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Chicagoans: How I Got Into Gore

Freelance effects artist Nora O'Sullivan on Fresh Scab, fake maggots, and the fine line between horror and glamour



Part of an occasional series of oral histories, as told to Anne Ford

I'm a freelance gore-effects artist for independent films in Chicago. It started off as just me dicking around in the bathroom with makeup that I bought at the costume shop down the street. Then when I started going to horror-movie conventions, I wound up meeting a lot of effects artists who were willing to teach me. People started offering me film jobs after seeing the makeup I wore to costume contests. I'm 21. I started working on movies when I was 19.

My first feature film was The Landlord. It's on Netflix. It's about a guy who owns an apartment building that's infested with demons. I did all of the corrective makeup, and I had a very, very small cameo. I played a junkie who gets eaten by vampires in a crack den.

Usually I take cotton balls and build the basic outline of what I want the wound to look like, and then coat a little liquid latex over that. You build it up—layer of latex, layer of cotton, layer of latex, layer of cotton. Then you paint it up with a blood gel called Fresh Scab. It looks like raspberry jam, and it'll crust over a little bit. You can paint on little veins. Then you can add pus—Vaseline with a tiny bit of yellow food coloring in it. If you stick white rice to a wound, it looks like maggots.

Yesterday for a film—it's a short horror-comedy called Text—I had to rip a guy's eye out of his face. So I built a little eyeball. It was a plastic sandwich bag ripped open, stuffed with cotton balls, and then painted like an eye. I created the optic nerve with the end of the sandwich bag.

I genuinely love doing glamour makeup and making people feel pretty, too. I love it almost as much as I love making people look disgusting. I'll do fashion shows; I'll do photo shoots. I'm in cosmetology school—Arlington Academy in Buffalo Grove.

What seems most likely is that once I graduate from beauty school, I'll get a job in a salon to pay the bills, and then do independent film on the side. I'm in the process of starting my own company in Chicago, SheDevil Effects. I'd like to hire primarily female effects artists, because it's really hard for us to get into this line of work.

I live in Mount Prospect with my parents, who are horror-movie fans. So I grew up exposed to all of it, but I latched onto it in a much bigger way than they did. I think I was seven when I saw Night of the Living Dead—scared the hell out of me. I'm actually pretty easy to scare. God knows when I'm camping and I'm sitting in the tent and hear a noise, it's always zombies, and it always freaks me out.

The horror-movie magazine Fangoria was looking for a spokesmodel last year. Just on a whim, I decided to enter. I'd just started beauty school. They had their fans vote online on which girls they liked the best, and I wound up making it into the top 13. Then you could vote for who you liked best out of the top 13, and I wound up winning the fan vote.

There was a second portion where you had to go out to LA and compete in a beauty pageant there in front of an audience. That I did not do so well in, and I wound up not winning the contest overall. I'm not great on the stage—I get very, very nervous—so I don't really remember what I did, other than my talent. I went up there in a little tutu like I was going to do a dance routine, and just as I was about to start, my heart exploded and I fell down. I just laid there bleeding for like 30 seconds. It was fun.   

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