Lin Shaye: Telling a Story with the Godmother of Horror

Waylon JordanInterviews, News1 Comment

“A good chat is never time wasted”–Lin Shaye as Elise Rainier

It’s a Thursday afternoon, and I’m waiting for a phone call I never thought I’d receive. Any moment now, Lin Shaye–the Lin Shaye–is about to call.  Suddenly, my phone rings and I forget my own name for 2.5 seconds as I fumble to hit Accept.

I manage to stammer out “Hello” and I hear one of the most familiar voices in horror respond, “Hello, Waylon?  This is Lin Shaye.”

For the next hour and a half, Lin Shaye, the Godmother of Horror as she has been rightly named, regaled me with stories of her life and career, and I was enthralled from that first hello. The actress known for her over the top characters and her ability slip in and out of every genre believably impressed me with her quick wit, her easy laugh, and a total dedication to the art of acting. This isn’t a star that was made overnight, however. As a matter of fact, it was not a path she initially set out to follow.

“The thing is I never really thought about being a film actress ever,” Shaye began. “From really as far back as I can remember I liked telling stories.  I mean, even as a little girl, I liked telling stories.”

Shaye was growing up in Detroit, Michigan and at the time there were very few children her age with whom she could play. Rather than despair at her lack of friends, young Lin’s imagination took over. She would go into her closet and pull out all of her clothes, much to her mother’s chagrin. Before long, she’d have all of her stuffed animals assembled and dressed as different characters in stories that might go on for days. Later, when another girl her age finally moved into her neighborhood, Shaye and her new friend set to work creating their own newspaper. The two girls would draw comic strips and would write news bulletins about the goings on in their families.

“It was pretty intensive,” the actress laughed. “But I honestly think that from the very beginning there was something–whether that is a talent or a need–I was always a storyteller. It sort of naturally segued into the love of theater not even realizing that it was really theater but it was actually telling a story. Acting out a story for other people was the same thing I had done with my dolls.”

But it would still be a while before she embraced her destiny on the stage. After graduating high school, Shaye attended the University of Michigan and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in art history. Still not quite sure where she was headed in life, she headed off to Europe where she spent time working on a kibbutz in Israel before moving across the continent. But it was in England where the real adventure would begin.

Shaye arrived in London two suitcases lighter than when she set out on her journey.

“I had my two suitcases with me. I had ditched the other two along the way because I found out the hard way just how hard it is to hitchhike with four giant suitcases,” she joked. “So here I am in London, sitting at a little counter in Piccadilly Circus. This man sat down next to me and heard me order and he asks, ‘Are you American?’ And I said yes. Then he asks me if I need a job and I said, ‘Sure!’ He explained that he and his associates were poets and were headed to the Edinburgh Festival and needed a secretary. I mean, can you imagine?”

The stranger handed her a piece of paper with a phone number and name on it with instructions to call the number at six o’clock that evening. Shaye headed off to the YWCA, checked into a room, and at the appointed time called the number. The gentleman who answered asked if she could stop by his apartment at noon the next day and she cheerfully agreed.

At this point in her story, she and I are both laughing hysterically. Even more funny was that the offer of a job was totally legit. Lin headed to the address the next day and met Keith Harrison who was, indeed, a poet.

“He looked like Pan. He had a red beard and he looked like he had horns coming out of his head, I swear to God. And he was missing teeth and he was always scratching his beard.  And he WAS a poet. He is actually a published poet. And the other gentleman who picked me up, his name was George…G.W. Whiteman who is also a published poet. I mean, these were Oxford graduates and they were actually headed to Edinburgh.”

Shaye agreed to work for the gentlemen for $20 a week and readied herself to travel to Edinburgh where she also met poets and authors the likes of William Burroughs and W.H. Auden before travelling back to London.

She took a second job in a small theatre in the West End in London as prop master to disastrously hilarious results like something out of a campy 80s slasher flick. During one scene of the sketch comedy show, birds were supposed to fall from the sky onto the stage. So, Shaye headed to the local butcher shop and purchased the heads and wings of quail that the shop was going to throw away. She took them back to the theater and attached them to styrofoam bodies.

“But the only thing I forgot is that they were live flesh and so they started to smell bad.  I had a big bag full of dead bird parts. And by the fourth night of the run, they said, ‘I think we have to throw these out’ because you could smell them as soon as you entered the theater. So anyway, that was my other job.”

She stayed in London for almost a full year before she ran completely out of money and her parents, beside themselves about their daughter’s predicament, had the police pick her up. She flew home to New York and moved in with her brother, Bob Shaye AKA the man who created New Line Cinema, and it wasn’t long before she found herself on a stage and never looked back.

Click on the next page to read more about how Freddie Kreuger and a bunch of Critters brought the actress onto the screen.

Waylon Jordan is a lifelong fan of genre fiction and film especially those with a supernatural element. He firmly believes that horror reflects collective fears of society and can be used as a tool for social change.