I recently became a member of Uncommon, a young online community that calls itself “a front porch for the internet.” In creating my Uncommon profile, I was asked to write about some of my favorite things. The first one that came to mind was Halloween. This is what I wrote:
I was born on Halloween. Long before I arrived, my family celebrated this holiday with gusto—costumes, pumpkins, and scares for all ages. As a kid, my birthday parties were always held at home, at our house with its acre-sized backyard full of old sheds and forts and other good places to haunt. When night fell, the costumed party guests had to follow the trail of jack-o-lanterns through the backyard, reading creepy notes and encountering masked ghouls and terrifying traps at every turn. This was my favorite time of the year. After a hiatus when there were no appropriately-aged children in the family, we started the Halloween parties up again, though now I am on the other side of the horror. I set the traps. I wear the masks. I write the notes that lead the new generation of victims down the trail of jack-o-lanterns. I haunt my childhood home with pride. It’s still my favorite time of year.
Despite the fact that I’ve eaten way too much sugar this week, Halloween for me as never been about the candy. And although I like horror movies and ghost stories, it’s not really about those either. What makes this holiday special is the way my family celebrates it.
For me, Halloween is opening up cobwebby crates and breathing in the musty smell of ghosts that haven’t seen the light of day in a year. It’s watching my dad pose a dummy with careful precision, adjusting the gloves and boots just so. It’s listening to my brother brainstorm outlandish schemes for scaring his children. (Don’t worry, they’re fine.) It’s watching my mom hang “the witch’s laundry” on the clothesline and hearing my three-year-old niece quote Bram Stoker. “Beware! The dead travel fast!” (Yes, she really does this.) Halloween is running around the backyard at night with my cousin, wondering why it still creeps us out even though we know who the monsters are. It’s seeing my aunt’s costume for the first time. She never tells us what she’s going to be and it’s always something awesome. Halloween means smiling at my husband as he shakes his head at the rest of us. Sometimes I think he must feel like he married into the Addams Family.
It’s looking out into the dark and seeing the glow of a jack-o-lantern face. It’s pointing my flashlight at a homemade tombstone and saying, “Uh-oh… this one’s for you.” It’s removing our masks at the end of the party and all talking at once, each and every monster and victim sharing his or her story and battle scars.
Halloween, to me, means screams and laughter in equal measure.
October is drawing to a close. My family celebrated early this year, and the party was another one for the record books. Everyone survived despite what their tombstones said. Tomorrow is Halloween, and I’ll be at home, handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, scaring them with my fake spiders and bubble wrap, and hoping that they’re having at least a fraction of the fun I had when I was their age.
Happy Halloween, everyone! And thanks for celebrating with me all month. If you missed any of my October posts, you can catch up here:
Next month I’ll be taking a bit of a break from blogging. I’m sure I won’t be completely silent, but it’s time I buckle down and get some serious work done. When it comes to real fear, ghosts and goblins have got nothing on deadlines and word counts. I’ll miss you though! And I promise to be back soon.
Not enough bats in your belfry? Too much eye of newt in your witch’s brew? Ghosts hanging a little limp? Clowns refusing to cooperate? Have no fear! Er… wait. Scratch that. Have MORE fear! Master your Halloween decor with these tips.
6. Heads Will Roll! (That’s Why You Have to Weigh Them Down.)
It’s always a little embarrassing when your neighbor comes over after a windy day, hands you a skull, and says, “Um, I think this might be yours.” Then you’re all like, “Alas! I mean, thanks. I was looking for that.” These days, people are doing amazing things with Styrofoam, which means we no longer have to rob cemeteries or steal from medical schools to have realistic-looking Halloween decorations. But while plastic and Styrofoam look like the real thing, they do not carry the heft of a real human head, making them easy playthings for the wind. Therefore, you have to find a way to make them stay put. Following this simple advice will help keep you from losing your head this Halloween.
Options: Hollow plastic skulls are easy to weigh down with gravel or a few golf ball sized rocks. If there’s no hole in the skull, just make one, either on the bottom, if you want to be discrete, or on the top if you want to secure it to the ground and give it a gruesome cause of death. Styrofoam skulls can be stuck to the ground with a stake or a piece of a wire clothes hanger. Then again, they don’t actually have to sit on the ground at all. This year, I have a levitating skull that bobbles at the end of a wire hanger two feet above my graveyard.
