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What Makes a Horror?

Updated on May 26, 2015

"How delightful are the pleasures of the imagination! In those delectable moments, the whole world is ours; not a single creature resists us, we devastate the world, we repopulate it with new objects which, in turn, we immolate. The means to every crime is ours, and we employ them all, we multiply the horror a hundredfold." – Marquis de Sade, 1797

The role of special effects makeup in horror cinema is to help the actor or scene portray a certain element of realism in the film, enticing the target audience and drawing them further into the story onscreen. The reaction the film-makers are looking for from both the audience and their critics dictates the level and style of special effects required. Special effects are designed to aid films in their endeavour to create a certain type of reality within their chosen genre. Special effects can be both subtle and brash. Special effects aren’t all about just bringing a character to life; makeup artists often create their own props such as the bloody stump, weapon or severed head and practical effects such as blood-spatter and bullet-hits, this involves the use of animatronics, false dummies, engineering and a good deal of trial and error. The way a makeup is received through the camera is of vast importance and detrimental to the end result. The make-up that the actor wears to change or enhance his features is a special effect. Even the design of a scene is a special effect with regards to spooky caves, castles, oceans etc. (Fielding, 1985)

"It combines many skills: design, sculpture, painting, invention and all sorts of crafts. Just learning and using them is a great joy. But the greatest for me is that when the makeup is finished I feel that what the actor and I have done is kind of godlike. We have created a new being, whether human or monster, that lives and breathes for a time. No other art can give this feeling."- Dick Smith (Savini, 1994)

All of these elements are equally important and have been used and improved via theatre and further explored and developed for film. But what creates blockbuster success? What people are looking for is something realistic and believe-able, something that can stimulate the senses of a viewer, and draw them into a story. When I use these words, I mean realistic with regard to an explosion or other spectacular event already known to us; what it looks like in real life and how they are able to portray this on film. I use the word believable to depict the atmosphere created mainly by the storyline/script and emphasised by lighting, sound, imagery and sfx. The beauty of fantasy and horror film is that a viewer can watch it, become totally immersed in it right to the end, and walk away knowing that it’s not real, though this is debatable for most horror films as a lot have been supposedly based on true events, which, in turn entices even more spectators. In this competitive world of ever-evolving technologies, innovative thinking, and massive budgets, film-makers strive to bring spectacular visuals to the big-screen. In the sixties and early seventies, Hollywood was busy releasing political dramas such as All the President’s Men and Deer Hunter which, during the time, were quite relevant to such socio-political events as Nixon’s election, re-election and the war in Vietnam, thus making them quite contemporary and relatable to the viewing audience. These films were and still are quite popular. However, special effects filmmakers of the mid-seventies such as Spielberg and Lucas brought reactionary ideology back to the table. Hollywood was suddenly transformed into a city of studios dedicated to making it the hub of worldwide film-entertainment. But these films weren’t just restricted to cinema; they also marketed through computer games, magazines, clothing, home television sets and even fast-food. It was becoming very clear that the blockbuster was the new way forward. What made these films so spectacular apart from the storyline was the use of special effects applied to bring us the crashes, the explosions, the props, the make-up and the scenes in which these events occurred (Cucco, 2009).

The very definition of Special Effects is to create or simulate events that would be considered too difficult, dangerous, or too expensive to film in real life (Fielding, 1985). Some use films as a form of escapism, a detour from their everyday lives, whereas others come to analyse the film with regards to whether or not it gives the overall desired affect. That is what film-makers depend on. If the story is good, special effects can add to it, or take away as the case may be. The benefits of special effects in film are that the film-makers gain heightened control and further creative input into a story and what events unfold therein. Minstrels tell stories describing events and entities non-existent in our world, while special effects in film help bring these imaginary creations to life.

The significance of special effects to film making and cinema goes right back to its emergence. In 1902, when French visionary Georges Méliès established both film editing and special effects, tested them, evolved them and retested in films like the revolutionary 21 minute science-fiction wonder Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon). Often discovering such breakthroughs by accident, Méliès generated several styles of editing such as double-exposure, stop-motion, jump cuts, superimposed images and dissolves via trick photography as well as animation, split screens, the use of matte paintings, live-action, miniature models, and the substitution shot. Using these methods, he created a dynamic dream sequence of a rocket being launched from a cannon into the eye of the moon, combined with the presence of the amazing Selenites (moon people), the court scene with the king of the Selenites, and their spectacular escape back to earth. Upon its release to the public, the film world exploded with critical acclaim. Never before had we witnessed such a tour-de-force of innovative creativity in film. Suddenly film makers across the board were scrambling over each other to use his methods to better their progress. Aptly appointed by The Village Voice tabloid to the list of the 100 Greatest Films of the 20th century, A Trip to the Moon remains the most famous of all Méliès’ films and to this day the image of the rocket lodged in the eye of the moon is still regarded as one of the most iconic and influential images in film history (The Village Voice, 2000).

Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon), Georges Méliès, 1902.

Viewers accustomed to watching a stage illusion without being deceived, but being invited to locate the mechanism behind a cloak of narrative immersion and showman’s flourishes, would find artistic and technical nourishment when asked to view a film-show introduced by a magician as part of a repertoire of magic tricks. The historical links between magic and cinema can help us understand early cinema’s ambiguous relations to both art and technology. (North, 2002, p78)

Of all the film genres, horror is possibly the most mysterious. Some people simply avoid it and some people totally embrace it. Horror has often been compared to pornography (Williams, 1991), in that the audience knows what’s about to happen and finds stimulation when the inevitable event occurs; the physical outbreaks of goose bumps, the hair on the back of your neck tingling, why do so many appear to enjoy the fear? According to film theorist Carol Clover (Clover, 1992); Horror film appears to present a structure of compassion toward the audience, sometimes for both victim and attacker. Clover goes on to emphasise these emotions by describing horror in film as a recreation of pre-existing internal anxieties or even dark temptations within ourselves. Horror director William Friedkin (Derry, 2009) encourages this opinion and brings it a step further by implying that the audience is already affected with this compassion before entering the theatre. In Morris Dickstein’s book, The Aesthetics of Fright, he regards the horror film as ‘subcultural like the wild child that can never be tamed, or the half-human mutant who appeals to our secret fascination with deformity and the grotesque.’ (Dickstein, 1980) This would lead one to believe that there is a certain element of shame involved in ‘enjoying’ the darker genre.

