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Haunting America

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 night.

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 wish!

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 configurations.

#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:

  1. 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.
  2. With the 2X4s laid flat, strike a line down the center (lengthwise) of each board.
  3. 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 (holes down).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 rage.

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 Closing...
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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