[Note: It’s not just skulls that get away from us. The wind can wreak havoc with all kinds of decorations. Don’t be afraid to get tough on those tangled spider webs and flapping phantoms. Unruly poltergeist? Fix that ghost to a post! Fool climbing onto your roof? Tie that clown down! Show those ghouls who’s boss.]
7. The Materials Are Coming from Inside the House!
Trying to get a decoration to work? Before you run to the store for supplies, look around your house. You may find everything you need to make that ghost or goblin come alive. Here are some normal household items that come in handy when spookifying your yard:
Wire Clothes Hangers: I’ve already mentioned the benefits of pieces of wire for securing skulls, but they can also be useful whole. Those bats in the photo above are all attached to one wire hanger which was then easily draped over a small tree branch. Can’t see it in the photo, can you? You also can’t see it in real life. It blends right in with the tree much better than even twine does and now there are no knots to untie or strings to cut. I did the same thing with four small ghosts, hung at varying heights on one hanger, and they came out pretty good too.
Shepherd Hooks: These garden tools are perfect for hanging lanterns or creepy signs or ghosts. Like the hangers, they pretty much disappear at night. This year, I used one of mine to hang a skeleton, who sways flirtatiously just above the grass, and display a lightweight haunt who appears to be swooping forward. For other months, these hooks are also easy to turn into candy canes by wrapping them with red and white lights.
Bed Sheets: This may sound unoriginal, but old bedsheets really do make good ghosts. For my ghost this year, I used a sheet draped over a $1 green plastic pumpkin, with holes cut out of it so that the eyes show through. I also weighed down the plastic pumpkin with a few rocks to keep it from flapping around too much.
Other Useful Items to Keep in Your Decorating Box:
Large safety pins
Black spray paint
8. See the Terror, Hear the Terror, FEEL the Terror!
[Note: Readers who live in my neighborhood, why don’t you just go ahead and skip this tip. That’s it. Move right along to number 9. Nothing to see here. Or hear here, or feel here…]
All too often, our Halloween decorations are focused only on sight, but, as with any creative endeavor, we should really be trying to appeal to as many senses as possible. If a trick-or-treater can simply close her eyes to avoid the horrors of your house, then it isn’t as horrible as it could be.
Sound: There are lots of store-bought Halloween decorations that make sounds, usually either ear-piercing screams or creepy sayings delivered from a mouth whose movements don’t quite match the words. But if you want something a little different, that costs next to nothing and doesn’t require batteries, I’ll let you in on a pretty genius little idea I had. [Neighbors! I told you to skip this tip! Shoo! Shoo!] Ok, here it is. Get the biggest bubble wrap you can find. If you’re like us, you won’t even need to buy any. You can just go into your garage and pull it out of all the Amazon boxes that you’ve been meaning to recycle all year. Then lay a big piece of it on your sidewalk or front porch and put a thin rug on top of it. Not a doormat– that’s too heavy. Just a little throw rug. When the little monsters get close to your door, POW! POW! It’s great to watch them jump. The only problem is that some of them figure it out and start jumping up and down to pop them all. But that’s ok. Just have more sheets on standby and switch them out between groups of trick-or-treaters.
Touch: This one’s great because it gets the parents. [Neighbors, for the last time, GO AWAY! Stick around any longer and I’ll put a toad in your kids’ trick-or-treat bags on Halloween night. Or a cup of coffee.] I can’t take credit for this one. It was my husband’s doing. All you need is: a screen door or glass door that opens out, some fishing line, a small hook, and a giant spider. Above our front porch, we have several giant hairy spiders clinging to the gutters and drain pipes. They are not especially “realistic” looking, but they are awesome and make really fun decorations. However, one of those spiders is connected to a fishing line that goes through a hook on the top of our porch and connects to our glass door. So… when the glass door opens, the giant spider drops down. The kids are usually out of range either because they’re too short or because they’re too close to the door, but the smiling moms and dads standing a few feet back? They make perfect vicitms. 🙂
To add the sense of smell to your Halloween display, read on. As far as TASTING the terror? I guess you could buy really bad candy, but that just seems mean.
