by Stu McIntire
For a majority of families that celebrate Halloween, just getting the
kids to eat dinner, into their costumes, and out the door for trick-or-treating
is a major operation worthy of General Eisenhower on his finest day. So
how do some families find the time and energy to make a grand show for
the kids by decorating their yards with tombstones, cobwebs, and scarecrows?
Perhaps the more appropriate question is why do they do it? In my case,
the reason was a desire to entertain the kids a repayment, if you
will, for the years a family down the street entertained me every Halloween
My first "gig" took place almost thirty years ago. Armed with
a Dracula poster, skull candle, and a colored light bulb, I was sure my
house was the spookiest on the block. It wasn't, but I managed to scare
two or three kids regardless. I was hooked. From there, I added and changed
every year. I never duplicated the same scene and have always strived
to be as original as possible. Even today I always give the kids a little
something on Halloween night despite the fact that I am involved with
some fundraising haunt or another. My neighbors often give me funny looks,
but their kids can't wait to get to "the McIntire house." Is
it worth it? You bet!
So what ideas work best for front yard haunts on Halloween night? You
will meet with varying degrees of success, but the following is a "Top
Ten" list of time proven tips, tricks, and ideas for making your
house The Place to Be every October thirty-first. In reverse order and
determined solely by my own whims, I humbly offer:
Evil Doc Stu's Top Ten List of Halloween Frights & Delights
#10 Theme: The Witch's Curse
The mean witch in the pointed hat is classic Halloween imagery. Here,
"makeup makes the witch." Buy a simple makeup kit and follow
the instructions that are found in most kid's Halloween makeup books.
If you need an inspiration, use the Wicked Witch of the West from the
Wizard of Oz.
There are many good sound effects tapes and CDs that include cat screeches,
bubbling cauldrons, owl hoots, etc. Make good use of the soundsor make
your own. Create your bubbling cauldron sounds by blowing air through
a straw into a glass of water.
For the bubbling cauldron, use dry ice in water to create the "steaming
witch's brew." You can even drink the potion that's been chilled
by the dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide), but be careful of any chips that
may end up in your drink. Dry ice can give you nasty burns. For that reason,
avoid prolonged contact with exposed skin. Depending on your traffic on
Halloween, you may need several pounds of dry ice to maintain the illusion
of the bubbling brew. A tip heredrop the dry ice into hot water to achieve
the maximum effect. Hot water will keep the dry ice dissipating and keep
the water (or other liquid) from chilling too much. You want to avoid
the dry ice from developing a frozen water shell around it. Once that
happens, your brew will stop bubbling and the "steam" will disappear.
Increase the temperature of the water to melt the coating. If it's a large
chunk, you can break it into smaller pieces.
#9 Theme: Maniacal Killer
Some of the most recognized horror icons of today are Freddy (Nightmare
on Elm Street), Jason (Friday the 13th), Michael Myers (Halloween), and
Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). It isn't all that difficult to
make or buy the costumes. I don't use these characters (except perhaps
for names on tombstones), but if I did, I'd go with Leatherface. The chain
saw is a tried and true Halloween scare tactic. Remove the blade before
the trick-or-treaters come. There's no sense in creating any safety hazards.
#8 Theme: Aliens Among Us
I'm not sure when UFO themes became a part of the Halloween culture, but
who's quibbling? Whether you stage a crashed spaceship, alien invasion,
or alien autopsy scene, you can invent any type of extraterrestrial you
Alien machinery can be invented from all sorts of scrap materials, painted
and adorned with blinking Christmas lights for the control panels. You
can build entire wall sections of the machinery using cheap paneling for
the substructure and attach hoses, pipes, dials, and knobs in countless
#7 Theme: the Wild, Wild West
There are plenty of source materials to work from and a plethora of possible
setups for a Western theme. Cattle skulls, snakes, and six-guns. Who could
ask for better inspiration?
#6 Theme: Pilfering Pirates
The Halloween stores sell those plastic skeletons which get cheaper and
cheaper every year. Why not invest in a dozen (or more) and build your
own Skeleton Crew? A well-placed eye patch, peg leg, scabbard, pistol,
and hat make your pirate dressed for success!
