Lori Harrison has seen many recipes come and go over her 22 years as master of properties at San Francisco Opera. She belongs to a not-so-secret organization known as SPAM: the Society of Properties Artisan Managers.
These masters of illusion swap tips, tricks, and resources for creating convincing spectacles on stage — or, in this case, nightmarish visions of all-out bloodshed.
“Generally, washing out costumes is the single most important part of our blood choices,” Harrison explains. She and her props team work closely with the San Francisco Opera costume department before settling on any specific recipe.
Over the years, Harrison and her team have employed formulas like Reel Blood, a popular brand in the film industry, for opera productions like the 2007 world premiere of Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton’s Appomattox.
They needed industrial quantities to coat life-sized model horse corpses, suspended from the ceiling and dripping blood to show the horrors of war. But because they were so awash in Reel Blood, Harrison and her colleagues ended up repurposing some for the 2012 opera Lohengrin, where a wedding bed seeps blood as a count falls dead upon it.
For another grisly spectacle, 2015’s Sweeney Todd, Harrison’s team went British with their selection, opting for the Pigs Might Fly blood brand. Harrison notes it proved to be “particularly easily” removed from the costumes of murderers and victims alike. Nowadays, though, the props department springs for a variety produced by the Chicago-based company Gravity & Momentum.
But when store-bought brands just won’t do, Harrison and her crew brew their own concoction: a recipe for edible, washable stage blood, featured here in this article.
“Believe it or not, what makes this edible recipe washable is the generous portion of Coffee Mate,” Harrison says. “Think about that next time you are tempted to put it in your coffee.”
Normally, Harrison’s homemade blood recipes include your average blue laundry detergent for easy clean-up. But in 2009, her team faced a challenge. That October, San Francisco Opera would stage Richard Strauss’s Salome. The climax required soprano Nadja Michael to writhe around with a severed head, kissing and licking it in a moment of ecstasy.
So out went the laundry detergent and in went the Coffee Mate, which helped the blood splatter glide just as effortlessly off the costumes — and also made it taste great.
This recipe also features a healthy dose of chocolate syrup, the same vintage confection black-and-white filmmakers used to replicate the viscosity of blood. Horror movie icon Alfred Hitchcock used it in Psycho’s shower-stall stabbing in 1960. And filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa pressurized it for the blood spurts in 1962’s Sanjuro.
Also in the mix is the very same corn syrup and food coloring found in modern filmmaking.
But be careful: Once brewed, always be sure to test your sickly stew on your fabric of choice, to ensure it washes out perfectly before dousing yourself with it. And don’t forget to refrigerate and use your blood within two weeks. Otherwise, that crimson horror may turn green with mold.
So quench your thirst for blood this Halloween with a recipe direct from our stage:
Vampire’s Delight: An Edible, Washable Stage Blood
Makes approximately 3 liters
2 liters of corn syrup
500 milliliters of chocolate syrup
1 cup of cold tap water
1 cup of hot tap water
2 heaping tablespoons of corn starch
3 heaping tablespoons of Coffee Mate
15 milliliters of red food coloring
3 milliliters of yellow food coloring
Mix the corn syrup and chocolate syrup together in a large pot (or cauldron) on high heat.
Use one cup of cold water to rinse out the syrup containers. Then dissolve the corn starch in the water. Add to pot.
Use one cup of hot water to dissolve the Coffee Mate. Then, add to pot.
Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally like a witch tending her brew.
Mix in the yellow and red food coloring to taste, till you get a perfectly horrid blood-red shade.
Allow the mixture to cool before use. When cool, the mixture may also be stored in the fridge for a couple weeks, until the perfect opportunity for mischief and mayhem arises. You can also serve it on ice cream as a delicious topping for vampires and children alike!