Some of the best parts of Halloween are canceled this year due to the pandemic — like trick-or-treating and in-person costume parties — but, decorating your house, apartment, or stoop is a CDC-approved safe alternative to those higher-risk activities. And being stuck at home is as good a reason as any to step it up a notch from the usual crazy inflatables and cheap cobwebs. To help you find the best Halloween lights, yard decorations, props, and even scents, we asked five haunted-house designers and architects for advice on turning your home into a haunted house, both inside and out. They were quick to tell us that you can find plenty of tasteful-yet-spooky, and even professional-grade, Halloween décor for sale online. Plus, if you’re placing Halloween decorations outdoors — say, as a backdrop for your block’s socially distanced, outdoor costume parade — these decorations will be sturdy enough to withstand variable October weather.
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, cheeseclothlike material that you can drape over lamps, doorways, and furniture (or even use as a backdrop for your virtual Halloween-costume contest).
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 for your family. “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.
For effective outdoor lighting that your neighbors will be able to see from a distance, 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
One recent trend in professional haunted houses has been the use of animations and video projectors to create an immersive experience. 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 folks 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.
If you don’t have a projector but want to use these effects, AtmosFX also sells an all-in-one projector with 14 preloaded scenes.
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.
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.”