When you approach my house, you start to hear, you think, a noise. Maybe. Did you? Nah......wait, yes...what IS that? WHO is that? Hmmm...is this a haunted house? I mean really? Do we really want to stop here?
First time visitors, parents and children alike, truly approach my house with serious caution. Now, after several years of being in the same location, the town has figured out where the "Spider Woman" of Twenty Third moved to and we get loads of adults and children arriving by car, literally, every year.
We also have a terrific neighborhood. One block away there is a haunted house tour where I will stalk the waiting lines. Another house has a real Halloween nut who has a life sized horse complete with headless rider and numerous figures in his yard. One of the local DA's hands out children's books instead of candy. Many, many nearby houses are open for business that night opposed to almost complete neighborhoods shut down and dark.
2007 note: We are tuning things down over the years, and I think it makes for even a spookier setting. The house isn't screaming 'haunted house' and makes a lot of people very shivery. DL wanted a chair to sit in this year, and I had found, at long last, what I call a Morticia chair, the huge bamboo thing? She sat in it near the cauldron and waited for children to approach her. Meanwhile, I stood in front of the steps, moving slightly. We can't count the people who asked her, "Are you real?" It made for some ultra nervous people, and the chair is now on the list of standard Halloween equipment.
THE SETTING - the key is to make it really real
We live in a old farmhouse with a wide, covered front porch, lots of bushes and wild plants in the frontyard, so the setting is almost perfect already. Don't let the lack of a perfect setting stop you. Props are crucial, easy and make a great deal of difference.
Clutter. Subtle clutter, things in dark corners, unlit. Add anything you might have, put it on the side like it really lives there, all year around.
A bale of hay or corn stalks in the waaaay background, black sheets (or strips) flowing in the breeze off to the side, grey ghosts peeking around a corner and hang from the trees, black garbage bags full of leaves to block off a bright area or the garden hose that does live there year around and should be easily accessible for this night. A pile of old wood thrown in a corner, like it's been there a few hundred years. Old barrels, rusted wheelbarrows, old shovels, odd bricks, old pails. Make a junk pile off in the corner. Just make sure there is nothing harmful and it's entirely out of the beaten path to the candy.
We bought one of those white plastic life sized skeletons and laid him against a wood pile, back behind the path. There has been an old kitchen knife long corroded in the yard and David stuck it merrily between his ribs. Looked GREAT!
THE MUSIC - the key is to underplay it
Everyone, anyone can buy a hundred tapes, cd's of spooky music. These usually include guys screaming, moaning, yelling. You can hear it from a block away and all the kids think, "YESS!! Another haunted house!" and run like crazy towards your house. But.....
Ever walk through a door that really groans? Run, do not stop, to your nearest recording device and get that noise on tape. Draw the sound out slowly. Make more, more and more. Moan, quietly, gently. Pant. Quietly. Big sigh. Little scream. Shhhhh...........wait, another squeaking door, s l o w l y opens. Low spooky piano that stops, suddenly, then continues. Go find more great sounds!
Play the tapes just loud enough so that you wonder "What the heck?" when you are approaching it from next door.
LIGHTING - the key is to make it safe but minimal and natural
TURN OFF THE PORCH LIGHT! Toss out the strobes and use candles and lanterns. Citronella torches surround the cauldron and line the walkway, creating an area that looks forbidden to enter. Sacred. Scary. Something real is going on here?
Carve more pumpkins, from traditional to wild and crazy, and use them for lighting. We have three cement steps up to the porch, all lined with pumpkins on both sides so the steps are well lit. (Now they block the stairs after a tiny ballerina in pink was so scared she literally walked off the porch into her father's arms.)
You can buy bags, lined with a flame resistant coating, with cut out pumpkin faces, etc. Place the candles inside the bags along the walkways, etc. I prefer them to be very safely out of the way, up on a rock in the plants. Look for any safe alternative mellow lighting.
If it's cool, light a fire in the fireplace in the house, especially if it is viewable by the trick or treaters. Turn off all the house lights. When we close up for the night, the porch light goes ON and you can easily see the large spooky sign painted on an old piece of fence board that says, "Closed - Sorry - See you next year!"
COSTUMES - the key is to make it natural
The best investment I ever made was a 79 cent nose. It's plastic and about two inches long. Even has a wart. I wear it all the year and laugh until I hurt. I got past the "glamourous witch" stage and go for downright uggglie! My face takes about two hours, light but realistic base, a touch of green, lots of black lines smudged into reality, reddish eye liner around my eyes, blackened out teeth, a very long black wig that hasn't been combed in a few years, and now has streaks of gray hair colour sprayed through it.
