Sure, we expect to see a sea of green tracksuits, stickered faces à la Sour, and vaping Mare Sheehans haunting neighborhoods this Halloween. But costumes aren’t the only way to get into the spirit. Whether you’re hosting or handing out candy, spooky decorations are a must. To help you find the best Halloween lights, yard decorations, props, and even scents, we asked five haunted-house designers and architects how to turn your home into a house of horrors.
Best cobwebs and wall decorations
Leonard Pickel, a haunted-house architect with over 40 years of experience in the industry and over 300 professional haunts under his belt, and Kris Golojuch, founder of haunted-house consulting and design firm Scareventures, both recommend steering clear of the black plastic trash-bag-like material called visqueen when decorating. “It’s just a massive fire hazard,” says Golojuch. “People tend to want to build tunnels out of them, and they can be very scary if that were ever to catch on fire. It looks very cheap and tacky from the outside, anyway.” A better alternative, according to Pickel, is Creepy Cloth, which is basically loosely woven, cheesecloth-like material that you can drape over lamps, doorways, and furniture. These tattered spiderwebs are among the best cheap but expensive-looking Halloween décor you can find on Amazon that we’ve written about in the past, too.
Most of the professional haunted-house designers we spoke with also dismissed cotton cobwebs from a bag because they glob into big masses when they get wet and are difficult to work with. Their recommendation is to instead repurpose beef netting, used by butchers to keep sausages and cured meats together. According to Golojuch, this stretchy material is also used in professional haunted houses to create cobwebs. “Knott’s Berry Farm was one of the pioneers using beef netting to make big spider webs, and we still use that,” he says. “It’s just a popular look. It doesn’t always look real, but there’s a lot of fun things you can do with it. Universal used it to create the Upside Down for Stranger Things.” And because the beef netting is sturdy and will keep its shape, you can use it either inside or outside — for all of your neighbors to see from a distance.
Best Halloween lights
Light is another easy way to create a spooky atmosphere, both indoors and out. “Darkness is your friend, but less is more,” says Pickel. When it comes to creating dimmer lighting indoors — even if it’s just for the benefit and fright of immediate members of your household — all you need to do is replace your regular bulbs with super-low-watt versions. “We’re talking 15 watts. Even a 30-watt bulb is way too bright to light your house,” says Pickel.
You can also use so-called colored party bulbs to set the mood — and anticipation for all the things that go bump in the night. “Inside, yellows and oranges and reds is probably the direction I would go. It’s going to make you feel more on edge. Those are the kind of colors that you put in a fast-food restaurant to get people moving around.” Pickel recommends CFL bulbs over incandescent ones because they generate less heat and therefore present less of a fire hazard.
Now, for the outdoors, Pickel recommends pointing a purple or green light straight up at your house. “The landscapers even call the concept of shining lights up at trees or up at a building the Dracula effect because when the sun is out, all the lighting is coming from the top down, and that’s how people see their houses, even at night,” he explains. “So if you flip that, it gives the structure a completely different look and a completely different feel,” specifically a spooky one. These lights are solar-powered, so they charge all day and shine all night; to add color, simply slap on a theatrical lighting gel.
Best Halloween decorations for large spaces
A more recent trend in professional haunted houses has been the use of animations and video projectors to create an immersive experience. Remember how real those sounds sounded in that haunted house you went to in your hometown? And though it looks quite professional, it’s an effect that easily translates to the home, especially if you already own a small projector or have limited floor space for props. “You either put it on the window so it’s seen from outside, or you put it on the wall,” inside your house, explains Brett Hays, president of the Haunted Attraction Association (HAA), a trade organization for haunted-house designers and other horror purveyors in the industry. That way, when folks walk by your house, “it looks like zombies are all clawing at the window, trying to come in, or there’s a character that shows up in the doorway.” Both Hays and Dan Hower, secretary of the HAA, recommend the animations from AtmosFX. This collection would be great for a window projection, with a looping zombie-swarm animation.
These so-called Ghostly Apparitions can be projected inside your home, so it looks like ghosts are flying out of the walls or doorways.
