From chamber of horrors to crime lab: gelatine in the service of horrors and science

When spooky figures creep from house to house to hammer on doors after dark, when the mocking grins of jack o’lanterns are illuminated by the light of candles flickering in the autumn wind, you know that Halloween has arrived! For quite some time now, children dressed up in scary costumes and wearing gruesome makeup have not only been haunting streets in the US on the night of October 31 to November 1 with their cries of “trick or treat!”, but those of many European towns and cities as well.

Gaping flesh wounds, burnt skin, disfigured faces: gelatine often plays a part in creating that which sometimes leads unsuspecting home owners to shudder in horror when they open their front doors on Halloween and regularly fills viewers of horror and action movies with fear. Makeup artists have long been applying gelatine to create all types of wounds and skin changes. And despite it being the era of computer animation, Hollywood is using the substance nightmares or dreams are made of in its film and television productions – and not only for masks. Quite a few of the “organs” seen on the dissecting tables of forensic investigators in popular TV series are made of dyed gelatine. What is known as “special effects” gelatine can also be used to cover bothersome hair growth and eyebrows as well as to create tonsures in real hair.

The advantages the material offers are obvious: gelatine is a flexible and inexpensive material that can easily be processed and dyed. In contrast to other materials such as latex, gelatine has been found to cause few or no allergies, even after direct skin contact.

These are just a few reasons why Halloween fans like to use gelatine to create their own individual disguises on the “night of the ghosts”. You can find instructions on how to make a simple gelatine horror mask at the end of this article.

On the trail of criminals with gelatine

Forensic scientists also use gelatine in real life. Recovering fingerprints is the most well known application of this material. Prints are located by dusting objects with a brush and powder. The powder adheres to the sweat and fat that make up the prints. Photographs are made to collect the evidence. The print is then lifted onto the gelatine coating of a special film and the film is transferred onto a document. Similar gelatine-containing films are used to lift glove, shoe, or footprints as well as tyre tracks, dust prints and micro-trace evidence.

A shot in the dark: ballistic gelatine

What is known as “ballistic gelatine” is used to catch projectiles from seized weapons with the greatest possible care so that they can be compared to bullets from the crime scene. Each weapon barrel leaves a different pattern on its projectiles, making these patterns as unique as fingerprints. This allows bullets to be matched up with a specific weapon.

Large blocks of gelatine, which are comparable in density and their properties to the tissues of the human body, are also used to reconstruct bullet wounds: the transparent material makes it easy to reproduce bullet channels and splinters. Specialists can film or photograph the behaviour of the projectile using a highspeed camera.

In order to come as close to real life as possible, objects such as animal bones or artificial blood vessels can be embedded in gelatine. Comprehensive statements can then be made about the behaviour of bullets in the bodies of animals or humans. Wound ballistics specialists shoot into a block of gelatine from varying distances and angles and with various weapons. They then measure the bullet channels and calculate the kinetic energy. These findings are compared with the victim's wounds. This enables them to determine which weapon was probably used.

Homemade Horror

Anyone who wants to shock friends with a burnt face on Halloween can easily do so with the help of gelatine.

  • Boil powdered gelatine with glycerin and water until the mass has a viscous consistency similar to honey.
  • Let the mixture cool somewhat, but apply to the skin while still warm, preferably using a spatula or a spoon.
  • Pull cotton balls apart or use facial tissues, applying them to the mass while it is still moist. As an alternative, use slightly crumbled cornflakes. Let dry.
  • Apply a further layer of gelatine, let cool and dry. Then use red lipstick or water makeup to add suitable colour effects.

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