Puritan Horror: Behind the Screams of The Crucible

Trudie Lee

by Zachary Moull

The Puritans of the 17th century staunchly opposed Halloween, but they still believed in some spooky stuff. Central to The Crucible is their fear of spectral attack, where witches sent their spirits out to afflict their victims, or called upon creatures such as birds or black cats to do the same. “The Puritans were very superstitious,” explains Caitlynne Medrek, whoplays Betty Parris. “In rehearsal, we talked about how superstitions can grow into physical manifestations of fear.”

Midway through the play, the young women of the cast (dubbed “the Hell’s Angels” by director R.H. Thomson) perform a scene that could come straight out of a Hitchcock thriller: screaming, birds, and unseen horror. Before staging the moment, the actors had special “screaming rehearsals” with Theatre Calgary’s vocal coach Jane MacFarlane. Since they have to repeat the screams night after night, it was crucial to learn a safe technique.

Jesse Lynn Anderson, who plays Mercy Lewis, explains the process: “We’d take a deep inhalation with a yawning space in the back of the mouth and start to make sounds from there. And then in order to create the bloodcurdling scream, you actually have to vibrate your soft palette without vibrating your vocal cords, because that’s how you can hurt yourself.”

These practice sessions had to happen far away from the rehearsal hall, since the rest of the ensemble was focused on scene work. So the group decamped to the theatre’s lobby, leaving the other actors in peace but spooking our front-of-house staff and the building’s maintenance team.

For the actors, performing terror onstage can be intense enough to trigger their own fear responses. “My adrenaline definitely gets going,” says Medrek. “I find that my eyes sometimes start to tear up even when I’m not trying to make them.” It’s a natural response, says Anderson. “When you scream like that, there are parts of your brain that actually believe you’re in trauma.”