The truly ambitious could even replicate the remains of a galleon ship,
emerging from a sand duneor even from the water. The mast could be the
largest PVC pipe you can find at your local hardware store (PVC is easy
to work with). Add a little cargo netting, "seaweed," and a
tattered Jolly Roger.
Watery reflections are an easy effect to make. Submerge a mirror or crumpled
reflective mylar in a shallow pan of water. Aim a light source towards
the pan for the reflections. Now point a fan (a small oscillating one
will do) at the water. Voila! A watery grave that will be sure to attract
a larger crowd of onlookers!
#5 Theme: the Egyptian Tomb
Here's an opportunity to make the trick-or-treaters a part of the action.
Buy a bunch of Styrofoam pith helmets for the kids to wear and invite
them to an exploration of an Egyptian tomb. Give them a brief description
of the fate that befalls the defiler of the tomb, but offer them the chance
to be protected by rubbing some idol and chanting an ancient Egyptian
spell ("Oh-wah, Tawgu, Sy-Am" always works for me).
You'll want the requisite mummy, of course, but be sure to add as many
extra details as possible. Hieroglyphics, flickering torches (electric
bulbs), incense, and statues are must-havesdon't forget the tarantula
scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark either!
#4 Theme: the Vampire's Lair
When designing this set, use Gothic architectural styles (such as high
pointed arched doorways). For the makeup and costume, Bela Lugosi's Dracula
is the perfect look that is most recognized as the vampire, so follow
his example. Classical music in the background (particularly certain passages
from Swan Lake) helps set the right mood. Include a casket empty
if the vampire is on the loose; with someone in it as the sleeping vampire
if you want to go for a sudden scare.
For that sudden scare, the "sleeping" vampire lies perfectly
motionless, waiting for just the right moment to spring forth upon the
hapless victim(s). For a buildup to the scare, someone can play a vampire
hunter, with stake and mallet in hand cajoling the trick-or-treaters
to step ever closer to the casket. There will always be one or more kids
who will be brave enough to get >thisclose< to the casket, only
to jump a foot in the air when the vampire rises.
#3 Theme: the Mad Scientist
What would Halloween be without a mad scientist? In much the same way
you would construct the alien machinery walls, you can construct the equipment
one might expect in a mad scientist's lab. Plenty of blinking lights,
shiny metal surfaces, test tubes, beakers, widgets, gizmos, and gadgets
are what you want to "invent." You can find so many objects
at yard sales and flea markets that are truly junk to create your lab
for a paltry sum. Make sure to include sound effects of live electrical
wires, machine hums, gears turning, etc.
Many Halloween stores now carry various "body parts in a jar."
Buy (or make) your own! If you want an Igor-type assistant, there are
many latex prosthetic makeup appliances on the store shelves which make
for a perfect odd/creepy/deformed/demented Right Hand Man. They are somewhat
easy to apply and comfortable to wear. If you so choose, your centerpiece
can be a Frankenstein's Monster sort of body which you are attempting
to bring to life.
#2 Theme: the Moonlit Graveyard
This scene doesn't really require that much in the way of set up. Lots
and lots of tombstones of various shapes and sizes will be the bulk of
what you need. There are as many ways to construct your tombstones as
there are styles to choose from. I've used plywood cutouts in the past;
I know others who have used poured concrete.
Many people use their graveyards to highlight bits and pieces of morbid
humor. They will put friend's, relative's, and neighbor's names on the
tombstones. They will write amusing epitaphs ("Here Lies the Pillsbury
Doughboy. He Will Rise Again!"). Some will go for the authentic look
as added detail to a Bigger and Better Scene. Whichever way you choose,
you will have a great time adding new tombstones from year to year.
As for the sound effects, you will probably find more for your graveyard
than for any other theme. Wolvesowlsbatsfootstepswindscreamsthunderthe
sound of digging shovels will all add to the effect.
If you have the space and ability, dig a few fresh graves. You can even
have a few actors trying to claw their way out of the ground a stunt
I first witnessed in a church-sponsored haunt.
