The History of the Development of Stage Blood
George S. Patton, one of America’s leading generals during World War II said, “A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood.” While his words were intended for use on the battlefield, they serve as a perfect motto for our present endeavor—to uncover the secret to the perfect stage blood recipe.
The production of stage blood has been a slow-developing process throughout the entertainment industry over the last 100 years. Rumor has it that actual pigs blood was used during the Renaissance for theatrical productions. Scholars on the early modern period have also hypothesized that stage blood was rarely used at all because, without the convenience of modern detergent, it would have been nearly impossible not to stain the costumes. Instead, “wounds” were often hidden by red handkerchiefs or obscured from sight so no stage blood need touch the costumes. Weapons—including swords, daggers, arrows, etc.—were also painted red with vermillion-based concoctions to represent the blood in large fight or battle scenes.
It wasn’t until the invention of the movies—and subsequently television—that creating more realistic fake blood became a priority. Movies allowed filmmakers the luxury of capturing close-ups—revealing details that audience members from the back of the house would never see in an onstage production. The development of stage blood started with D.W. Griffiths, who began experimenting with different recipes for his silent films just as the First World War was beginning. Griffiths’ 1916 film, Intolerance, was one of the first gory films ever—featuring gunshot wounds, decapitation, and disembowelment. While today’s cinematic advancements may make Griffiths’ efforts look hokey now, at the time of the film’s premier the effects were shocking to all audiences.
After its eruption onto the cinematic scene in 1916, the use of blood and gore in film grew astronomically until 1934, the year it was censored by the Production Code Administration. This censorship act prohibited everything from the flush of a toilet to the any jokes about the “clergy.”
Alfred Hitchcock, resisted this censorship by using Bosco Chocolate Syrup as fake blood in Psycho. Hitchcock bypassed the Production Code because the syrup was not red in color—but it was still effective on screen in his black and white films.
Concurrently in Britain, the Hammer Studio was beginning to develop bright, viscerally red recipes. It was during this era that the standard recipe of corn syrup and red food coloring came to be.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 70’s that the Production Code gave way in America and let the blood flow. The Production Code of 1934 was repealed when the movies were introduced to their biggest competitor—the television. The movie industry now needed to offer something different from televisions, which were even more strictly censored, to draw Americans out of the comfort of their homes. Foreign films, which weren’t bound to the Production Code, were also making their way into the country and audiences were flocking to see them. Films released without the Production Code seal of approval, like Some Like it Hot, were also proving to be major successes which further weakened the stance of the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA). This all finally resulted in the 1956 rewriting of the Production Code. The MPAA finally surrendered by acquiescing to the implementation of a SMA label—Suggested for Mature Audiences—during a battle with MGM over Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Subsequently, the blood that appeared on screen during the 1960’s and 70’s was vibrant and arterial. The effect on audiences has naturally normalized over time and by the 1980’s blood-thirsty movies like The Shining had made blood common place.
Tips on Creating Your Own Blood Recipe
• Buying commercial blood recipes sounds convenient—but it can also be very pricy. A gallon jug often runs upwards of $60. If you are working on a particularly bloodthirsty show, consider making your own recipe. If you start experimenting with recipes early enough, you can often create a more realistic and more cost efficient product. All of the following tips will help lead you towards creating the perfect recipe.
• If you know you already have your spring season planned and know you will be using fake blood in your production see if you can start experimenting early. Making pot after pot of stage blood in order to find the perfect recipe may seem a tiresome process, but if you can do all of your experimenting in October I’m sure you can find some great Halloween events to use your castoffs for.
• Have a reference picture to share with your director instead of going in with no starting point. Pull some pictures from different movies and find one that you both think will work well for your production. Then as you are experimenting, you can have a visual goal and a tactile goal (the wash ability, sugar-free, etc.) to work towards.
• If you are striving to made a washable blood recipe be aware that anything with red food coloring will stain. This includes the standard corn syrup and red food coloring recipe. It might be easy to make, but it’s not easy to wash. So if you are going to spray a costume with a recipe including food coloring, make sure that it won’t need to be cleaned.