What makes horror “crucial enough to pass along” is, for critics since Freud, what has made ghost stories and fairy tales crucial enough to pass along: its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings. Horror films thus respond to interpretation, as Robin Wood puts it, as “at once the personal dreams of their makers and the collective dreams of their audiences – the fusion made possible by the shared structures of a common ideology.” And just as attacker and attacked are expressions of the same self in nightmares, so they are expressions of the same viewer in horror film. We are both Red Riding Hood and the Wolf; the force of experience, in horror, comes from “knowing” both sides of the story. (Clover, 1992, p.12)

But why feel shame? Surely watching a horror film for its excitement, anticipation and fright-factor is no perversion on our part as the viewing audience. Or is it? When we go to watch a horror film, we go in anticipation of the scare, of the blood and gore, of the creepy ambience involved in such a genre. When we go to see a melodrama, are we not expecting tear-inducing scenes of emotional hardship? When we go to see an action movie are we not looking forward to explosions and violence? Are not all films gratuitous? Williams reckons they are. We are all guilty of voyeurism regarding every film genre out there. We watch films for the content. That does not make us sick individuals. According to the legendary horror writer Steven King, there are three aspects to the horror genre. Not all of these aspects are contained in a single film but they are certainly worth mentioning with regard to special effects used and what the audience generally speaking expects from a horror film. First we have ‘The Gross-out,’ this would be the gorier aspect involving blood, guts, people being ripped apart by some evil monster or bad-guy or even the avenging hero. Second we have ‘The Horror,’ this involves something unnatural, perhaps an oversized rat, a zombie, a shadowy deformed entity creeping towards its victim. And lastly, we have ‘The Terror,’ our very human fear of the unknown; the feeling that something/ someone is there but finding yourself completely alone.

"It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there... " -Steven King (King, 1981)

Horror Films

I will be looking at the storylines involved in some of the most high-impact horrors of all time, two of which were banned for a considerable length of time from many countries due to their violent content, thus increasing their popularity. These are films which not only dared you to identify with the characters, be they villain or victim; but they also pushed the boundaries by questioning our own identity. Almost all of the evil-doers portrayed within are victims themselves of some previous trauma; be it a virus, drug addiction or extraordinarily poor parenting. It often presents a moral dilemma, how far are we willing to go to protect ourselves or our loved ones? And when does it become sadistic slaughter? When these burning questions form a partnership with exceptional imagery, it has the ability to captivate an audience.

Between the late sixties and early eighties, there was a huge surge of visceral special effects in the horror genre. Filmmakers like George A Romero, John Carpenter, John Landis, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg and Tobe Hooper emerged from the shadows and turned the world of horror upside down with previously unimaginable artistic creations. Using DIY materials such as latex, rubber tubing, home-made fake blood, animatronics and real animal entrails, special effects artists such as Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Greg Nicotero and often the directors themselves got involved and seemed almost obsessed with bringing this sadistic butchery to the big screen. As children these creative minds were enthralled and inspired by classics such as Frankenstein (1931) and Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the story of Lon Chaney’s ability to create a thousand faces. As adults, they dug deep into the darker corners of their minds and came out with super-dynamic home-made visuals and storylines depicting death, torture, and monsters. The result was a new generation of horror-fans who loved the graphic violence and themes of these newer, often grainy and psychologically thrilling films these directors and artists produced.

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead, 1968

In 1968, George A Romero directed Night of the Living Dead. Intentionally shooting in black and white, as he believed the blood and gore shots would be more realistic this way, Romero drew upon Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend and created a stark reality in which a plague of zombies was now roaming the country in search of human flesh. Adding to this scenario, Romero composed radio and televised news reports and updates throughout the film, giving the viewing audience the sense that this could really happen and this is how the media would deal with the issue should it ever arise; perhaps drawing influence from Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation of H.G Wells’ novel TheWar of the Worlds in which Welles created a series of news bulletins suggesting a Martian invasion of Earth was really taking place. Although it was announced at the beginning of the show that this was a fictional piece, those in the listening audience who tuned in after said announcement were panic stricken, thinking it was really happening.

On a tight budget of an estimated $114,000, Night of the Living Dead, despite the film achieving quite a few negative reviews[1]; it eventually received critical acclaim as one of the most influential zombie movies of all time. Adam Lowenstein was particularly impressed with the imagery played over the end-credits showing the hero’s dead body being treated like some diseased piece of meat that his executioners refuse to touch and instead drive meat hooks into his corpse before flinging his body onto the pyre. He regarded this arrangement as one of the most compelling he’d ever seen in film. This was reminiscent of the Vietnam War in which the soldiers waited for rigor mortis to set in among the bodies of the Viet Cong, before looping wires under these corpses and flinging them into trucks or burial pits. Carol Clover also sees this film as the perfect example of impressive directing, describing its sombre tones right from the beginning as ‘heart-stopping.’ Though some say this film had racial and political undertones with regards to it being released right after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Romero informs us that they had just finished shooting the film when they heard the news of his death on the radio. They had not cast Duane Jones simply because he was black, nor had they written the script specifically to suit a person of colour. He was cast because he was a good actor and played his part perfectly. Of course, that didn’t stop the film from grossing a massive thirty million dollars internationally, a far cry from their original modest budget.