If you choose to create your own thunder and lightning, you may wish to
follow the advice I received from a good friend and haunt supplier to
the masses. Everyone wants to use strobe lights for their lightning flashes.
For a more natural look, try floodlights instead. Unless you are trying
for the simultaneous flash and thunderclap, you don't even have to sync
the sound effect to the light flash. For the thunder, look for recorded
thunderclaps that are NOT accompanied by rain (unless you have the wherewithal
to set up an elaborate overhead sprinkler system on your property).
#1 Theme: the Monster in the Cage
Face it. No matter what you put into your haunted yard be it money, blood,
sweat, and/or tears, some of the simplest scare tactics are the easiest
to make at the lowest cost. This is a truism that has befuddled professional
haunt operators for years.
The Monster in the Cage is an effect that anyone with a saw, drill, wood,
paint, _" diameter PVC pipes, and maybe a few shims can build. The
steps are as follows:
- Measure the width of your front doorway. Cut two lengths of 2X4"
lumber that are just shy of the doorway width just enough to ensure
a snug fit.
- With the 2X4s laid flat, strike a line down the center (lengthwise)
of each board.
- Drill holes along this line, approximately _" deep, 8" on
center each from the next. The holes should be barely larger than _"
in diameter. The ends of the PVC pipes will fit into these holes and
you want the tightest fit possible. One piece of 2X4 will lay in the
bottom of the doorway (holes up); the other in the top of the doorway
- Measure the height of your doorway. You will need to cut the PVC pipes
to the proper length. If you drilled the holes in the 2X4s about halfway
through, you will need to subtract approximately 1 _ to 2"off the
height of the doorway and cut your PVC pipes to that length. If you
cut the pipes too long, you will find that the PVC will have a noticeable
bend to it when inserted in your wood frame and the frame into
the doorway. If you cut the pipes too short, the PVC will not stay in
place when the cage is put to use. Better to cut too long and make any
re-cuts as necessary.
- Test the fit of your cage frame in the doorway. Insert the PVC pipe
ends into the holes in the 2X4s, both top and bottom. Wedge the frame
into your doorway using the shims to tighten the fit if necessary. Give
each of the bars a vigorous shake to make sure they will not slip out
of place. When you are satisfied you have the proper fit, remove the
cage frame from the doorway.
- Paint your cage frame, bars and all. The color isn't important. A
metal shade, gray, or black are all acceptable. Once painted and dry,
the cage will be ready to install.
The gag here is that the character behind the bars is shackled to prevent
escape. He may make all sorts of threatening gestures and noises, but
all appears well. The chains will holdor will they? The normal reaction
is for the ten to twelve year olds to taunt the beast and make general
comments about the scene being lame. They may even increase their criticism
when the actor breaks free of the chains and rattles the bars in frustrated
What the kids don't know is that _" PVC pipe in seven to eight foot
lengths is very flexible. Enough so, that an adult of average to above
average build can spread two of the bars far enough apart to exit the
cage! We used this in a fundraising haunt one year and it still remains
one of our all-time kid scattering/high-pitched scream generating effects
we've ever used. Of course, the more effectively you build up to this
scare, the greater the payoff. We used a strobe to backlight our monster
as well as a fog machine for atmosphere.
As many hours as we've spent designing more elaborate and technical effects,
this simple one is still remembered and talked about. Go figure!
In looking over my Top Ten, you will notice that not every idea is
the panic-creating haunt that everyone is looking to build. Keep in mind
that these are scenes designed for the very youngest to oldest trick-or-treaters
(generally four years to twelve years old). You will not want to terrorize
every kid that approaches your door. You're liable to anger certain neighbors
if you do. Gauge the ability of the approaching trick-or-treater(s) to
handle your setup if you can and try to take it easy on the younger ones.
Entertain in the best way you can each and every visitor. On Halloween
night, I'd choose to create a sense of awe and excitement for the kids
over scaring the cr*p out of them every time.
That is, after all, why I dress up my yard the way I do once a yearhopefully,
you will too. Now on to the business of Haunting America!
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