9. Carve Real Jack-o-Lanterns.
I’ll probably get some push-back on this one due to concerns about sharp objects and fire hazards and vegetable abuse, but there is nothing like the feel of pumpkin guts squishing beneath your fingers, nothing like the smell of candle-singed pumpkin flesh, nothing like the flicker of flame casting shadows behind triangle-shaped eyes and sharp, pointy teeth. I hate to say it, but those little LED things don’t even come close. But even if you do opt for a light that doesn’t actually burn, at least carve a pumpkin. Or two. Or twenty. Let them light the way for all the little monsters that will soon show up at your door.
One of the joys of carving real pumpkins is the wait. I don’t have any pictures of this year’s crop yet, because it’s much too early to carve them. Jack-o-lanterns don’t last long in a Texas autumn. Within days, their pointy teeth will curl in, revealing wrinkly gums, and their eye sockets will turn black and fuzzy. Lift the lid and you’re sure to get one last eerie surprise, as spider-webby mold stretches from the rotting bowl within. I taped skeletons to my windows and hung ghosts over my graveyard at the end of September with no worries except that the neighbors might give me funny looks. But jack-o-lanterns… they have to wait.
If you think you’ve outgrown the ritual of pumpkin-carving, read “The Things a Picture Holds” by Annie Neugebauer, and see if it doesn’t make you want to run to the store for a pumpkin and a sharp knife, and maybe some s’mores fixings too.
Skip this one if you must. Or buy plastic gourds and glow sticks if you really want to. But at my house, there will always be at least one real pumpkin with a lit candle and that unmistakable aroma of a Halloween tradition.
10. Be weird.
Austin, Texas, is known for keeping things weird. I appreciate that and help out whenever I can. No matter where you live, when you decorate for Halloween this year, be creative, be scary, be thorough, but also be a little bit weird. Include a random skull-on-a-stick in your cemetery or cage something that doesn’t look like it needs to be caged or put your yard art in costumes. It scares people in whole different way.
Whatever you do this Halloween, have fun, be safe, and don’t forget to check behind you once in a while. After all, the best decorated yards are the ones that make it easiest for the real creatures to hide.
Two years ago, I posted some tips for getting the most scare out of your Halloween decorations. Last weekend, while I spent six hours spookifying my yard for this year’s crop of trick-or-treaters, I came up with a few more. But before I share them, I wanted to repost the original piece (only slightly revised) for those of you who didn’t get a chance to read it the first time around. Here are my first five tips, along with a little background on what Halloween means to me.
When I was a kid, that meant excitement was in the air. It meant it was time to decorate the front porch with pumpkins and the back room with antique cardboard cut-outs of skeletons and black cats, goblins and werewolves. We’d tape them to the windows and, from the inside, they displayed a glossy array of spooky merriment, colorful scenes and detailed faces. But from outside, the windows cast eerie silhouettes, faceless, vague. Indistinct features creating a distinct uneasiness.
October also meant it was time to start heading out to the back lot at dusk to stare at the old ghost shed and watch for things. Because October was the time of year when things happened out there, when the ghost of Old Bill Edwards used to stir. Old Bill Edwards used to live in the shack on the back of our property, way before my time, and he was quiet most of the year, but during October he got a little ornery.
I guess he was restless. Maybe his spirit was troubled. Or maybe once a year, he just liked to stretch his old bones and move around a little bit. Whatever the reason, it was always in the weeks before Halloween when we would see things out there—dark shapes in the back lot, gray smoke rising from the trees. Once I even saw a fire ball shoot out of the chimney of the ghost shed, Old Bill Edwards’ former home, a chimney that was no longer connected to any stove or fire place. We heard things too—moans and creaks. Being kids, we were terrified, but we were also excited. We wanted to see more! So we tiptoed as close to the shed as we dared and threw rocks at it, trying to get Old Bill Edwards to come out.
One time, a rock flew back at US.
Many of my friends believed me about the ghost and it became a great slumber party game. Sneak out to the back lot in the dark, dare each other to throw a rock, see who was brave enough to get the closest. Other parents probably thought my family was pretty weird, but I didn’t know that at the time. Taunting the ghost may have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those other little girls, but it was just another Friday night at the Kinder house.