"Living Dead was the first one that just had this reality, this vérité in the way it was presented. It was THAT real, that GRITTY." - John Landis


The rest of the pic is amateurism of the first order. Pittsburgh-based director George A. Romero appears incapable of contriving a single graceful set-up, and his cast is uniformly poor. (Variety Magazine, 1967)

Night of the Living Dead Trailer

The Last House on the Left

In 1972, Wes Craven wrote and directed The Last House on the Left, a brutally violent film depicting scenes of abduction, torture, rape and the eventual death of two women at the hands of a criminal gang in rural America, followed by the violent death of these killers at the hands of the victim’s parents. The caption at the beginning of the film is ‘Keep telling yourself it’s only a movie…its only a movie….it’s only a movie…’ Lowenstein found himself saying these words in his head as the open sadism unfurled before his eyes when watching this film for the first time.

"It’s a moment like this in Last House where I really think it’s so painful that you realise, well, you know, what’s going on here ISN’T only a movie. What’s going on here has everything to do with things like KentState (shooting of student protestors), with things like the Vietnam War. This kind of pain isn’t just a sick isolated episode; this pain that I’m watching has everything to do with the world that I LIVE in." - Lowenstein

Despite being initially shocked by the film, Clover still found it to have unimaginable intensity and brilliance, combining both disgust and interest within the viewer. Craven himself acknowledges his fascination with humanity’s inner sadist, stating that looking back on himself as a young man he had a lot more inner rage than he realised. John Landis found the savagery and blatant cruelty quite distressing and particularly perverted in the scene where they make one of their victims wet herself, then laugh like children. Lucy Grantham who played this victim, Phyllis Stone, revealed later that there were no special effects required for this scene. There was, however a bit of innovation required for one of the final scenes when one of the criminal gang gets his penis bitten off by the victim’s mother. For this scene to be convincing, Fred J. Lincoln playing Weasel Podowski came up with the idea of wearing a belt underneath his trousers so that when Mrs. Collingwood undoes his fly, she has his belt to chew on and there’s not a man in any audience who doesn’t cringe when she spits it into the lake.

The Last House on the Left Trailer

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974

In the documentary series named Masters of Horror, Tobe Hooper and his colleagues are interviewed about his film; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released in 1974. When asked about the overall grittiness in the way this film was lit, cinematographer Daniel Pearl revealed that it was all down to inexperience on his part, as he had just completed his masters and had no real experience in filmmaking aside from when he was a teenager messing around with a camera for fun. He also mentioned that there were technical restrains with regards to a lot of machines and software they required were not invented at that time, or were simply too expensive for their modest starting-budget of approximately $80,000. Tobe Hooper explained that the look of his main character, Leatherface, was influenced by a story his family doctor told him of the time he was a medical student working with cadavers and had the opportunity to peel the face of one of the bodies. He claimed he took this face home, dried it out and wore it to a Halloween party.

Looking back on the first time he sat and watched this movie, Lowenstein reminisces upon the moment Leatherface is revealed to him. He watched this imposing character level the first victim with a mallet, and then he slams the door. It is at this point Lowenstein knows he can easily walk out of this room and never watch another moment of this movie. But something makes him stay; curiosity, the desire to know more about the character, what his story is, who he is, where he comes from and if we’ll see him again. Tom Gunning recalls the scene at the family dinner table, when the victim is tied to a chair forcing her to sit with this maniac family and their dead and dying relatives. She is screaming and crying in desperation and the living members of the family openly mocks her tears and laugh at her. Gunning relates this sense of desperation to being bullied in the schoolyard and finds this scene truly expresses the hopelessness of the situation.

When attempting to fill the set with various bodies, Hooper discovered that real human skeletons are actually cheaper than most plastic ones, which he found rather worrying as the sellers would not disclose where the skeletons came from. Gunning tells us that while your conventional horror movie generally relates to social upheaval, there are other films that use this as just the tip of the iceberg before dragging you to depths of the most primordial aspects of infant-parent affiliations, combining this with a strong atmosphere of bodily-awareness and virtue. Clover maintains that once she started to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, she found herself looking at a red-riding hood situation except there was no huntsman going to save Red this time. She finds a kind of satisfaction in that this final girl is innovative enough to keep saving herself, obtaining the reasoning that women do not always require a male rescuer.


Gunnar Hansen played the character of Leatherface, and declared that his favourite scene to be in was the moment of his dancing with the chainsaw after his victim makes her escape. As himself, Hansen was exhausted at this point of the shoot and found himself almost delirious with the heat and frustration and by combining his own irritation with the vexation of Leatherface, he let loose with the chainsaw, swinging it over head, around in a circle, to the ground and up, before realising that he had nearly killed Hooper with it, who had been standing behind the cameraman the whole time watching him. Another dangerous moment he recalled is the scene before her escape, where he is chasing her with the chainsaw along the road and the running causes his mask to slip up, limiting his vision while he is steadily gaining on the victim with an actual chainsaw. His co-star Edwin Neal who played the part of the hitchhiker recollects the whole crew screaming at Gunnar who at this point was about to literally chop this woman in half. Gunnar upon hearing their screams thought they were screams of encouragement and proceeded on, luckily not killing her. By the time our victim finally throws herself into the back of the rescue truck, her tears and hysterical screams are genuine terror and relief.