• Here’s a tip about using a corn syrup base from, Bernard, a Samuel French fan: “I don’t have proportions but Hershey’s chocolate syrup, red food coloring and maybe a little Kayro corn syrup for consistency, usually works well. Fool around with it until you get the right look and texture. Remember real blood looks red straight out of your body but quickly begins to brown as it dries from exposure to air.”
• If you have a lot of critters around your theater or are working outside, you might want to avoid recipes that include sugar—they will only attract more of your little friends. Also consider if the items in a recipe can be substituted for sugar-free alternatives. For example, most grocery stores sell sugar-free chocolate syrup, which works just as well in any sugary, standard chocolate syrup that appears in many blood recipes.
• Here’s a tip from another Frenchie, Stephen, who uses a sugar-free recipe. “Best way to make stage blood is Hershey’s chocolate syrup, small packets of Kool Aid dark cherry (without sugar – just the small packets), and add a little water and stir. It looks awesome on stage, but it may make the audience hungry.”
• Now let’s talk about the basics. Corn syrup is the most common base for blood because it is edible, but don’t forget that it will attract ants and other vermin, that it’s very sticky, it will stain clothes and EVEN SKIN, and it will go bad.
• As an alternative to corn starch and red food coloring try using a red or orange ultra-concentrated dish detergent as your base. Not only is it washable but it also gives you a bright red hue as your base off of which you can build the perfect color. To adjust the color opt for washable paints instead of food coloring. Remember that the more soap based products and “washable” products you use in your recipe, the less you will stress out your costume designer.
• It may sound strange, but using only red and orange hues won’t necessarily lead you to a realistic color choice. Remember to experiment with purples, blues, and even green when you are building your recipe. It will give the color more depth and make it more believable.
• Even if you aren’t concerned about staining your costumes—don’t forget to consider if the scenic designer minds if the set is stained. A dye that stains clothes will stain floors, walls, and doors just as easily but they aren’t as easily replaced as a soiled shirt. A production company I worked with once did a particularly bloody production of Macbeth on our university campus. The crew had to stay for hours each night after the show scrubbing the concrete to get the blood out, lest the student body think an enraged student had gone after one of the professors.
• Also consider the proximity of your audience. If you are spraying blood all over the stage in a gory fight scene; might the audience get spayed as well? If there is any chance of that, you definitely want to make sure the recipe you use is completely washable. You don’t want any disgruntled patrons coming to you with their dry cleaning bills. If your audience might be sprayed also think about placing a warning sign in the house before the show. Most audience members won’t want to keep their post-show dinner reservations if they look like they just got out of Carrie.
• Many blood recipes include creamy peanut butter to increase the consistency and darken the color. The protein in peanut butter also makes it easier to wash. If you want to use a peanut butter-base MAKE SURE that you clear this with your cast and crew in case anyone has a nut allergy. You can also try cocoa powder, corn starch, or powdered gelatin as alternative thickening agents.
• Also consider how your blood is being dispersed. If you are using a spray bottle or a squib, a thinner consistency will be less likely to clog the nozzle. But don’t go too thin—you don’t want your blood to be too watery.
• If the actor if going to have any amount of blood in their mouth, remember that you need to use non-toxic and edible ingredients. Also—although it may sound gross—taste each batch as you are working towards the perfect recipe. Try to be as kind to your actors as possible. If you create a batch with an unbearable taste try to find a different alternative. This will keep your cast happy.
• Remember to try every recipe under stage lights. What looks good in the shop or in your kitchen may look drastically different on stage. The color, in particular, may change under the lights. It is very common for blood that appear red in the bucket to appear purple under stage lights.
• When you bring the blood into the theater, also remember to look at it from different distances. Does it read as well from the back row as it does from the front? If not, you may have to consider finding a happy balance between what is visible from the back of the house and what is realistic from the front row.
• If you think any blood may come in contact with actors’ eyes, consider using “no tears” baby shampoo as your base. Not only will it not be a pain physically, but it will also be washable.
• Despite all of the benefits of soap based blood, remember that if a recipe is extremely soapy it is liable to lather up. Can you imagine watching Sweeney Todd, and instead of the expected fountain of gore during each murder a mountain of bubbles emerged?!
