Back 4 Blood is Barbara Crampton’s first video game. You might not know her name but, if you lurk in horror circles – cuddlier than you might expect, I promise – hers is revered. So much so that excitedly telling friends I was interviewing Crampton suddenly meant enthusiastic audio messages squeaking about splattery horrors such as Castle Freak and Chopping Mall.
Since ReAnimator in 1985, Crampton has, quite rightly, become horror royalty. She can currently be found on horror streaming service Shudder in gleeful form as a homemaker turned bloodsucker in Jakob’s Wife, and in Airbnb gone bad Superhost, but over the years she has taken on plenty of quite literally meaty roles and made slews of cameos. In short, she’s kind of a big deal.
Thankfully, this doesn’t mean she was too busy to have a Zoom chat about Back 4 Blood, the exhaustion of voice work, and to discuss the horror genre as a safe place to process our fears, even in trying times.
Crampton’s many roles so far have been in physical form, quite often covered in the splatter of corn syrup. Digital blood was fresh territory. “I’ve always wanted to do voiceover work, but I never really knew how to quite get into it,” she explains. “It wasn’t something I was really actively pursuing, but it was something in the back of my mind. I’ve done a couple of little voiceovers for two different series that haven’t been announced yet in the two and a half years of working on Back 4 Blood and recording. It just came to me out of the blue.”
And she might be an icon but Crampton still had to audition for Turtle Rock’s squad-based monster murder sim like everyone else. “I was working on Sacrifice in Norway and it was in between scenes. My agent sent me an email and he said ‘There’s an audition for you, it’s for a video game’,” she remembers. “I didn’t know that it was Turtle Rock Studios, I didn’t know that it was Warner Brothers. I didn’t know anything! But they changed the name and they made it something else and I was all ‘What is this?’ And nobody would tell me!. It was very secretive.”
Without a studio, Crampton did the audition on her phone from an Airbnb between scenes. “I had a little bit of information, a paragraph of who the character was and what the basic storyline was. And I just gave it my best shot,” she says. “And apparently Simon [narrative director Simon Mackenzie] had had me in mind with the character from very early on because he’s a really big horror fan, knows more about horror movies than I do. I think he watches a lot of them. So he was one of those guys that kind of grew up with me and just thought of me for this part. I knew a month later that they wanted to hire me for it.”
Crampton takes on the role of Mom, one of Back 4 Blood’s Cleaners, the annihilators of the deadly Ridden that players control. Mom’s goal after the death of her son, the game says, is simple – ‘To make the Ridden pay.’ Something that Crampton physically took to heart. “You’re acting mostly with your voice, but you do have to use your whole body when you’re acting even in an empty room that’s dark with a microphone,” she explains. “You have to use the whole energy that’s flowing through your body and just put it into your voice. And that’s the aperture through which it flows. All the energy is really in your voice. So that was kind of just an interesting new skill to learn.”
And Crampton’s recording booth survival was often as fraught as Mom’s. “I also didn’t realise how taxing and tiring it was going to be because you’re working really fast. When you’re working on movies or television, you have time in between scenes, talking, and setting up the lights, this and that. But [here] you have a microphone and ‘Here’s your lines!’,” she explains. “I had a lot of dialogue throughout the game, like hundreds and hundreds of lines of dialogue. And we had to get through a lot of material in each four-hour session. And so I would come home after each session. I would have to take a nap because it was physically, really emotionally and mentally very taxing. I mean, listen, I’m fighting for my life! I’m fighting for survival, and your body doesn’t know you’re pretending. So when you’re – and this is true, even when I’m on camera – when you’re going through an emotional experience, it affects you. And so I would have to come home and sort of come down from that a lot. But it was a pretty thrilling new experience for me to work on this game. And an honour and a privilege, and I feel like I’ve learnt a lot. But really, it’s just really fun.”
Apocalypse survival is nothing new as we battle Back 4 Blood’s beasties with trigger-happy joy but the genre as a whole has never felt more relevant. The horror genre, already amidst a renaissance with the rise of production studios like Blumhouse and streaming services like Shudder, has only seen a rise in the desire for even more terrifying experiences. A global pandemic has certainly not sated our lust for scares.
“I think horror is as strong as it’s ever been, and it has its ebbs and flows through the decades, but it’s stronger now than ever,” Crampton says. “I feel like with horror you’re dealing with the basest of human emotions and that’s fear and survival. I think if you can tap into that Final Girl-ness of yourself as you’re watching a horror movie and visualise yourself as this character who will survive. It gives you hope that you can face anything in your life. So I think horror movies are like therapy in a way.”
Crampton champions the genre in all its forms and especially supports upcoming new and indie filmmakers looking to challenge us in new ways. She sees horror as performing an essential role, even more so in 2021 as we experience so much real-life fear and recognise our own mortality. “We go through so many periods where we say ‘this is the worst thing we’ve ever gone through.’ This is the worst thing we’ve ever gone through, this pandemic,” she says.
“And it’s really made a lot of people think about their lives and what they value most and tap into fear in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen for a long time. I remember when we first realised that Covid was real. I remember thinking to myself, ‘you know, I’m in my early 60s. If I get Covid, I’ll probably die’. And I had to be OK with that, but I wasn’t OK because I’m a Final Girl dammit and I want to survive! So I think that when we’re faced with so much fear in our real life, if we are realising it through watching others be successful in overcoming their fear, I think it helps us all. So I think, you know, horror provides a service for us.”
Those who don’t watch or play horror might be surprised by the actively reassuring nature of the genre. The rules are simple and it feels good to know that the end credits will often bring survival and victory. Crampton says it’s all about giving ourselves permission. “I feel comforted when I watch. It’s a way for me to get out my anxiety if I’m watching a horror movie. It’s like I’m giving voice to my anxiety because we don’t allow ourselves to go to those deep, dark places,” she says.
“We allow ourselves to go to love. We allow ourselves to go to empathy, but with a feeling like fear we push that away. We don’t allow ourselves to. The only way we can deal with fear is by watching a horror movie and watching other people go through it. It really is psychologically interesting what we’re saying, and I think we should really understand that when we experience fear and we allow ourselves to go through it, we can get to the other side, and we can feel calm. After watching a horror movie, after we watch somebody else go through some horrible happenings, and at the end of the movie, we will feel like we have survived and we’ve been successful. It’s a release.”
You can survive Back 4 Blood on PC and consoles now.