"Chainsaw has this reputation for being so visceral and bloody and gory and it isn’t. I mean the blood’s there, it’s dried on the walls and the girl on the meat-hook, when I pan down the body to view the wash-tub underneath, it is obviously to catch a lot of fluid. There’s nothing dripping from her. You just put it together in your mind because it makes sense. Chainsaw One was a play on morality and in a strange way, family values and it was all bubbling up out of the times. Watergate; we had just found out as young film students that they (the government) weren’t always telling the truth. So it’s a film about a bad day, for everyone. It’s a bad day for Leatherface and everyone." –Tobe Hooper

Texas Chainsaw Massacre trailer

Halloween, 1978

At the age of thirty, John Carpenter was approached by Irwin Yablams, the distributor of Carpenter’s previous low budget movie, Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976. So impressed by Carpenter’s writing and directing abilities, Yablams (who was trying to make the move from distribution to film production) suggested a basic babysitter killer idea for a horror film to him. Upon asking Carpenter how much he would need to create such a film, Carpenter calculated about $300,000. So Yablams set up a meeting between Carpenter and Moustapha Akkad, a producer to see if he would foot the bill. At first Akkad was concerned about how little money they were asking for, but upon meeting Carpenter face to face and picking up on his professionalism and confidence, Akkad decided to take the chance. Because Carpenter knew he was going to be responsible for both writing and directing this film; he made three demands which where unheard of for a novice filmmaker. The first being that he would have total creative control over the final cut, the second being that his name would be above the title in all forms of advertisements, and the third that he could pick his own crew. Yablams agreed to these terms and they got to work writing and casting the film. The story Carpenter and Yablams produced was as follows: A six year old boy stabs his sister to death in 1963, ends up in a mental asylum for 15 years. He escapes one night to return to the old homestead, hell bent on finishing the job on his other sister. When it came to choosing a title for their film, The Babysitter Murders was one of the ideas that came to mind. Until Yablams came forward with the notion of having this event happen on Halloween night. And thus Halloween was born.

Regarding the appearance of their main character, the evil stalker Michael Myers; the decision was made to encourage the fear of the unknown in their target audience by making the character wear a mask. Carpenter asked his editor and production designer Tommy Lee Wallace to go search for a neutral, relatively blank mask. Wallace found three options: a Richard Nixon mask, a Spock mask, a Captain Kirk mask, and an Emmet Kelly mask with the features of a sad clown. Upon testing these masks with Nick Castle who would be playing the role of Myers, they settled on the Captain Kirk mask as it was the most plain and set about altering it by opening up the eye sockets, removing the sideburns, changing the hair and spraying it fish-belly white. The result was eerie. Wallace’s creation had exceeded everyone’s expectations. Up until this point in films, the bad guys were usually colourful larger than life characters, but with Myers they broke the mould by creating this impenetrable, unknowable antagonist in ways similar to the film Jaws, the unstoppable thing with the dead empty eyes. Played by Nick Castle, a non-actor and friend of Carpenter’s, both Castle and Carpenter experimented with different aspects of Myers’ movement as he could not facially express himself while wearing the mask. The trademark head tilt, the slow plodding walk, the animalistic desperation in his relentless attacks on Laurie and her friends made his character’s personality appear to be removed from human.

Halloween trailer

The storytelling of these high grossing horror films is of an increasingly sadistic nature. In this case, for this particular audience member, fear and terror are quicker to flourish when the horror happens in places we would regard as sanctuary. In Night of the Living Dead, the fear was brought home through their radio broadcasts, through their fields, right up to their front doors. The family home is no longer safe. As for The Last House on the Left, it deals with three elements; one being that leaving the home and asking strangers for drugs is dangerous, another demonstrating how far a family is prepared to go to avenge the death of their child and the third questioning the safety of our own home. And The Texas Chainsaw Massacre shows us the ultimate in psychological breakdown within the family unit to the point of mania. With political issues having arisen during that period like the Vietnam War, and the Watergate lies; these films seemed to almost utilize the same fears brought on by these events and instead focus them on our own front lawns; barbarism after all begins at home. Halloween brought in the era of the slasher movie, the notion of an unknown stalker combined with clever camera work and lighting techniques lured in an audience of millions. This film also addressed the inconsistencies of the family unit. The fact remains that the theme’s used in these films bare the same message:

Nowhere is safe.

Chapter 3

This chapter refers to the developments in makeup refinement throughout the years and how it has evolved to meet today’s horror film standards. Included, are references to various types of makeup, application methods and animatronics which have also advanced considerably via said genre. From here we will explore the placement of CGI in horror film, its impact on creature creation, scene layout and production costs. I will then conclude by comparing both physical and digital arts’ practicalities and flaws.

The Function of Makeup

Practical visual effects in makeup, animatronics and physical applications of such have expanded considerably since their humble emergence. Where a majority of earlier visual effects artists would have used whatever materials were at hand to create their finished looks; there is now a makeup industry specifically aimed at producing such makeup that would suit the creation of screen-ready makeup and character designs specifically. Innovative engineering has developed waterproof, transfer proof, fully combinable makeup as opposed to the thicker, less practical makeup of earlier days. And where once it may have been difficult to create the perfect hue (e.g., a black eye or bruise); there are now palettes available for professional artists to use for such looks as burns, aging, zombies, monsters etc. Not all aspects of special effects makeup have changed however. The old-school products such as mortician’s wax and dental glue are still anything but obsolete. Everyday new makeup products are being engineered in order to suit this era of high-definition and three dimensional films. Even though most makeup artists working on earlier films would have made sure their work was seamless, due to the progress of technology, the standard has risen considerably. (Bennett, 2015)

3D means that all actors have to be perfect from all angles and lumps and bumps are easily spotted. Actors who could hide behind thick makeup, low-resolution pictures and flattering lighting are now exposed with every pore and wrinkle visible. Makeup has to be effective but invisible; even powder can show up on HD

– Florence Carter (Skipworth, 2012).