Some kids didn’t believe. They noticed the fact that my dad always seemed to be absent when the sightings took place, running an errand maybe or at least back at the house. He was never with us when we saw anything. They said it was him, and he was just trying to scare us. But I knew better. My dad would NEVER throw a rock at me, I told them, not that close to my face. He scolded US when we did that! And the fire ball? That wooden shed was so old and filled with so much paper and cardboard, if it ever caught fire there’d be no stopping it. My dad would never risk something so dangerous. I shook my head and knew I was right.
Even in the daylight, the ghost shed was scary. Even in the daylight in JULY. It was cluttered and musty and eyes peered out from every wall, some painted on and others forming themselves out of knotholes or shadows. There were mystery bottles lining the shelves and the floor was rotted in places, threatening to catch your foot and hold you if you tried to leave in a hurry. To make matters worse, this is where my dad stored the Halloween decorations during the year.
And these weren’t your typical Halloween decorations. These were the ones used for the annual haunted trail, the Kinder family tradition that’s been going on for over 50 years.
Giant Styrofoam crates held homemade dummies folded in half, their eyes staring up blankly, their white-gloved hands reaching out over the sides. Cardboard boxes contained various “parts,” heads mostly, an arm here and there, maybe a foot. Somewhere there would be a bag of old rubber masks—a smell like no other, I can tell you—that had to be peeled apart and aired out every year, their scraggly hair combed for spiders. Then of course there was the cast-iron cauldron in the corner, and the tombstones. (More about those later.)
As an adult, the start of October still brings the same sense of excitement for me. While I don’t have the thrill of a haunted shed nearby, I do have the joyful task of spookifying my house and yard for trick-or-treaters, and therein lies my purpose.
5 Tips for a Proper Haunting
1. Celebrities Not Welcome.
You know the phrase fear of the unknown? Let it be your mantra when decorating.
I never understood how people could think those plastic store-bought Freddy Krueger or Jason masks were creepy. Easily recognizable horror movie characters are not scary. If you want a kid to hesitate before knocking on your door on Halloween night, don’t sit Freddy Krueger in your porch swing. He knows it’s not Freddy Krueger. Instead, stuff an old pair of overalls with newspaper and put some black boots and white gloves on it. Hang a nondescript skull or pumpkin mask on its head, draw eyeballs on the cloth behind the cutouts for the eyes, and – just for good measure – stick a real ax in its hand.
You’re thinking, That won’t look realistic. Will it? And now you’re having the same conversation with yourself that the poor trick-or-treater will be having on Halloween night. Realistic or not, it is at least unknown. If you’re just trying to show your neighbors that you know there’s a holiday coming up, decorate however you want. But if your goal is to SCARE people, then you have to get creative. If any part of your victim’s brain will be thinking, Oh yeah, that’s the guy from that movie, then you’ve lost the battle before it’s even begun.
While masks and dummies should be nondescript and unfamiliar, the place to get very, VERY specific is with your tombstones. The cemetary that my dad always creates for our family’s Halloween parties is full of homemade wooden gravestones propped up by bricks or stakes, the messages hand-painted and extremely… personal. By that, I mean that every family member and every party guest has a tombstone in the back yard, each with an original and detailed inscription. Mine says, “Here lies Carie. She tried to outrun the goblin.” At the bottom, scrawled in a different hand, it says, “I got her! YUM YUM!” My aunt’s was always my favorite. “Leona—taken on this road by the thing. She left behind a loving family, one arm, and her head.” I loved the grave markers, and my dad’s creativity, until the year he included one for my cat. “Here lies Spots—Stupid little cats should not ride brooms. He fell far, landed hard, buried deep.” NOT funny, Dad.
Anyway, I highly suggest you get specific with your tombstones too. Know the names of the neighborhood kids? Invent fun ways of killing them off and fill up your cemetery. Think their parents won’t find that amusing? Then make up names. Anything is better than the plain old R.I.P. However, those cheap store-bought R.I.P. markers can be a good starting point. All you have to do is flip them around to the blank side and get a white paint pen or some shoe polish and create your own message. Easy and effective.
