"Telling scary stories is something people have done for thousands of years, for most of us like being scared in that way. Since there isn't any danger, we think it is fun." -Alvin Schwartz
What came first, the chicken or the egg? As long as I can remember I have always been attracted to creepy, eerie, macabre type things. When I was younger living in North Carolina my mom made me watch “Return of the Living Dead” because they nuked our hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. My mom thought our hometown being obliterated was “neat” which was odd because she didn’t like scary movies. Even before that though I can remember being read this wonderful ghost story by my third grade teacher close to Halloween. The story was “The Big Toe” from the collected stories retold by Alvin Schwartz. She read some other stories from the book but that one stuck out because I can remember her doing the voice, “Where’s my big toe”. The Book was “Scary Stories” and I just had to read more.
My third grade teacher let me barrow her copy. When she had read the stories to the class and showed us the illustrations in that quick panning pass teachers do at story time. I was only able to catch a quick glance but In barrowing the books I was able to see all of the amazing artwork by Stephen Gammell. His style and the way he envisioned the stories really added to that atmosphere of the book series. It was his illustrations that actually got the books banned in several schools. There was nothing overtly grotesque about them but they just made you feel uneasy.
Schwartz and Gammell put out three books in the Scary Stories series. Each sequel was just as creepy the last. These were the first books I ever purchased with my own money as a child. They were paperbacks and as much as I read them and let friends pass them around they got destroyed. As an adult in a bookstore years ago I saw a compilation of all three books in one hardback and just had to buy it. All of the artwork really held up and was just as creepy as I had remembered. Upon hearing that they were making these books into a movie directed by André Øvredal I pulled out my book to revisit some of the stories. I decided then I wanted to do something to pay homage to this series that had such and impact on me at such a young age.
I decided I would do a body paint using some of Gammel’s illustrations and try to capture the overall vibe. I asked my friend and photographer Misha Kidwell if he would shoot it. I had worked with him once before on a Maleficent makeup and I knew his style would be suited for this. He also wanted to shoot some behind the scenes video so I knew I had to find a model that was incredibly comfortable being nude and ok with being filmed.
Lucky for me choosing a model was an easy choice. Melanie (Mel) Smith is a traveling model that does a lot of artistic nudes and body paints. She is also a haunted house actress and loves creepy thing as much as I do. We have worked together before on several projects and we just have a very good working relationship and understanding of the job as well as being friends. Plus she’s just rad so she was the perfect person for the job.
Here is what Mel had to say about being asked to do this creepy body paint, “When Matt told me he was doing this bodypaint I was immediately on board. Ironically enough my boyfriend had just brought it to my attention that a movie was being made based on the books a few days prior. I never read the books as a child, but the cover art was so strikingly creepy that I instantly knew the art Matt was going to recreate. In fact the first image that came to mind was the main design for the front of the paint."
I honestly don’t know what Gammell uses to make his illustrations. To me they look like a combination of watercolor, graphite and or ink. Nothing he does in these books really has a hard edge. Everything appears almost soft and glowing in a way. I knew I couldn’t use my typical style for this body paint. I usually use a lot of hard lined brush work with very defined graphic edges. I knew I would have to approach this totally differently than any body paint I had previously done.
I chose the cover image from the first book as my focal point. Everyone has their favorite story so I didn’t want to choose my favorite story, or what I thought was the most popular. The cover image of the “clown skull” smoking a pipe was the first image I associated with the series so it made sense. It also had slight touch of red and blue to punch it up a bit.
I started off by blotching on white body paint with a powder brush using Woochie’s new water activated makeup ( https://www.woochie.com/ ). I wanted the white to almost have a light pulpy look like the paper of a book so I didn’t use a kabuki brush which would have given a cleaner look. White is one of the most difficult colors I have found to body paint with but the Woochie paint performed pretty well. I then went over all of the white by airbrushing with EBA Performance ( https://performancemakeup.com/ ) Endura paint in washes of tans and browns to give it a more paper look.
The first thing I did after I based it all out was airbrush in the red of the nose and the blue of the skull because I knew everything else would go on top of that. From there I mixed a grey paint in my airbrush, always adding at least a touch of brown to my black paint to cut down of any blue undertones. I used this to block out a lot of the forms of the “Clown Skull”, build up the shadows of the trees in the background, and the skull on her back. I know the original piece didn’t have trees in the background but as it was a body paint the blank sky just left to much open skin. I just kept building up the colors until I reached black for the darkest deepest points.
The piece I chose for her upper arms were these cool shadowy figures from the story "Like Cat's Eyes" from, Scary Stories 3; More Tales to Chill Your Bones. Mel has this really great upper arm tattoo that I knew would peak through the white paint so this was the perfect thing to cover it with. I used my airbrush to dot in the eyes to give them a glowing quality. I blotched in black paint from Woochie along her waist line and below, letting it mix with the white paint a bit. I let the black drip down her legs and then flicked on some additional black to get that inky quality. I replicated the eyes from her upper arms in the black paint around and below her waist.
The piece on her back was inspired by the skull from the Story "Hoo-Ha's" from the second book, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I just liked how surreal and off putting its forms were, almost like an infant skull with teeth. I wanted Mel’s face to somewhat resemble the face of the woman from the story "The Haunted House" from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I really loved the asymmetry of the face and how deep and dark the eyes were. For the eyes we use black out lenses from Primal ( https://us.primalcontactlenses.com/ ) called Possession. I used a ton of hair spray to give Mel’s hair that greasy stringy look. To finish it all off I painted Scary Stories across her chest in red with some splotches of red around the lettering to give the idea of blood without being gratuitous.
Mel is such a great model and gave us so many poses to choose from. Here is what she had to say about her haunt acting coming into play, "Having worked in a haunted house for years, being able to tap back into my haunt life is always fun. Creepy, bendy poses are some of my favorite to model, and I knew this paint would allow for all kinds of crazy expressions. I could not be more pleased with how the images came out! Everything from the lighting to the way the paint perfectly conveys the style of the books. It was such a fun piece to model”
I absolutely love the way these turned out. Misha and Mel really helped give this the feeling of the books. I hope that if Stephen Gammell sees these he will appreciate this body paint and knowing that they inspired a whole generation of creepy kids. As far as what came first, the chicken or the egg I can’t really say. I don’t think these books made me like spooky things for the sheer fact that I was attracted to them because I already had a predisposition to liking ghosts and ghouls. That all said the Scary Stories books definitely opened the gateway.