Good for: Ages 13 and up.
Estimated Time: You need about an hour to watch the videos, but give yourself extra time to read the information here, learn more, gather materials, and discuss ideas with friends and classmates.
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In the make-believe world of the dramatic arts—theater, movies, even web-based videos—actors can become anyone, or anything, the imagination can conjure. And when it comes to making monsters and mayhem, horror relies on face-changing makeup and gory special effects to curdle the blood of audiences.
Here is a ten-part, do-it-at-home video guide to making your own blood, gore, and guts* for dramatic effect:
Blood You Can Eat
This easy recipe for making realistic blood is a delicious blend of sweet syrups and food coloring. Maybe that's why Dracula drinks the stuff.
Dish soap and food-coloring—that’s all it takes. And this stage blood is a snap to clean up—the soap is built right in.
More chemistry fun with the non-Newtonian fluid called Oobleck (gooey guts). This gross, gooey substance makes pulling guts easy and fun.
When you don’t have time to mix it yourself! Many styles and colors of fake blood are available online and in some theatrical supply stores.
Black Eyes and Bloody Noses
Create the look of a mixed martial arts fighter without stepping into the octagon. No punches, pain, or swelling required.
Blood Bags and Squirting Blood
Here are ways to create the special effect of bursting blood. You'll be amazed at the mess you can make with a simple sandwich bag!
This special effect is easy to create with makeup and scar wax. And the gashes look so real, your friends will want to drag you to the emergency room.
Ballistics Gel (parts 1 and 2)
Make scary-real innards through the magic of kitchen chemistry. This tutorial shows you how to make ballistics gel (for organs).
A step-by-step guide for turning you and your friends into the living dead. All you need is some cheap black and white makeup from your local drugstore. (Brains are optional.)
Greg Poljacik is your host for this series of video tutorials. Greg is a gonzo stuntman and hands-on expert in stage fighting and special effects for film and stage.
*If you are planning any phasmogoric pranks, be thoughtful of your audience. Amuse, amaze, and astonish, but try not to ruin your family’s or friends’ lunches with leaking brains and spurting blood.
When it comes to the scary, we want a performance to grab our imaginations and take them for a wild ride. We brace ourselves to feel the dread, scream till we laugh, and enjoy the adrenaline jolts of make-believe terror.
The work of the makeup artist and special effects team are essential for letting us set reality aside and enjoy an hour or two of heart-skipping thrills.
The needs of stage performance and filmmaking are quite different. In movies, gruesome close-ups are part of the freaky fun. The makeup and special effects must seem hyper-realistic on HD TVs or when blown up to gargantuan size on an IMAX screen. Fortunately, filmmakers have the luxury of shooting scenes multiple times to get them right. Even after filming, they can call in computer magicians to fix almost any flub.
If filming is spread over several days, makeup artists will take multiple photos of the actors in their makeup. That way, they can faithfully recreate the look from one day to the next. No one will believe a werewolf sporting brown eyes in one scene and yellow eyes in the next!
The differing needs of a play have a lot to do with distance. During a live performance, the audience may be seated from ten feet to more than 100 feet away. That means makeup, costumes, stage action, and effects must be somewhat exaggerated—like the spurting blood in the musical Sweeney Todd or Shakespeare’s Richard III. Otherwise, people in the back row may not be shocked by the on-stage horror.
At the same time, distances in live theater mean the makeup and effects do not have to be as naturalistic since the audience does not get a close look. If you shake hands with stage actors after a performance, you will notice exaggerated features—for example, extra color on their cheekbones, deeper shading in the hollows of their cheeks, and painted lines that emphasize wrinkles. The bolder makeup helps communicate character and emotion at a distance, while shadowing prevents bright lights from causing faces to look flat or washed out.
Unlike movies, a live performance offers few chances for do-overs. Actors and crew must get it right the first time and every time. There are no second takes or digital fixes if a blood bag does not burst or a monster’s makeup melts under hot stage lights.
Ballistics gel Moldable material made with gelatin
Blood bag Plastic bag filled with fake blood and designed to burst
Digital special effects Computer animation that adds effects to a film scene
Filbert brush Special paintbrush used to apply makeup
Foundation A base makeup
Gak Rubbery substance made of glue, water, and borax
Gelatin A gelling agent in cooking that can also be used to create flesh-like material for special effects
Latex Synthetic material used to create fake skin and other effects
Non-Newtonian fluid A liquid that behaves differently than regular liquids, such as water
Oobleck A gooey non-Newtonian fluid made by combining corn starch and water
Prosthetics Fake skin and molded body parts used to change appearance
Scar wax Putty used to create wounds as well as scars
Spirit gum Special glue used to affix hair and foam latex pieces to skin
Squib Device used by special effects teams to burst a blood bag, often to simulate a gunshot wound
Stippling sponge Makeup tool often used to create a blotchy effect
The earliest use of stage makeup dates back centuries to the dramas of Ancient Greece, though actors in masks were more common. Until the 1800s, actors used a toxic lead paint to accent their features for the stage. Greasepaint, a healthier alternative made from animal fats, eventually took its place.
About 100 years ago, Max Factor Cosmetics developed pancake makeup—a compressed powder—that quickly became the standard in the new art of filmmaking. Pancake makeup is still widely used in theaters and film today.
A Timeline of Horror Makeup
Here are a handful of landmark developments in blood, guts, and gore in theater and on film.