• If you want your blood to congeal over time there are number of cool tricks you can use. Pudding mix, which can be used as a thickening agent, will gradually coagulate like real blood. KY jelly can also cause fake blood to clot over the course of a scene. Cheap vodka—while having an immediate thinning effect on the blood—will gradually congeal over time.
Recipes for the Bloodthirsty Betty Crocker
Homemade Fake Blood
• 1 c. Karo Syrup
• 1 tbsp water
• 2 tbsp red food coloring
• 1 tsp yellow food coloring
Mix together in a mixing bowl and you’re done. Try adding blue or yellow for a different shade.
Chocolate Fake Blood
• 1/2 c. warm water
• 4 tbsp corn syrup
• 1 tbsp powdered cocoa
• 1 tsp red food coloring
Blend the water and cocoa together and then add the rest of the ingredients. Let the concoction sit for a while and skim the bubbles off of the top. Add a couple of drops of yellow food coloring if you’re not satisfied.
Simple Fake Blood
• Clear corn syrup
• Red food coloring
• Milk (optional)
However much fake blood is how much corn syrup you’ll need. Pour it into a bowl and mix in some red food coloring. Add some blue if you like. Adding a small amount of milk will make the blood appear darker and thicker.
“Realistic” Fake Blood
• 2/3 c. corn syrup
• 1/3 c. warm water
• 5 tbsp corn starch
• 4 tsp red food coloring
• 1 tbsp powdered cocoa
• 2 drops of green or yellow food coloring
Mix the corn starch with the water in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the corn syrup. Add the food coloring slowly, checking for color.
Gravy Blood (This is fairly new and I haven’t had chance to test it properly but its looks GREAT!)
• Gravy granules
• Red food coloring
• HOT water
The directions are EASY, all you do is make the gravy up as you would normally but if you feel like it, you can make it a bit thicker, then add the red food coloring. It’s up to you how much you add but too much will stain as it will not have been diluted enough.
Cheap ‘N’ Easy Blood (this is good for spidering)
• Plain Flour
• Red food coloring
•1 tsp. of coffee
Boil the water on the stove, then sieve in the flour, making sure you get ALL of the lumps out. The quantity of ingredients aren’t important, it just depends on how much you want. Once you have the flour mixed nicely into the water it should look nice and thick. Next, add the red food coloring.
You will notice that it’s a ghastly, bright red color but don’t worry this is why we add the coffee. It is important that when you add the coffee to make sure the mixture is hot, otherwise it won’t dissolve, but up until adding the coffee can be done in an ordinary mixing jug or pan.
Palmolive Imitation Blood
In Case of Alien Invasions…
Glowing Alien or Radioactive-Looking Blood
Mix equal parts white corn syrup and clear non-toxic school glue (the kind that washes off with water). Add liquid from a highlighter or some glow powder or paint from a craft store.
If you use liquid from a highlighter, you’ll get blood that will glow the color of the highlighter under black light. Not every highlighter glows, so test it before using it. If you use glow powder or paint from a craft store, your glow in the dark blood will glow when the lights are off, providing you “charged” the blood up by shining a bright light on it first. Glow powder typically glows yellowish green.
I had great luck with this glowing blood. It was very bright and washed off easily with warm water. It likely will stain clothes, so watch out for that.
Glowing Bright Blue Blood
• Petroleum jelly
• Laundry detergent
• Tonic water
This will glow bright blue under a black light. The easiest way to make blue blood that glows under a black light is to drizzle liquid laundry detergent on yourself (which is not edible, so avoid getting this into your mouth). Tonic water with corn syrup will make a thin blood. You can tint the blood with food coloring, if you like. Petroleum jelly can be applied as a thick, non-dripping blood.
Glowing Red Blood
You can make red blood that glows red under a black light by either mixing pink highlighter liquid in with any of the fake blood recipes or by adding chlorophyll to a recipe. You may be able to purchase chlorophyll, which fluoresces red in ultraviolet light, or you can prepare it yourself by grinding spinach or Swiss chard with a small amount of alcohol (e.g., vodka) and pouring it through a coffee filter to get chlorophyll extract (use the part that stays on the filter, not the liquid).
You can also make fake blood with Palmolive dish soap, (it doesn’t matter how much you put in) it depends on how much blood you want! Add red berry powdered Kool-Aid.