Or go with a Hocus Pocus focus — there’s even a black cat featured that rivals Thackery Binx and Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s Salem in cuteness.
If you don’t have a projector but want to use these effects, AtmosFX also sells an all-in-one projector that includes its Witching Hour and Phantasms DVDs. These phantoms are slightly scarier than those apparitions as they’re meant to shriek and startle (and have much more unsettling faces). Don’t dillydally though — there are only a limited number of these available.
A quick way to set a mood or decorate a large outdoor area, like your yard, for Halloween is with a fog machine. Froggy’s Fog is the industry standard, used in haunted houses and in theatrical products, and even by fire departments trying to train firefighters, according to Pickel, and they make both fog machines and high-quality fog fluid — or “fog juice” — that is nontoxic and won’t gunk anything up in your home. You won’t be able to find any Froggy’s Fog fog machines now (they’re all backordered or out of stock), but this Party City version has the right wattage to work with that fog juice. Plus, it has more of the Halloween spirit with its coffin-shape and skeleton for a dial.
A ground fog machine, which cools down the fog and keeps it low to the ground, is another space-effective option. “It’ll lay low and it’ll kind of cover the whole area,” says Hays. “So it covers a lot of ground and sort of brings everything into it without a lot of expensive decorations everywhere.”
If you want to take your fog one step further, Hays recommends adding scents, also manufactured by Froggy’s Fog. “We’ve been doing that for a few years, but I think that is kind of a neat thing that really completes the effect,” he says. “You can purchase every different kind of scent. If it’s a graveyard, you have a kind of a musty earth kind of smell, or if it’s a hospital setting, you have a really clinical chemical smell. There are just unlimited variations: campfire, cotton candy, forest, gun smoke, pine.” Passersby won’t have to get anywhere near you, or your home, in order to smell these effects. But swampy marsh seems like the most Halloween-appropriate of all the scents.
You don’t need a fog machine to take advantage of these scents and turn your home into an immersive Halloween experience. Froggy’s Fog makes a Bluetooth-enabled system that releases spooky scents. You can get refills of scents like electric chair, gothic, or even haunted house (yes, there’s a scent just for that). Hays offers one word of warning: “The absolute worst one is called slaughterhouse. It really stinks, [but] it’s really effective because it’s really strong.”
Best Halloween props
If you’re looking to buy effective, cost-effective Halloween props, all of the experts recommended hitting up Home Depot, which has become a go-to source for high-quality but affordable Halloween decorations. “Some of these animatronics are almost as good as the professional-quality props,” says Hower. “I’ve seen a lot of pneumatics and moving animations that are now there that five years ago [weren’t] even an option for a home haunter, but now [are]reasonably priced.” Golojuch says to look out for skeletons, which tend to be durable and well-formed. The cream of the crop though is Home Depot’s 12-foot-tall skeleton, which appeared and disappeared again this year, as have many of the dupes we found. But this over-the-top ferry came back in stock — it features a skeleton that makes rowing motions as if it’s actually in the Styx River. It’ll be the envy of everyone in the neighborhood.
Golojuch is also excited about the selection of animal-shaped bones at Home Depot. “There’s always new creatures. They’ve had fish, they’ve had dogs. They have full-size horses. They have dinosaurs. They had a big T. rex,” he says. “They’re pretty good because they’re very anatomically correct. The sculpting department has done an awesome job with those, so if I was doing a home haunt, I would definitely be loading up on those.” Some are still in stock — including a skeleton squirrel with an acorn on hand, a wolf and this little dog (or an even more mini version). Keep in mind all of the animated skeleton animals are only available with Home Depot’s scheduled delivery, meaning you have to spend at least $45 and pay a $9 shipping fee.
It’s easy enough to make this weeping willow eerier with a little fog, whether natural or faux. And when the dust has cleared, this could even stay out past Halloween.
Spirit Halloweens are as much a part of the holiday as candy corn. And luckily they still have ghosts, ghouls, and other creepy creatures in stock. This is one of the slightly smaller (but still spooky) skeletons we found earlier this month to rival the Home Depot’s 12-footer. The detached skull makes it even more spookier when its jaw hinges open to say, “Have you come for a treat or a trick?”
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