1897 Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol opens in Paris. The playhouse specializes in short dramas featuring graphic horror that end with murder and fountains of blood. A production’s success was measured in the number of faintings per show.
1923 Lon Chaney stars in the silent film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His skill with makeup, face putty, and prosthetics creates a most monstrous Quasimodo. He terrifies audiences again two years later as the creepy title character in The Phantom of the Opera. For his work with character-creating makeup, Chaney becomes known as the “Man of a Thousand Faces.”
1931 Makeup artist Frank Pierce uses skin-like collodion, cotton, and gum to build the flat-headed monster in Frankenstein.
1934 Hollywood enforces the Motion Picture Production Code—better known as the Hays Code—to censor films. “Excessive violence” in movies is banned along with other supposedly immoral behavior. The Hays Code remains in effect until the late 1960s. After it is lifted, onscreen violence quickly grows more graphic and gory.
1960 Psycho, from director Alfred Hitchcock, is released. Filmed in black and white, the terrifying shower scene uses chocolate syrup for blood.
1963 The release of Blood Feast introduces the so-called “splatter film.” It sets the stage for slasher movies to come, like Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), and Scream (1996).
1968 George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead sets the tone—and makeup concepts—for contemporary zombies .
1970 A foam latex mask ages actor Dustin Hoffman more than 100 years for the film Little Big Man.
1973 Makeup genius Dick Smith turns a cute 12-year-old girl into a head-spinning, demon-possessed creature for the movie The Exorcist. Tubes hidden under her frightful makeup spew pea soup, sending audiences streaming for the exit.
1976 Corn syrup blood replaces pig’s blood in the climactic scene of the film Carrie. After getting doused with gallons of the sticky stuff, actress Sissy Spacek later describes feeling like a candy apple as flames flared behind her and baked the syrup.
1981 Movie audiences see man become monster in An American Werewolf in London. Amazing for its time, the transformation uses robotics, prosthetics, and stretchy foam latex.
1984 A still-beating heart pulled from a chest steals the show in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
2000s Horror films increasingly use “computer-generated imagery” (CGI) to create blood and gore on screen.
Questions for Students
Encourage students to think about the Why? behind makeup and special effects in movies and other forms of entertainment. Here are three research questions to get them started:
- Think of a play or movie that features a lot of makeup to alter the actors’ appearances. What part does the makeup play in the production? How might the production be different without it?
- Compare the appearance of Dracula in the 1931 movie with more recent vampire portrayals; or The Wolf Man (1941) and cinematic werewolves today. How have these characters changed during that time? How is that reflected in changes to their appearance and makeup?
- Graphic violence has often been a concern in the entertainment industry. It played a part in the adoption of the Hays Code in the 1930s. What guidelines or rules would you advise about violence in entertainment products today?
Topics to Research
Dick Smith (1922– ), makeup artist. He revolutionized the art, especially special effects and horror.
Ve Neill (1951– ), makeup artist. She is the winner of three Academy Awards for Beetlejuice, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Ed Wood.
Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code)
Resources to Explore
Debreceni, Todd. (2013). Special Makeup Effects For Stage and Screen. Focal Press. ISBN 978-0240816968.
The Making of Psycho. Dir. Laurent Bouzereau. Universal Studios, 1997.
“A Brief History of Fake Blood” by Forest Wickman; Slate.com
“Stage Makeup Tips” by Jonathan Strickland; howstuffworks.com
Ready to get started? Here are some easy recipes to make blood, guts, and gore right in your own kitchen.
Ingredients: blue dish soap, food coloring.
Instructions: Pour 1/4 cup of dish soap in a bowl. For red blood, add red food coloring and stir. Add drops of green food coloring to darken.
Uses: This recipe is easy to clean and will not stain costumes. It should not be used near the eyes or mouth.
Ingredients: 16 ounces corn syrup, 1 tablespoon chocolate syrup, food coloring.
Instructions: Combine corn syrup and chocolate syrup. For red blood, add red food coloring and stir. Add drops of green food coloring to darken.
Uses: This recipe is safe to use on the face or to create a bloody mouth. (It even tastes good!) It is more difficult to get out of costumes than soap-based blood.
Ingredients: 1 ounce plain powdered gelatin, about 8 ounces water, food coloring.
Instructions: Mix water and gelatin until the gel has a thick, grit-like consistency. Add food coloring, if desired. Refrigerate for one hour to set, or bloom, the gelatin. After refrigerating, double-boil the gel on medium-low heat until the bloomed gelatin becomes a completely clear liquid. Pour into a mold—tinfoil can be used to form a desired shape. Refrigerate the ballistics gel in the mold for 24 hours.
Uses: Ballistics gel can be used to create rubbery organs.
Ingredients: 1 bottle polyvinyl alcohol glue, water, borax, food coloring.
Instructions: Pour glue into bowl and add an equal amount of water. In a separate bowl, mix 1 teaspoon of borax into 16 ounces of water. Pour water/borax solution into glue/water mixture while stirring. Add food coloring, as desired.
Uses: Gak can be used to form fake skin and body parts, such as organs, eyeballs, and tongues.
Ingredients: About 1 cup water, about 1 1/2 cup cornstarch, food coloring.
Instructions: Mix water slowly into the cornstarch until it is smooth but difficult to stir. Add food coloring, as desired.
Uses: Oobleck can be used to create sticky, stretchy slime that resembles intestines and other body organs.