This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2015.
Blood. Blut. Sangue. Veri. Krof. Rakta. Chi. Dam. Xuè.
Whatever the hell you want to call it, it’s literally in us all. Given blood’s obvious centrality in all things human (even Highlanders bleed when pricked), it’s no damn wonder that theatrical blood has been around for as long as there have been theaters. Once the old red handkerchief trick ran dry—which was probably really, really early on—performers needed a substance that would replicate with some authority the real, ichorous thing.
If you happened to be the knuckle-dragging sort of heathen without an extensive knowledge of mid-16th-century stagecraft, you might think that animal blood was used onstage in early performances of plays like Titus Andronicus, the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s works. But experts today are increasingly doubtful that animal blood was ever widely used, for practical reasons. As Farah Karim-Cooper, the Head of Higher Education & Research at the Globe Theater in London puts it, “The question of whether or not animal blood was used on the stage is difficult to answer in the light of evidence about the expensiveness and quality of actors’ costumes and their inability to launder them.” In other words, no dry cleaning, no animal blood.
Given that, a recipe for stage blood has been required for centuries, and several different recipes developed over the years as productions moved from the stage to film to television and now to high-definition, computer-generated sources of entertainment.
So if stage blood has long been cooked, how was it made way-back-when? Well, one early recipe came from bugs. The Grand Guignol—the Parisian theater that opened in 1890 and was known for its horror plays—made stage blood using red pigment derived from boiling dried insects, including the cochineal bug, which was used in Campari until recently. When that recipe cooled, it coagulated and created some delightful-looking scabs.
Clearly, modern stage blood is no longer made from boiled insects. With the development of the movie industry, early black-and-white films used a quick and easy shortcut for their bloody needs: chocolate syrup. Yes, in a world of blacks-and-whites, chocolate syrup stood in stark contrast to light backgrounds. Overbearing censorship guidelines helped—they did not allow much blood to be shown on screen at all.
And to apply the syrup in realistic looking drips, another unlikely solution presented itself: the squeezable bottle. These had just started to hit the markets when Hitchcock’s makeup supervisor on the iconic thriller Psycho, Jack Barron, was devising a way to make a blood-centric movie appear authentic. He told author Stephen Rebello, who wrote The Making of Psycho, that syrup in a squeeze bottle was a new, space-age innovation that did the trick: “Shasta had just come out with chocolate syrup in a plastic squeeze bottle. This was before the days of the ‘plastic explosion,’ so it was pretty revolutionary. Up to that time in films, we were using Hershey’s, but you could do a lot more with a squeeze bottle.”
With the advent and adoption of color in Hollywood-made movies, the pressure on fake blood to look real mounted exponentially. Fake movie blood became known as “Kensington Gore,” after a retired British pharmacist, John Tynegate, began to manufacture and sell a popular stage blood named after Kensington Gore, a street in London. Tynegate’s formula was heavily used throughout the 60s and the 70s.
BBC’s variant on John Tynegate’s Kensington Gore:
Two cups of golden syrup
One cup of tepid water (Same temp. used for blooming gelatin)
Ten teaspoons of red food coloring
A few drops of blue food coloring
A few drops of yellow food coloring
Ten tablespoons of corn flour
Mint flavoring (Only necessary if you want it to taste like retail stage blood)
No directions follow, but we assume you just mix it all together, and voila. A bloody mess fit for a board-treading king’s regicide.
The most famous recipe for stage blood, however, comes from Dick Smith, a Hollywood makeup artist who died a year ago at the age of 92. Smith was responsible for the blood you enjoyed in such classics as The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather. Called by some “the greatest makeup artist who’s ever going to live,” Smith’s recipe for fake blood is a classic—but it also happens to be, like, super poisonous. Here it is:
Dick Smith’s Don’t-Try-This-At-Home Poisonous Fake Blood
1 tsp. zinc oxide (purchase from a laboratory supply)
1 tsp. Ehler Yellow Food Color
1 oz. Ehler Red Food Color
1 oz. water
1 oz. Kodak Photo-Flo *Poisonous* (purchase from a photo supply store)
1 quart white corn syrup
Place the zinc oxide in a mixing bowl, add water and the Kodak Photo-Flo (remember this is poisonous). Add the red and yellow food coloring and mix (If you are using a brand other than Ehler’s yellow, use half the amount indicated). Mix in a 1/4 of your corn syrup and place in a container (make sure your container is larger than your ingredients because the blood will separate). Mix in the final amount of corn syrup and mix well. Keep your blood refrigerated because the corn syrup may make it grow mold.
When you need to use your recipe always mix vigorously before application.
DO NOT EAT OR PLACE IN YOUR MOUTH – Again, this recipe is poisonous.
Why, you may ask, is Smith’s poisonous recipe so famous if blood is so often required to trickle from actors’ mouths? It turns out that edible versions—all variations on Smith’s original formula—abound. If you wanted to get your Evil Dead on, you could take a gander at Bruce Campbell’s If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, which contains an edible stage blood recipe using non-dairy creamer. Hell, maybe you want to jazz up your faux slaughter-orgy with some delightful chocolate or peanut butter blood.
Today, the vehicle for disseminating stage blood has also advanced beyond the squirt bottle—to the condom. Warren Appleby, a special-effects coordinator who has worked on such films as the 2013 re-make of Carrie, points out that the condom is the perfect way to make a nice, bloody mess: “It’s cheap, and it already has a reservoir that you can fill with blood. You affix that to the wardrobe, then put a small explosive charge called a squib between the blood bag and the performer. We used vacuum seal bags so we could make a nice square—sometimes the condoms don’t break, sometimes they do. As in life.”
Alas, the craft of making stage blood may soon come to a coagulated close—at least for film and television productions. More and more, sleek CGI blood, made purely of pixels, is becoming the method of choice for directors. In fact, none of the anthropomorphic prunes that acted in The Expendables 2 had a single drop of stage blood touch their sun-kissed skin. Literally every bit of blood seen on screen was created through CGI. Hell, even an acclaimed director like David Fincher opted to use large amounts of CGI blood in Zodiac, citing its convenience and the ability to shoot several takes without re-applying makeup.
Although stage blood may, one day soon, become a thing of theatrical stages only—no longer to be seen on screens, large or small—it will undoubtedly have a long and healthy life among Halloween revelers. Whether you cook it at home, using one of these tried-and-true (but hopefully not poisonous) recipes, or buy it in a store near you, we suggest you keep it bloody this season.
We all need to be reminded of the stuff we are truly made of.