3. Keep It Simple.
The simpler the better, in my opinion. Those elaborate displays of mechanical hands and ear-piercing screams and flashing lights are good for a startle, but not a real scare. It’s too much, too quickly. It will cause a brief heart attack, sure, but before long the former victim will be laughing and activating it again just so they can prove how fake it is. That’s not fear. The scariest decoration we ever had, the one that sticks best in my memory, was just an old, white, button-up shirt on a wire hanger with a white plastic skull on top, wearing a simple black witch hat. It didn’t do anything, but it was terrifying.
First, it had that unknown quality. What was it? A skeleton? Or a witch? Or what? It had no name, no easy identification. We like things to have names. Second, when hung from a bush or tree branch, this… thing… was light enough to sway eerily in the breeze, turning this way and that, nodding and spinning at will. Its free movement, especially at night when the whiteness of it almost glowed, increased its creepiness. Plus, sometimes one arm of the shirt would get snagged on a leaf or twig and suddenly the lifeless shape seemed to be jauntily leaning on an elbow or waving at passers by. And third, as I said before, it didn’t do anything. And these days, sometimes that’s the scariest thing of all. Kids are expecting the big display. Everything these days blinks and speaks and reaches and grabs. So that’s what they’re waiting for. And if you think about it, the anticipation of the scare is usually worse than the scare itself. This skull-witch-creature looked like it might do something. And that was enough.
[Side Note: The first time I stayed home on Halloween night and handed out candy to trick-or-treaters instead of going out, I bought a large ceramic bowl with a large ceramic hand in the center of it to hold all the mini Kit-Kats and Snickers I bought. This was the year AFTER the plastic candy bowls with the plastic hands that moved became popular. My hand didn’t move. But the kids were terrified of it. It took them SO long to get their candy and many of them spilled pieces when they jerked back with lightning speed. I spent the whole night consoling, reassuring, saying, I promise, it doesn’t move. But these kids had been trained well and they didn’t believe me. One little girl—she was maybe five years old, so small I had to kneel down in front of her with the bowl—would NOT stick her hand in. I told her, “It’s ok honey, the hand doesn’t move.” She looked me right in the eye and said, “I think I saw it move.” !?! Not cool. I shoved a Milky Way in her bag and closed the door.]
4. Perfectionists Be Gone!
Don’t organize everything to death. (Those of you who know me know that this is the rule most difficult for me to follow.) Evenly spaced bats and symmetrical tombstones aren’t scary. DISorganization is scary. The unplanned, the haphazard, the unexpected—THAT’S scary. Scatter some bones randomly in the yard. Hang most of your ghosts and goblins, but take one or two and just jam them in a bush or toss them on the roof and see where they land. Maybe leave one dummy face down in a flower bed somewhere. At first, the neighbors will think you just forgot it. Then they’ll start to wonder. Eventually some kid will dare another kid to kick it. He will. DON’T MOVE IT. At that point, you’ll finally have the twisted, mangled, half-slumped, dirt-encrusted body that will lend authenticity to the rest of your display.
5. Beware of Scaring Yourself.
If you follow the tips above when decorating this year, you will have a truly terrifying house and/or yard. And that’s great! But if, like me, you also have the attention span of a goldfish, the first heart attack you inspire will probably be your own. So, if you’re prone to bouts of paranoia or tend to drop things when startled, you might want to stick some handy post-it notes around your house for a few days. For instance…
* Note inside the front door—“There’s a clown on the porch.”
* Note on the kitchen trash—“There’s a giant spider on the garbage bin.”
* Note on the dog’s leash—“Do not trip over the severed head.”
Safety first, after all.
Then again, my problem isn’t usually the random accidental scaring. My problem is karma. Every year, I try to scare my husband with something. A skeleton hanging in his bathroom, a fake tarantula on his desk chair, etc. The first problem is that I have no patience. Instead of waiting until right before he gets home to set the trap, I set it hours early, WAY too long for my poor little goldfish brain. The second problem is that I honestly think part of my brain is working for the dark side, because not only do I forget about my prank, but then I end up doing something extremely uncharacteristic which puts me in the path of horror. I think I’ll clean Mark’s bathroom for him. Wouldn’t that be a nice surpr… AAAAA! Time to watch that internet video. Hmm… Mark’s computer screen is bigger than mine. I think I’ll watch it on his computer… AAAAA! Oh well, at least then I know it works.