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Have some bloody fun this Halloween, courtesy of chemistry

Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

It's Halloween, a day for watching scary movies filled with blood and gore.

In other words, it's a day to appreciate chemistry.

For roughly a century, entertainers have relied on chemistry to make fake blood look real. In the early 1900s, productions at the Theatre du Grand Guignol in Paris introduced fake blood as an essential prop, according to the American Chemical Society, or ACS.

The French formula for the stage included equal amounts of carmine pigment (which comes from the cochineal insect) and glycerol, a sweet-tasting, non-toxic liquid.

Later versions added a thickening agent called methylcellulose. The updated concoction looks like a thick, slimy red mucus that is so disgusting, it's used in movies today.

Early movies didn't always go to such lengths. The ACS reports that Alfred Hitchcock tried using fake blood in "Psycho" but decided the red liquid didn't have enough contrast to look good on black-and-white film. Instead, he opted for chocolate syrup. So did George Romero in "Night of the Living Dead."

That worked until black-and-white movies gave way to color. After that, chocolate syrup was out and fake blood was in.

The 1957 movie "The Curse of Frankenstein" made use of a substance called "Kensington gore." This was a combination of golden syrup, warm water, food coloring and corn starch.

Unfortunately, concoctions like these were known to crystallize under heat. Actor Bruce Campbell, a star of the 1981 film "The Evil Dead," experienced this chemical reaction firsthand when his "blood"-soaked shirt dried and shattered during filming.

So did "Carrie" star Sissy Spacek, who wound up coated like a candy apple while filming the 1976 classic.

Makeup artist Dick Smith improved upon the fake blood recipe. He blended corn syrup and a coloring agent with methyl paraben (which helped it last longer) and something called a photographic wetting agent (which allowed it to be absorbed by clothing, a feature that helped it seem more realistic). This blood was featured in the 1973 classic "The Exorcist."

Director Herschell Gordon Lewis went another way for his 1963 flick "Blood Feast."

The thriller, about a murderous caterer who used his victims' bodies in the meals he prepared, required lots and lots of fake blood. Lewis' expedient solution was to add red dye to the anti-diarrheal medicine Kaopectate. It had the consistency and opacity of real blood, plus a dramatic red hue.

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