The use of airbrushing in makeup application for film was first used in 1959 for the film Ben-Hur. In later years its popularity grew as advancements in media technologies brought in high definition and digital photography, meaning more detail was seen through the cameras. Foundation makeup, more fluid in texture was used in conjunction with these airbrushes to give full coverage without risk of caking or cracking. Airbrushing has helped enhance both application and blending techniques in makeup, this helps cover up or flesh out aspects of any given makeup. It can be used to help cover up latex seams, to create patterns using stencils and speed up the whole application process substantially (, 2014). Silicone gels have also been upgraded to be more versatile and skin-friendly; in that it now has the ability to withstand body temperature without anything coming loose or slipping, and is also flexible enough for actors to move and speak freely without fear of ripping or tearing the prosthetic. Both Dick Smith and his protégé Rick Baker used silicone gels and airbrushing on Linda Blair for her character Regan in The Exorcist (Bennett, 2015).

Max Factor, formerly known as Max FireStein, first experimented with makeup achieve a lighter, more soluble version of Greasepaint, and was the first makeup used in a screen test for 1912’s Cleopatra. In the 1920’s, orthochromatic was beginning to be replaced by panchromatic. Where the orthochromatic camera was limited with which colours would show properly onscreen, panchromatic was open to a variety of hues including red, which orthochromatic cameras simply could not process. In 1928, Factor invented and developed panchromatic makeup to work in conjunction with this new panchromatic era. In 1937, Factor adapted theatrical ‘pancake’ makeup into a powder which could be easily mixed with water. When applied with a sponge, it was a perfect fit for both film and television’s requirements. This new type of makeup removed the reflective shine often created by the harsh lighting used in Technicolor filming, and was pleasantly translucent enough to give off a more natural appearance as opposed to the heavier, more obviously thicker makeup used previously. Factor’s pancake makeup has been used in such films as The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 by Phillip Leakey and later by renowned hammer horror makeup artist Roy Ashton in Asylum in 1973 (Bennett, 2015).

Ben Nye created new prosthetic appliances, naturally fashioned wigs, and devised the perfect aged makeup applications we still see used in film today. Upon developing the character design for Kurt Neuman’s film adaptation of James Clavell’s The Fly in 1958, Nye succeeded in persuading David Headison who played the main character, Andre Delambre to aid him in creating a full-face impression so as to test and apply prosthetics specifically designed to fit Headison’s features. After many suggestions put forward, and many rejected, Nye finally produced the perfect match for Neuman’s vision of what the monster would look like. By moulding twin shells to fit the eye-holes and painting them with a translucent colour, Nye’s design met Neuman’s approval. Unfortunately, Nye creation didn’t have as much exposure as he had hoped, due to the films producer’s concerns about the character’s appearance being too frightening for their audiences. For the most part of the film, the fly character wore a black cloth over his face instead, which was disappointing for both Nye and Headison, considering the eight weeks of work put into the makeup/costume. When Nye began production on Planet of the Apes which was released in 1968, he brought in the very best talents of the next generation of makeup artists. The film received a special Academy Award for Makeup. His legacy lives on through his makeup company now run by his son Dana Nye (, n.d.).

Application techniques

Sticking with the topic of the horror movie genre; makeup artists such as Rick Baker, Dick Smith, and Tom Savini have explored, experimented and developed their respective makeup techniques. For example, Rick Baker began his career working primarily on masks, and clay sculptures which he then cast in latex and applied to actors before starting to paint. As he started gaining experience, working with more people and getting involved in bigger projects; Baker was slowly introduced to the workings of animatronics and CGI with the software program known as ZBrush, a digital sculpting tool. He found this saved a lot of time as, if he were to create a full scale model of a character by using the old-school methods, this could take a week; whereas he were to create the same sculpt using ZBrush, he could get the work done in a day or even less (Pixologic, 2015).

Created by Rick Baker using ZBrush software (The Gnomon Workshop, 2000)

Dick Smith

Dick Smith was made famous for challenging the norms of makeup prosthetic applications when, instead of using one whole piece for a mask, as was tradition, he decided upon using three or more pieces which enabled the actor to make facial expressions freely without being limited by the prosthetic appliances. Smith was self-taught, not by choice but because his colleagues, like many magicians, refused to share their tricks of the trade with him. So Smith had no other option but to figure things out for himself. He kept an extensive journal of all his discoveries as he went along in his career and subsequently went on to publish his first book in 1965, calling it Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Handbook. In 1973, Smith was approached by director William Friedkin to help him achieve the look he wanted for a demonically possessed young girl in The Exorcist. This was to be Smith’s most challenging project yet as he would have to take a full body cast of Linda Blair in order for the 360 degree head-spin scene to work and also use her facial features to create realistic scarring and shading. Perhaps the two most difficult aspects of this makeup was to create lifelike swelling, for which Smith designed bladders containing tricloroethylane (an industrial rubbery adhesive) which would rise and fall at the touch of a button, and the scene in which Linda Blair’s character Regan spouts green vomit. Smith achieved this vomiting effect by running flat copper tubing under the prosthetic skin to both corners of her mouth at which point it was simply a question of pumping on cue. For the 1980 film, Altered States, in which the main character Eddie Jessup, played by William Hurt experiments with a hallucinogenic drug and begins to biologically deteriorate, Smith once again tricked the special effects world when he created full-body suits from foam latex to show the various stages of Jessup’s degeneration (Appleyard, 2008).

