By Darren Franich
October 18, 2017 at 01:46 PM EDT
Everett Collection

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The mystery of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet begins with Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) in a field. He’s back home from college, not a boy but not yet a man, playfully throwing rocks as he takes a shortcut home. And then, the discovery: a severed human ear. (The left one, to be precise.) It’s an indelible moment, serene and horrific and tantalizingly enigmatic. “The fact that it’s an ear, and not an arm or a foot, indicates that the person who lost the ear is most likely still alive,” says MacLachlan. “Jeffrey wants to know what happened.”

The movie tracks his investigation. Poor Jeffrey is drawn into the psychotic underworld where malicious Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) taunts Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). He learns that the ear once belonged to Dorothy’s husband. The true-life story behind the ear is only a little less twisted. According to Blue Velvet makeup supervisor Jeff Goodwin, creating the perfect ear took careful attention. “David and I approached it like a character in the film,” Goodwin explains. “We actually called it Mr. Ear.”

Goodwin had previously worked for Blue Velvet producer Dino Di Laurentis. “I’d been doing a lot of low-budget horror films — Cat’s EyeSilver Bullet, stuff like that,” Goodwin says. “I did one film that was totally non-prosthetic, a film called Marie, with Sissy Spacek and Jeff Daniels. That helped me get out of being typecast as just special effects, which was kind of a concern for me.”

Fluency with makeup and prosthetics proved valuable when it came time to designing Mr. Ear. “My first ears I made, I actually made casts of my own ears. I made them out of material which was kind of the norm back in the day then, which was liquid latex. Rubber, you know?” The director’s initial response was both encouraging and unexpected. “I took them into David’s office. He was actually on the phone. I put them on the desk. He’s playing with them, looking at them. He gets off the phone and goes, ‘These are great, these are great, but let’s make them adult ears.'”

Goodwin laughs. “I said, ‘David, those are my ears!’ He looks at my ears and says, ‘You have the smallest ears in the world.’ It’s true. I never noticed before. I do have small ears!”

A key point in the evolution of Mr. Ear was the struggle to balance realism with visual authenticity. “Frank Booth, Dennis Hopper’s character, used scissors to cut [the ear] off,” Goodwin explains. “In reality, you would just get a little crescent moon shape. You wouldn’t get a full ear, you’d get a crescent shape of a little piece of flesh. I made both, to show David what they would look like. Even though the crescent ear piece was more realistic, you don’t recognize it right off as being an ear, at first sight.”

Here’s the original batch of latex prosthetics, molded from Goodwin’s own ears:

Jeremy M. Lange for EW

Lynch decided it was better to go with the “Full Ear” prosthetic. “I started looking around for bigger ears,” laughs Goodwin, “and I found a producer, Fred Caruso. I actually cast Fred’s ears, and that’s the ears that we ended up using.”

The final Mr. Ear design involved a bit of innovation. “I wanted the ears to have a little wiggle and movement, which I was not getting with the latex,” says Goodwin. “So I started experimenting with a new material that I was using for mold-making, for the prosthetics and stuff, but I’d never used this material for screen use. That material was silicone. As far as I can tell – and in all my research with friends and people in the business – we can’t come up with an earlier use of silicone in cinema history than that.”

There was another key material that served as a finishing touch in the final prosthetic, less high-tech as silicone but much more appropriately bizarre. “David was getting a haircut from our hairstylist, Barbara [Page], in the trailer,” Goodwin recalls. “I swept up David’s hair, and actually punched the hair into the ear. So it’s David Lynch’s hair that’s in the ear. He didn’t know it till afterwards. He thought it was funny.”

Then it was time for Mr. Ear to get its first close-up. “I believe it was early in filming,” MacLachlan says. “It was a hot day. They showed me the ear ahead of time. David Lynch had bloodied it up a bit.” And Lynch insisted on adding a creepy-crawly final touch. “We put a little honey on the ear, and then put ants on the ear as well,” says Goodwin. “There was an ant wrangler. They would actually freeze the ants to make them docile. When they would thaw out, the ants would crawl around on the honey ear.”

The severed ear became one of the great horrific movie images. But here’s a little-known fact: Mr. Ear had a brother. “There was a left ear and a right ear,” says Goodwin, “but we only see one in the film.” A scene was filmed featuring the missing husband’s other severed ear, but the second ear missed the final cut.

“There’s a sequence where Isabella goes down her hallway,” Goodwin notes. “You can actually see, written in the mirror, it says ‘Look Down.’ That other ear is in the sink, and then she flushes it down the toilet. But that scene was cut.” If the visual of a severed ear being flushed down the toilet hasn’t left you curled in terror, then good news, it’s time for the right ear’s long-overdue closeup!

Jeremy M. Lange for EW
Jeremy M. Lange for EW

Goodwin would go on to work on films like The Last of the Mohicans and Empire Records, and more recently was the special makeup effects artist on Mr. Mercedes. MacLachlan collaborated again with Lynch on the classic series Twin Peaks and the new-classic reprisal Twin Peaks: The Return.

And the ear? It’s doing just fine. “Mr. Ear is still around,” says Goodwin. “Considering that it’s made of silicone, it hasn’t really rotted. Latexes will eventually rot. At the moment, it’s in a museum in Wilmington, North Carolina, on display.” Eventually, it will return to its resting place in Goodwin’s home. “He’s got a little case that he sits in,” Goodwin says. “He just hangs out. He’s pretty quiet.” For a cinematic icon, it’s a well-deserved retirement.