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.
This piece was originally posted on my previous blog, The Black Cat Diaries.
October is here.
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.
Happy October, everyone!
Stay tuned for Tips #6-10 next week!