Regan’s 360 degree head-spin (Mandatory, 2014)

Tom Savini

When it comes to special effects make-ups, Tom Savini is regarded by his fans as the King of Splatter. Having attended ArmyCollege to train as a photographer, Savini got drafted to Vietnam to document the war. He described having to emotionally detach himself from the carnage he surveyed and regarded his camera as an aid in this detachment, using it as a filter between himself and what was really happening around him. He treated this experience as an educational opportunity to study up-close the damage to skin, bone, the placement of organs, the blood and the gristle of victims and this aided his creative process in achieving such gruesome makeup effects in his films.

So here I was looking at what I though was effects, you know, gore and actually studying them and saying now, if I wanted to create that effect, what would I have to do? Foam latex here, take some chunks out there, add some bone marrow, and that’s what carries over into my work I guess. And I think that’s what Vietnam gave me; the desire, the sense that; if its going to be horrible and its going to be horrible the way I SAW it….But you’ll NEVER see it the way I saw it which is absolute FEAR that if someone walks out of the jungle; He wants to KILL you. He has a gun and he’s going to try. - Tom Savini (YouTube, 2000)

Friday the 13th, 1980

In 1980, Sean S. Cunningham approached Tom Savini about helping him to create appropriate death scenes for each of his characters in his film Friday The 13th. Cunningham reflects upon this stage of filming as a kind of magic-show, in that all the special effects had to be created by hand, and configured effectively to look convincing. There is a scene in which Kevin Bacon’s character, Jack Burrel, is run through with an arrow plunged through his neck by the killer hidden under his bed. We see Jack lying there, relaxing before suddenly an arrowhead pops out through his adams apple. In order to achieve this effect, Savini cast a body double of Jack and dressed it in the same clothes, situated Bacon under the bed so that just his head was poking through the pillow at the neck joint. Blending the head and the neck with morticians wax to erase any visible seams, Savini attached the arrow to an ice bag full of fake blood. The ice bag was then glued to the plaster support of the neck at which point Savini pushed the arrow through the ice bag, forward through the fake neck and twisted it to insure that the blood would have somewhere to go -the-head-gag.” For another victim, this time Marcie Cunningham, played by Jeannine Taylor was to receive an axe blow to the face. In order to establish force of the axe and the general location on the face the axe was going to hit, Savini requested that the cameramen get a few takes of the axe being swung at a wall in the area the victim would be in. The particular take chosen involved the axe clashing with a light bulb in mid-swing, successfully driving home the power behind it. Savini cast the axe in rubber, creating a double, cut off approximately half the blade and gluing it to the actresses face, layering up the edges of the would with mortician’s wax and then running tubing through her hair so that the fake blood could dribble over the axe. Perfecting the magic if the throat-slit makeup, Savini stuck a pre-slit rubber appliance to Robbi Morgan’s neck for the scene in which Morgan’s character Annie is slain (Savini, 1996).

I remember hammering copper tubing down and laying it on her life-cast, over the collar bone so it would come somewhere the cut throat was going to be. I glued the copper tubing to her, which is a very primitive thing to do today, and then put the foam latex appliance over it and then when her head came up it just pumped blood.

- Savini (YouTube, 2011)

The death of Marcie Cunningham (blogspot, 2014)

For the final scene, we have the beheading of Mrs. Pamela Voorhees, played by Betsy Palmer. Making a double of Palmer’s head and neck, Savini then glued it to his best friend Tasso’s upper shoulder area and made him stand in a stooped position so that only Palmer’s life-cast would be in the frame. By attaching the head to the neck using just toothpicks, the machete was able to hit the head in such a way that it would simply spin off. When it came to creating the character design for Jason, Savini harkened back to his time as a child, remembering an old derelict drunk man from his neighbourhood who had deformed facial features. It was from this man’s features that the inspiration came. The original concept would have had Jason with hair, but upon screen testing it simply didn’t look right so Savini made the decision to keep him bald (Savini, 1996).

Tom Savini and Jason Voorhees (Extmovie, 2007)

An American Werewolf in London, 1981

For his work on John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London in 1981, Rick Baker was expected to not only create a convincing werewolf, but he was also going to be responsible for the metamorphosis which would be captured on film. Instead of relying strictly on the post-production edit for this transformation, Baker appropriated rubber tubing, syringes and ‘bladders’ with which he could create the illusion of skin morphing, swelling and stretching. By fabricating an array of interchangeable heads and limbs, Baker was able to disfigure the skin to abnormal proportions, giving the audience the impression that the young man was mutating right before their eyes (Garris, 2014).

Transformation scene from An American Werewolf in London (Wordpress, 2011)

The Thing, 1982

Utilizing every practical special effect, combining said effects and even adding some new, interesting and sometimes toxic ingredients, Rob Bottin created both makeups and creatures for John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing. Bottin and his FX crew applied their extensive skill set in hydraulics, reverse filming, hand puppetry, radio control, marionettes and animatronics to fully bring each scene to life. For scenes requiring considerable amounts of blood and slime, the list included food thickener, heated bubblegum, mayonnaise, KY Jelly, cream corn, strawberry jam, rubber, urethane, foam latex, metal, and gelatine (Holmes, 2012). For the film’s final scene in which the Blair monster attempts to attack MacReady, it took 63 men operating marionettes and navigating via transparent fishing wire to coordinate the movements of the enormous creature they had created (Outpost#31, 2007).

The Thing, 1982 (Pixshark, n.d.)


