Theatre of the Damned Blog

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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Secrets and Science of Fake Blood

You don’t actually need all this kit, but seriously, who cooks blood in Tefal?
A large part of the mystique surrounding the original Paris Grand Guignol lay in the blood effects used, the ‘secret’ recipe becoming as much of a marketing gimmick as KFC’s 11 secret herbs and spices. An otherwise irreverent 1947 Time magazine article writes that ‘The theater has a secret recipe for blood; when the stuff cools it coagulates and makes scabs’. Professor Mel Gordon, specialist in the Grand Guignol, describes the mixture as heated carmine and glycerine in equal proportions; made of boiled, crushed scale insects, carmine seems more fittingly macabre than glycerine, which at the time was generally administered as a cough syrup. This blood recipe has the advantage of being liquid when warm, but seeming to congeal as it cools – like honey, glycerine is thick and sticky, but thin when melted. For the Grand Guignol in its declining years, though, the carmine stains became increasingly irksome to remove; Gordon hypothesizes that as money got tight ‘Large body wounds were limited to women (smaller costumes to clean) and head wounds for men (less hair to clean)’. In fact, there are very few body wounds in the original plays of the Grand Guignol, perhaps as much because of the emotive nature of facial disfigurement as of the excessively sticky recipe, guaranteed to ruin suiting fabric.

The original Grand Guignol blood is, to modern users, about as difficult to use as can be imagined; carmine and glycerine are relatively expensive today, and at around £21 a litre (priced up using Tesco ingredients), it might well be cheaper to hire a hit man (though we don’t recommend this one). Fire safety regulations nix the picturesque image of a stage manager squatting over a bubbling primus stove of blood in the wings, and his sickly sweet recipe could prove only too tempting to starving actors.

Possibly the only time anyone has ever wanted to lick Martin Balsam’s face. Mmm, chocolatey.
Productions since have come up with a variety of ways to ensure a steady flow of gore on tap. Many prop makers seem to take the term ‘recipe’ rather too literally, suggesting grotesque but edible mixtures of tomato ketchup, strawberry syrup, fruit punch mix and cocoa. Hitchcock notoriously used Bosco chocolate syrup for Psycho (1960) – but the darling of the black-and-white shockers fell from favour with the arrival of the full colour cinematic close-up. In the 60s and 70s, manufacture of fake blood for cinema began on a commercial scale thanks to the efforts of a retired pharmacist, John Tynegate of Abbotsbury, Dorset – presumably tired of the gentler pleasures of country walks and cream scones. His wares became known as ‘Kensington Gore’, amusingly sullying the good name of the London street that houses both the Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial. The rise of amateur dramatics provided another impetus for the production of fake blood; the widely used Dempsey’s brand originated with the Carlisle Light Operatic Society in the 50s, which was presumably performing rather racier productions of Gilbert and Sullivan than any I’ve seen.

For the serious wizard of gore, though, making your own blood is both cheaper and more versatile, allowing for a wide range of consistencies and shades. Theatre of the Damned have gone through dozens of blood recipes, from thin, bright arterial to darkly oozing, via a range of more and less successful experiments with ‘texture’. Rather than give one, definitive recipe here, I’ll list some pointers for the would-be chef. Happy brewing!

Too much blue in the mix.
Classic blood – This is an easy, fast recipe that’s fun to play around with. Mix half a pint each of golden syrup (corn syrup) and boiling water, then add a capful of red food colouring. To make the shade more realistic, and less transparent, add a teaspoon of instant coffee granules, dissolved in more boiling water first. Blue or green colouring can be used to further alter the tint, and if you are going to use it straight away, evaporated milk is a quick and easy way to increase the opacity.

Washable blood – To avoid staining light coloured clothes, add washing up liquid. Be aware that this blood stings, so shouldn’t be used around the eyes.

Semi-translucent blood – For blood that needs to be visible on darker surfaces, mix equal amounts of cornflour and water (say two tablespoons) into a paste. Gradually introduce more water (say a pint) and food colouring, then heat, stirring frequently, until it thickens. Golden syrup can be added for increased stickiness

Clotted blood – For blood that leaves lumps and clots on the skin, add a few tablespoons of couscous or semolina grains to a small pan of boiling water, tinted red. Heat until they swell up, drain and add to your blood mix.

Gore – Extensively used in our first production, this gloopy substance is perfect for filling eye sockets, wounds, and stumps. Boil oats and water as you would for porridge, and tint red as desired.

- Alice Saville


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  2. Niiiice. I thought the original 'blood' was /is made of Cochineal? Isn't that crushed beetles? Very er - public-spirited of them if so... Thanks for this Alice!

  3. Our friends at Wikipedia tell me that cochineal and carmine are the same thing - a bright red pigment obtained from carminic acid, which is produced by such insects as the cochineal beetle and polish cochineal.