Inside the closet of a nightmare

How clever costuming pushes the horror franchise forward

Rachel D’Sa // Arts & Culture Editor

Every Halloween the streets are filled with children trick-or-treating, teens and young adults causing havoc and adults attempting to balance the two.

While these are very different activities, they have one thing in common – costumes. And though we all have that one friend who knocks it out of the park every year with a homemade costume, most people just hit up their local store and buy whatever’s hot that year. What often goes unnoticed however, is the subtle fluctuations in what costumes are popular on a yearly basis, and what inspires them.

Whether you go as a cat each year or the lead villain of the latest movie release, Halloween is a time to explore creativity and is heavily influenced by the entertainment industry. Iconic costumes pulled from the stage and film roam the streets each year, but how do these symbolic ensembles come to be?

Coordinator of Film Crafts and instructor for the Costuming of Capilano University’s Stage and Screen diploma program, Karen Matthews, has been at the school for eight of the program’s 12 total years. With over 28 years of designing experience for film, television, theatre, opera and dance, and as a senior member of entertainment production union, IATSE 891’s costume department, she understands the importance of costuming regarding all production genres, including the everevolving horror genre.

While working on the 2005 supernatural horror/thriller film White Noise, Matthews used her technical and creative skills to push boundaries that film tricks alone couldn’t achieve. The film crew needed characters that would show on screen quickly, so it could register psychologically for the audience without taking a lot of camera time.

These actors needed to be extremely thin, as an otherworldly experience, and they didn’t have the money to do special effects at that point. Matthews took the already slender casted actors and created a hooded unitard from the top of their heads to the tips of their toes, airbrushing in the musculature of a human body in a very thin way using shadow effects. The actors were then filmed a few times against green screens, and were then inserted into the film.

When dressing for the horror genre, Matthews believes it all comes down to believability. “What you’re trying to do is support the psychology of the character, without it being too much,” she said.

Matthews explained some visual tricks often used in the horror industry, such as putting actors in dark colours for when they emerge from the darkness so that the shadows help camouflage their existence, illustrating characters as menacing by dressing them in shoulder pads or enlarging upper bodies using layers to make characters appear mighty. She used the example of the classic Dracula to exhibit the use of costume for dramatic reveal, where the creature’s collar is flipped up and then down to give the idea of being hidden and revealed through the cape being taken off.

While film productions can stop action and replace costumes with various versions, live-action costuming for horror must be extremely clever to recreate the same effects as stop action. “With live-action you are relegated to different processes,” Matthews explained, “If you’re emitting blood, that can be done through sponges that are hidden underneath with slight tears that the audience doesn’t necessarily see, until they’re tugged on very lightly and then you have a blood sponge underneath which then emits that blood.”

While costuming processes can be applied to any given genre, when taking on horror projects, costume teams often must examine the script carefully to understand each character’s survival story. “It’s about a journey. Usually you are taking something from being in a state of newness, to whatever happens to the character. You would perhaps make them more innocent by putting them into lighter colours so that you’ve got a long way to go as far as contrast, so that all of the breakdown shows,” said Matthews. As characters experience falling, being slashed, and other various forms of wear and tear, the costumes must reflect the journey.

“It’s all about creating fear,” she said. “What’s happening in the environment around the characters? Through this you get bits of dirt and blood added and aged to appear as an older dried stain and such, and how it fits on the costume as they travel into the scenario. It’s about creating an ability for the distance to be visually illustrated on the costume.”

Matthews believes that each costume tells a story of each character, and by utilizing various aspects of costuming to create realism, believability is increased, creating the ultimate horrific experience for audience members — the golden goal for all horror productions, which wouldn’t be possible without the brilliance of costuming.


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