Digital-imaging technology has changed the fabrication of film since the mid nineties, and has also altered the global film market with regards to circulation and advertising. Movies are an instrument of analog, in that it registers light bouncing of various objects to form an image. This light is then translated into film, but the clarity of a picture is dependent on the merit of said light, the photo-sensitive surface it is displayed on, and the lens. Degradation can also occur during the transference process when making a copy of the film. When it comes to digital imaging however, this problem has been remedied. Instead of converting light to another form, it is decoded and recoded into binary numbers, leaving us with a fully manipulable digital file which can either reorganise or alter the initial image, depending on the mathematical formula used. This means one can create thousands of copies of any given film without fear of degradation, and also allows the filmmaker to have total control over an image the audience will eventually see. The initials CGI stand for computer-generated imagery, which covers the whole scope of digital effects in film, including the creation of characters and 3D objects without use of photography. CGI is essentially frame by frame computer animation which can be used to turn a small group of onscreen actors into a huge crowd, generate creatures and characters, or create distinctive weather patterns on film and even in creating synthetic sets and props (Cook, 2004).

Death Becomes Her, 1992

Robert Zemeckis’ 1992 film Death Becomes Her brought with it a vast array of new visual effects programming software. As the majority of the film contains images of dead, deformed bodies, new software was combined with animatronics and practical makeup effects to create a morphing effect. ColorBurst, a digital tracing program, C-Bal, a computerized matte program created by Doug Smythe, involving a blue-screen to lay a virtual scene onto, and an updated variant of the cybernated pin-blocking software, MM2, designed to regulate and interdigitate every component of a complicated shot allowing the cameraman to adjust his angle without fear of obstructing the digitally created scene. Death Becomes Her raised the bar for biological cloning in CGI, this accomplishment was endorsed upon winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1992 (Cook, 2004).

In 1994, Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire had its digital effects seamlessly blended with animatonics, courtesy of Digital Domain, the special effects company founded by Stan Winston, James Cameron and Scott Ross. In 1999, George Lucas’ company Industrial Light Magic created an advanced program to construct the likeness of a living, rotting mummy, using computerized shackles that helped better the simultaneous bodily maneuvers and shifting of organs, veins and bones that appeared on screen for Stephen Sommers’ film The Mummy. Using a state-of-the-art software known as Cari, the digital artists were able to direct the facial expressions of the mummy, and were also able to engineer a huge sandstorm by utilizing and merging both particle animation software and shading software (Cook, 2004).

An American Werewolf in Paris, 1997

Anthony Walker’s 1997 film An American Werewolf in Paris employed Santa Barbara Studios to animate 7 foot tall computerized werewolves to keep within his $22 million dollar budget. These animations were designed with the intent of making these creatures appear to be a convincing 700 pounds in weight, and would be visually realistic in both quadruped and biped stances for close-up shots. The artists met their hardest task when it came to generating digital fur; the decision was made to develop separate graphics for each hair individually, which amounted to each werewolf character acquiring approximately 360,000 of these fully functional hairs. Unfortunately the audience and critics respectively found that these creatures had a distinct lack of dimension, thus rendering their effects impractical. This comes down to the fact that this production had skipped or simply slacked on the lighting and shading applications involved in the important but expensive rendering process.

CGI werewolf from An American Werewolf in Paris (Yaplakal, 2010)

This rendering issue can also be found in such other films as Joe Chappelle’s film Phantoms and Deep Rising directed by Stephen Sommers (both made in 1998), in which their monsters were composed exclusively with CGI simply because it was more cost effective and worked within their given schedules. The more common use of CGI in film is for the erasing of unwanted aspects of the shot, be it a string, filming equipment, people who shouldn’t be in the shot etc. Other prevailing reasons are amendments to light, colour, enhancement and replacement. Upon shooting a scene in a Parisian café, Roman Polanski noticed that they had unintentionally captured the image of some curious spectators peering in through the window. As opposed to scrapping the scene, Polanski corrected this issue by digitally substituting these passersby with an image of a deserted thoroughfare during post-production on his 1999 horror film The Ninth Gate. Polanski also availed of the option of using digitally produced flames and gunfire to save on any risk to the set or its occupants. This animated fire was also put to use in The Devil’s Advocate in 1997 by Taylor Hackford. The same philosophy was applied to the Patrick Lussier’s film Dracula 2000 for a scene in which they generated digital leeches to fill a coffin instead of having to deal with any animal rights issues that may arise from using live ones (Cook, 2004).


Having explored the different aspects involved in old-school special effects and that of computer generated images: we could easily compare the two with regards to their respective places within the horror genre. When comparing both images from the werewolf movies mentioned before; which one works better? -Considering the less than flattering lack of volume to the creatures in An American Werewolf in Paris and the fact that these creatures are quite obviously CGI - and the organic looking in-camera transformation from man to wolf in An American Werewolf in London. It’s plain to see which one is more realistic. Although CGI certainly has it’s place in the film world with regards to fixing, or hiding an element, or setting a scene; it appears that the horror aspect of CGI works better in the dark, that is to say a CGI object or shape moving on its own, or the semblance of a creature moving in the shadows would be more fitting, as it is really the practical effects that hold their own in close-up. It is practical special effects and makeup that make the entities tangible. Although CGI does save on production costs while helpfully inserting disasters or ephemeral entities that practical makeup simply cannot contend with; so by combining practical application of special effects with digital animations and corrections, filmmakers can effectively cancel-out the risk of over-saturation of CGI and the sometimes under-detailed aspects of physical makeup.


