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Professional makeup artist has perfect recipe for homemade zombie

Terror Behind the Walls at Philadelphia’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the country’s leading haunted attractions, renowned for its creativity. From mid-September until early November, visitors seeking scares can experience the elaborate scene of horror. It is the largest haunted house in America, and a visit to the makeup room of the 180-cast production could leave you wondering how they pull it off.

It begins long before the Halloween season, when the senior staff gets busy creating new characters, designing costumes, and creating masks and prosthetics, which include shoulder mounts, headdresses, and armor. This year’s show uses over 4,000 prosthetics.

“I’ve been a character creator since I can remember,” said Lauren Palmer, special effects makeup director, one Saturday night. “I was 3 years old, making my own Halloween costume.”

This is her 10th season as a makeup artist with Terror Behind the Walls, and her fifth as director. She says it can be challenging to keep things fresh. “We use each other on the team. There’s about 20 people on the staff, and we learn from each other. We inspire each other,” she said. “We also use picture inspiration. And we also kind of have some crazy minds.”

Of her 20 staff members, 14 are on each night to make up the cast, and it can get hectic. TBTW is the only haunted house that’s equipped with its own Skin Illustrator palette, a specific set of makeup colors that assures their zombies match.

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Terror Behind the Walls has its own Skin Illustrator palette. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

If you don’t have access to professional makeup color systems, Palmer says a scary zombie can be crafted from materials bought from anywhere makeup is sold.

Here’s what’s needed:

  • Elmer’s glue
  • Tissues
  • Any lipstick palette of pinks and reds
  • Blue lipstick
  • Foundation three shades lighter than skin
  • Brown matte eyeshadow palette
  • Black eyeshadow
  • Makeup brushes
  • A tube of fake blood or a mixture of corn syrup and red food coloring
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Lauren Palmer holds the color palette for Terror Behind the Walls makeup. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Palmer’s zombies feature these characteristics: torn skin, bruising, and blood.

She starts by smearing glue on model and fellow special effects makeup artist Daniel T. McDonald’s cheek. One ply of tissue is torn and placed on the cheek to create texture. Palmer then uses a blow dryer to assure the glue is dry.

She covers his face, including his lips, with foundation. She then uses varying sizes of brushes to contour McDonald’s natural bone structure, including the bones around his eyes and neck, and the area around the tissue she used create the look of ripped skin.

She uses red lipstick to create  irritation, then the darker colors to create bruises around the face, and veins around the temples. She applies fake blood to create the illusion of a weeping wound around the “ripped skin.” And she gives McDonald a bloody nose.

Before working at TBTW, Palmer studied at the Make-up Designory in New York City. She came back to Philly, taking freelance gigs in any makeup environment she could until she landed the job as director at TBTW. “I get to make zombies for pretty much the whole entire year,” said Palmer. “It’s a blessing.”

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