Thanks for stopping by, Darren. Hope your spooky season slaps (and involves significantly fewer LAPD choppers this year).

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