My outfit is just dark, complete with a hooded cape, lots of layers and hanging stuff, shredded outer skirt. Make an outfit in January. Don't hem any piece of it. Wash it a few hundred times or give it to the dogs to battle with. Wear it for twenty years at which point, it's finally perfect. Wear black shoes or nothing at all. This is not the time for white tennies. I wear a large, weird, antique cross around my neck.
I really, really, really want to get cat eye contacts for Halloween!! Sniff.....David says no way, Jose. sniff......
Makeup. This takes about two hours to put on, and about as long to take off. I blend the nose with my face with putty, cover everything with a greyish base, add red to the rims of my eyes, heavily blended green and grey shadow everywhere, especially where line are and will be in a few more years. I "wash" my hands and arms in grey craft paint, making sure I get lots under my fingernails which are long and real. I do my own hair, teased unmerifically, sprayed black and grey, or wear a expensive, huge, long black wig that has been sprayed white white streaks and it hasn't been combed in about five years. It USED to be beautiful, now it's dead perfect. See the gross pictures here.
Treat all the senses to a delight. If you don't have a fireplace burning, gather fall leaves and rustle them as you walk around the yard. This adds to the sound as well. Find a really strange smelling incence. Amber does nicely, musks work, too. If you want to go a step farther, rot a bowl of food about a week ahead and place it off to the side to keep the flies away from the primary candy area. I never could handle this one.
SILENCE - the MOST important factor
The Witch of Twenty First is silent. She never, ever, ever speaks a word. (Well.....okay.... when a small child is horrifically terrified, I will squat to her level, smile, come out of character to speak in a loving mommy voice and hand her candy in a normal fashion.) Other than that, the candy is handed out with a gnarled, clenched hand, ever, ever, ever so s l o w l y, hand closed tight around the candy procured form the small kettle over my arm peeking out from under my cape, all the while staring into the child's face, quietly insisting on eye contact. Silently. I am bent over like a crone, walk slowly and crookedly. Sometimes it's hard to keep a straight face. You can not believe the creeps this causes.
The silence is the largest and most terrifying effect on children and adults alike. Since discovering this, I will never speak at Halloween again.
These webs are my trademark. I make all of them every year by hand, about three hours each, depending on the size and the weather. It's a bit tedious but it's like making bread, a tradition I am not ready to break yet. I also like kneading bread.
Step by step directions, by popular request, are now here, at the Web How To page.
Things appear, ever so slowly, all month, starting with the spider webs. People come by to watch the progress.
A large black cauldron hangs from an old, rusted wrought iron tripod made for this purpose (thank you, my beloved David!). Below the cauldron are wood logs placed in real fire positions. Red, orange and clear saran wrap strips flow like real fire as the small fan between the wood blows up towards the bottom of the kettle along with a small drop light. This is close to a real fire affect as I have been able to achieve without getting the local fire department in an uproar. Dry ice constantly flows from the cauldron, stirred with a small walking sized stick. A few large glass jars are placed on the side, full of interesting things to be added to the 'soup.'
A black raven sits atop the porch railing. Handcuffs are hanging around. A tiny, realistic looking child sized skull sits on the handrail. Beware, little children! A large black plastic rat peeks out from under the bushes. Larger skulls peek out of the bushes.
At one point in time, before children got terribly greedy, they had to walk past the Wicked Witch to get their candy out of an opened large antique trunk. Now I hand it out, taking it out of the black basket over my arm, under my cape.
Peek through the window on the porch. You can see the fireplace with the fire roaring. A three dimensional witch head (see my Halloween logo at the bottom of the Link page) lurks behind the curtain, her body wrapped in a black cape. The rest of the room is dark or sheets are hung to hide any distracting feature. A table by the window sports a black, crusty tablecloth, a jar full of bats, a skull with a candle on it, wax dripping over the skull. An old, ancient, evil looking book is placed on the table, a brass bell, gobs of candles and other assorted scary accoutrements.
Note: One little angel, about four years old, literally LEPT off the porch from fear. If her daddy had not been right there with open arms she would have crashed and burned on four cement steps. We have taken everything off the porch and the kettle sits on the stone walkway now.
In 2004, David bought me a fog machine! It sits inside the kettle on a cardboard box, the cords run through a hole cut into the kettle. No more frantic trips for dry ice, pot holders or kettles full of hot water run back and forth. Heaven.
In 2006, we bought a timer for the cauldron. No more pushing the button!!!!
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
We have a skeleton over on the woodpile (that HAS now been there for years) with an old rusted butcher knife stuck in his ribs. He is off to the side and lit ever go gently with a hidden drop light. You rarely see him right off. A life size plastic skeleton hangs just above the ground from one of the trees covered in light, filmy white fabric ghost fashion which will sway in the breeze. I bought another last year, dressed her in black including a long light silver wig and a black veil. She hangs from a tree towards the back of the yard at walking level (appears to be walking down a stone path) and her skirts and veil blow in the breeze. NOT very pretty. She is named Lizzie.