I realise now where special effects came from, how it developed throughout the years and how scriptwriters and directors manage to manipulate a scene so well that it terrifies an audience, but also oddly entices it. I now know how makeup has evolved to suit the screen quality with almost every generation, be it analog or digital. I also learned that working on a small budget doesn’t necessarily mean your film is going to be a flop. With a good crew who work well together, aspiring filmmakers have as much chance as these guys did. Networking is certainly a big part of it. I discovered that a lot of these films came from a generation youths who were disenchanted with their government, the violence in their communities, their freedom of expression being violated by the very authorities who were supposed to protect them, Watergate, Kent State, the list goes on. While it can be cheap to make a quick buck out of a horror flick, it still requires dedication, skill and innovation. Not every small budget scare is successful either. Even bigger budget films like An American Werewolf in Paris got slated because they’d cut corners with their CGI werewolves. Budget big or small; it takes a team of creative minds willing to put in the hours and funds to achieve something greater than themselves. With the evolution of CGI, some films became simply over saturated with computer animations. At first the audience was intrigued but it wore thin quickly and now we find a lot of audiences and critics alike are clamouring for the home-spun variety to return. Great artists such as Dick Smith, Tom Savini, Rob Bottin and Rick Baker have paved the way forward by sharing their secrets with the world, encouraging others to take up their love of creation. Baker has also demonstrated that old-school special effects artists can move with the times by experimenting with software such as ZBrush, thus proving the practical special effects applications aren’t going anywhere soon. I’m confident that if I continue my research I will surely benefit from it.


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Altered States, dir. Ken Russell, Warner Bros. (USA), 1980

An American Werewolf in London, dir. John Landis, Lycanthrope Films Ltd (USA), 1981

An American Werewolf in Paris, dir. Anthony Waller, Hollywood Pictures (USA), 1997

Assault on Precinct 13, dir. John Carpenter, Overseas FilmGroup (USA), 1976

Asylum, dir. Roy Ward Baker, Amicus Productions (USA), 1973

Ben-Hur, dir. William Wyler, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (USA), 1959

Cleopatra, dir. Charles L. Gaskill, United States Film Company (USA), 1912

Death Becomes Her, dir. Robert Zemeckis, Universal Pictures (USA), 1992

Deep Rising, dir. Stephen Sommers, Calimari Productions (USA), 1998

Dracula 2000, dir. Patrick Lussier, Dimension Films (USA), 2000

Frankenstein, dir. James Whale, Universal Pictures Corp. (USA), 1931

Friday the 13th, dir. Sean S. Cunningham, Paramount Pictures (USA), 1980

Halloween, dir. John Carpenter, Falcon International Productions (USA), 1978

Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicals, dir. Neil Jordan, Geffen Pictures (USA), 1994

Le Voyage Dans La Lune, dir. Georges Méliès, Star-Film (FR), 1902

Night of the Living Dead, dir. George A. Romero, Image Ten (USA), 1968

Phantoms, dir. Joe Chappelle, Miramax (USA), 1998

Planet of the Apes, dir. Franklin J. Schaffner, APJAC Productions (USA), 1968

The Curse of Frankenstein, dir. Terence Fisher, Hammer Film Productions (USA), 1957

The Devil’s Advocate, dir. Taylor Hackford, Warner Bros. (USA), 1997

The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin, Warner Bros. (USA), 1973

The Fly, dir. Kurt Neumann, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (USA), 1958

The Last House on the Left, dir. John Carpenter, Lobster Enterprises (USA), 1972

The Mummy, dir. Stephen Sommers, Universal Pictures (USA), 1999

The Ninth Gate, dir. Roman Polanski, Artisan Entertainment (USA), 1999

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, dir. Tobe Hooper, Vortex (USA), 1974

The Thing, dir. John Carpenter, Universal Pictures (USA), 1982

Touch of Evil, dir. Orson Welles, Universal International Pictures (USA), 1958

© 2015 Heather


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    • Heather Grogan profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Carlow, Ireland

      Just wanna say thank you for your patience! I was completing the final year of my Art degree so my hub was left gathering cobwebs for a while. Anyway, I'm back! What I have added to this particular hub is the rest of my thesis. I hope you guys enjoy it and find it useful! Next up, I will be sharing with you my first adventure in prosthetic makeup and a short horror film of my own making. Both of which are currently on display in Wexford Arts Centre as part of our degree exhibition. Once I've gotten that out of my system, I will go on to harp about the more psychological horror films we all love and know. Thanks again!

    • Heather Grogan profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Carlow, Ireland

      I like more meat on a storyline too, poetryman! However for this topic I'm warming up to talking about the makeup artists themselves, hence the graphic nature of the imagery used. Sorry about that. At first I personally didn't think much of the film Halloween until I watched a few documentaries about how it was made and how the characters developed. Especially that 4 minute POV tracking shot at the start of the film. WOW! These dudes were broke and Carpenter was pretty much fresh outta college. Even the cast and crew themselves couldn't get over how successful it became as at first it got really poor reviews. I will eventually get to addressing the psychological aspects of horror with such films as Se7en and Silence of the Lambs and of course Aliens. All in good time buddy! Stay tuned!

    • poetryman6969 profile image


      3 years ago

      I guess I tend to see some movies as horror movies and some as horrible movies. I like Silence of the Lambs and Aliens more than slasher flicks. I am not really enamored with an anatomy lesson given with a butcher's knife by a maniac who has a kill switch and not much else. I like a at least a little bit of mystery about whether the victims to be figure out what's going on.

      When I think more carefully about it I think most slasher films like Friday the 13th are good for one sitting but I can't really watch them more than about once.

    • profile image

      Miran Shuleta 

      3 years ago

      Fantastic thanks

    • Heather Grogan profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Carlow, Ireland

      Thank you so much Miran! I wrote my thesis on this topic, so there's much more to come! I will include my bibliography so people like yourself may benefit. Looking forward to reading your hub!

    • profile image

      Miran Shuleta 

      3 years ago

      Incredible Hub, I thoroughly enjoyed this as you have explained in detail what makes a horror movie great through effective movie examples. I am currently writing a Hub on why the horror genre has gone to hell these days, with your knowledge I'm sure you will enjoy it. Anyway, this is a wonderful Hub!


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