By Kimberly Dawn Neumann| Oct 19, 2022
Want your Halloween decorations to inspire neighbors and guests to gasp with a mix of horror/admiration at your creative genius? Then skip the blow-up aisle and learn from the pros who build cool stuff for a living—we’re talking set designers for movies and TV and others in the Hollywood biz.
Maybe you know someone like this who lives in your neighborhood, whose yard draws selfie-snapping crowds every October with their stunning homage to “Stranger Things,” “American Horror Story,” or some other horror series or flick du jour. Yet if you think their creative displays are something only these pros can pull together, you might be pleasantly surprised to find that some of their most beloved hacks are much simpler (and cheaper) to execute than you might think. “By using what you have in your closet, garage, and the kid’s old toys, you can have a professional-looking haunted Halloween for very little money,” says Stacy Nelson, an art director and set decorator who has worked on shows like “Masters of Illusion” and “96 Souls” and is the author of the bestselling “10 On-Set Secrets: Halloween.”
Whether you’re throwing a Halloween party or just hoping to spook up your surroundings to scare trick-or-treaters, here are some fun hacks from set designers and others involved in the movie and TV industry that’ll get your house looking like a Hollywood horror flick in no time.
1. Break up your skeletons
Get more spook factor by breaking your skeleton into bones.(Craig E Nelson)
“One ordinary skeleton and a few common household items are all it takes to create a full-on film setting,” says Nelson.
Instead of just hanging up a skeleton, break it into pieces, she suggests. “Crack the skeleton at its joints, create a cluster of bones, add a jewelry box or wooden planks, sprinkle with costume jewelry and a saw or kitchen knife, and voila!”
Make the scene as PG-13 or gory and macabre as you like.
2. Scare up a celebrity theme
Cher-Crow and Scream Dion in a Vegas Halloween scene(Michael Lee Scott)
“From my years working on a TV show connected to pop culture, I would say the best tip I have is to keep your decor connected to a theme, and bonus points if you can keep it relevant,” says Michael Lee Scott, art director for the “Wendy Williams Show.” “People get a kick out of unique decorations that they can easily identify.”
For example, one year the show had a Vegas-themed Halloween episode, and Lee created a bunch of scarecrows, including Hellvis Presley, Britney Fears, Cher-Crow, and Scream Dion.
Scarecrows are easy to make, says Scott. Just stuff the outfits with hay or pillow stuffing, and use a stuffed pillowcase for the head. For the face, print your chosen celebrity’s mug onto some fabric paper (available at most crafts stores) and attach with safety pins, or simply attach a mask.
“Whichever way you decide to create a scarecrow is up to you,” Scott says, “but I guarantee the trick-or-treaters will get a hoot out of seeing a famous person sitting on your porch.”
3. Create a quicksand swamp
“This one requires some advanced prep, but it’s worth it,” says Tim Tucker, who recently served as a costume technician for HBO’s “Doom Patrol.”
Take a large, heavy-gauge contractor’s garbage bag, and fill it about a third full with prepared gelatin (flavor-free—no one will be eating this). Seal the bag tightly, then tip it over on its side and spread out the gelatin-filled bag.
“Cover it with leaves or some other camouflage, and place on a walkway to your homemade haunted house or some other well-trafficked place,” says Tucker. “You’ll have a creepy quicksand or swamp feel underfoot when you step on it.”
4. Make it glow in the dark
Pop open a glow stick to make ordinary decorations light up.(Craig E Nelson)
“The fluid found in standard glow sticks can be used to turn average Halloween decorations into exotic, glow-in-the-dark party props,” says Nelson. “You just need to extract the liquid and apply to your decorations.”
Break the glow stick to activate the chemical reaction, snip the end off the glow stick, and drizzle the liquid directly onto your decorations or whatever you want illuminated around the house. The glow should last a maximum of 12 hours.
A few words of warning, though: While the liquid in glow sticks is generally nontoxic, it can be irritating to the skin, so you’ll want to wear gloves, and it may stain anything it comes in contact with. You also don’t want to put it on anything edible (although we do have some Halloween-themed snacks coming up next).
5. Mix up a batch of blood
“Blood sold at Halloween stores is a great way to kick up costumes and enhance party props, but it’s easy to make professional-quality blood right at home with caramel ice cream topping and red food dye,” says Nelson. Bonus: It’s edible!
Just mix several drops of red food coloring into caramel ice cream topping (Smucker’s caramel-flavored topping works), and feel free to smear it on any Halloween props that could stand for some goring up. Just know it will be sticky, so make sure you put it in places you can easily scrub or hose down, or else stick to safer places like bowls. (Hello, Halloween-themed sundaes!)
6. Use old toys as gory serving platters
Have some old dolls lying around? If you can get over the guilt, gutting them to make unique food-serving trays and bowls is a fast way to add some “Chucky” vibes to your home.
“With a craft knife or jigsaw and a little imagination, you can turn almost anything into unusual food presentation devices,” says Nelson. “Pull heads off plastic animals or hollow out baby doll bellies.”
Be sure to clean well before using, and line with plastic wrap.
Carve out some old toys for serving food such as chips and salsa.(Craig E Nelson)
7. Plastic gloves make handy Halloween decor, too
Have some plastic gloves hanging around (thanks, COVID-19)? You can repurpose those as Halloween decorations.
One option, according to Nelson, is to stuff them with tissue paper, paint black nails on the fingers, and then hang or place them wherever they might give someone a fright.
Or turn them into ice cubes: “Fill a glove with water, freeze, peel away the glove and place in the center of a punch bowl,” says Nelson.
Make ice cubes in old plastic gloves for a punch bowl surprise.(Craig E. Nelson)
8. Bag a ghoul
Throw some creepy trash bag characters around your yard for ghoulish effect.(Craig E Nelson)
In general, trash bags are a fantastic and budget-friendly Halloween hack, especially if they seemingly have a ghoul or severed body parts within. Simply take a black trash bag and stuff it with a blanket or packing material (e.g., leftover tissue or packing peanuts). Use either a long stick through the bag or a wire to attach a mask on top.
“This is a perfect way to put last year’s Halloween mask to work,” says Nelson. “If it’s a full-head mask, stuff with tissue or newspaper; for a face-only mask, simply attach to round Styrofoam. Sit a few of these in your yard.”
9. Raid the fridge
myfoodandfamily.com If all else fails, Nelson says food can be one of your best decorating hacks. In a pinch, decorate hard-boiled eggs with a black Sharpie to create ghoulish little ghosts. Or carve jack-o’-lantern faces on bell peppers and stuff them with cooked spaghetti. Stick sliced almonds onto baby carrots to make them look like fingers, and insert them in dip. If you’re serving guacamole, let it fall from the mouth of your Halloween pumpkin. Boo appetite!
Guacamole takes on a whole different look when used as decoration.(Craig E. Nelson)
10. Get the right lighting
“Most people use black light to enhance a Halloween party scene, but for the creepiest effect, use green lights,” says Nelson.
You can easily order green lightbulbs online or even paint regular lightbulbs with heat-resistant green paint to nail this icky lighting trick. “Immerse your house in green light, and you will be amazed at the chilling effect it has on your guests,” says Nelson.
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