Stick figures made from sticks like the movie "The Blair Witch Project" are discreetly hung from the sycramore trees in the yard near the sidewalk at just above head level so you can accidentally brush into them.
We carve about a dozen pumpkins, most are pretty fancy, but we get some incredible comments about them and not once has anyone broken any of them after the festivities are over. They are works of art, and light up each of the steps.
Another 2002 addition was three torches (loaded with Citronella) in the wild area, paralleling the walk up to the front door. They are placed about three or four feet into the plant area so there is no danger of a child running into them. They REALLY added to the atmosphere. I bought ten to surround a back deck where we eat all summer and I will use them all this year.
One of the bushes near the steps is particularly thick, and a dozen pairs of eyeballs peer out. I take lightweight plastic balls (table top tennis, that IS the name of these? ping pong?) and cut out a hole just large enough to insert a tiny Christmas light. Eyeballs, irises and pupils, are painted on the other side, the pair of eyes are mounted on a piece of cardboard painted black and then mounted in the bushes. The unused lights are covered with heavy black electricians tape and the sight of these eyes is rather startling.
Cars, realistic mummies or portable old wooden fences are placed where I do not want people to go.
Hidden fans gently blow window curtains or bushes.
Everyone might not see everything, but the general affect is rather un-nerving.
SEVERE SCARING or AS BAD AS WE GET
My son will stand behind a tree, dressed in slightly darker than normal clothes and just stare at the kids.
My son lies down on a bench, the ground, somewhere where it is flat and safe, somewhere along the path the children have to take to get the candy. He is dressed completely in black or something equally concealing, no flesh is revealed. The children stop, tug at him, talk to him, peek at him. He holds absolutely still and quiet. After a bit, they decide he is a dummy and come get their candy. When they turn around to leave, just as they pass my son again, I ring a bell, make a noise, cluck, a pre-arranged noise to indicate to my son it's his turn. That's when he leaps up and yells. Two adults have owned up to needing a pants change, but they always show up the next year. 2002 note: Make that three adults.
You cannot see past the security screen on the front door from the porch. My son will softly scratch the door when a child is near. I act like I don't notice anything and the child is not sure he heard anything or not. The scratching gets louder. And louder. If the child hasn't left quickly by this time, my son lets out a really high, eerie scream only he can produce. Our UPS lady, Terri, might never forgive me for that one, and she has never been back.
A neighbor placed a stuffed gorilla suit on his porch on the first of October. It going to sit there all month so kids and passing neighbors get used to it being there. On Halloween, its not going to be stuffed any more, unless you can call her husband stuffy, but still just sitting there until some innocent child passes by. I can't WAIT!
I have started to dress about noon now, with a lot less black wrinkle lines on my face and I leave off the nose until dark. The layers of paint make their own, realistic wrinkles, so I think I am even more terrifying in that my face doesn't immediately register "Makeup!" Looks from people, peering to see if that face is real or not, speaks volumes. I go to the market and buy small, bright red, carefully and tediously selected red apples. People will either be very startled and blantantly creeped out or pretend I am as normal as sunshine. Hilarious. I visit my daughter's high school as I promised. I buy a coffee from the local Starbucks where I go all the time, but leave my car a block away. I even visit a 'sissy' at my doctor's office, and no one knows who I am unless I open my mouth and speak. (I have a distinctive and low voice.)
At night, we float down to the Hobie House, around the corner, walking as smoothly and whispy as possible. They have a huge haunted house each year, with lines forming around corners, parking is impossible. The guys who live there are used to us now after 6 years, and always welcome us with smiles and grins. We wander throught the lines, ever to silently, never speaking a word. You stop, stare, and finally, perhaps, hand out a piece of candy. The apples are reserved for the husbands and fathers. Oh, they are the easiest, by far. Most of them, probably 90% of them get very uncomfy, very quickly, and turn away, pretending I am not there. I will gently swoosh and float over to the other side of the line within his vision. Guarenteed, he will turn around again. Sometimes they take an apple, after hesitating, sometimes they actually refuse. Oh, the men are so much fun!! And I hope no one from Hobie House ever reads this, they have NO idea who I am and I like it that way.
Always, no matter what, keep the area entirely safe and danger proof.
Imagine the worse case scenerario and prepare for it. Imagine a child's costume lighting afire from one of the path candles. Imagine a child running over uneven ground and stumbling, breaking open a lip. Nope, no, not.
Change and sacrifice what ever you need so to make it one hundred percent safe and fun.
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