Halloween is fast approaching, which means it’s time to get creepy with our home decor. While some people may be satisfied with a few simple spider webs, some orange lights, and maybe a ghost or two hanging in the window, the real Halloween enthusiasts will want to create a more interactive experience for their visitors. For this, the creatively-minded family will want to make their own haunted house, or, in my case, a haunted yard.
Creating your own haunted house is more than just figuring out how to scare the bejesus out of your neighbors. It’s also a great way to get the whole family involved in a DIY project that will keep everyone engaged and having fun.
As far as coming up with your concept, there are a lot of directions you can go when deciding what to put into your haunting experience. There are the old standbys like the startle and the gross out, but the most important element of an effective haunted house is mood. It’s important to think hard about how to build the best setup to make your house not only scary, or startling, or gross, but to generate that sense of eerie foreboding and let the imagination of your visitors do the work.
To set this mood, it’s important to remember that less is more. Truly memorable haunted houses don’t throw scares at you at every turn, but allow you to imagine what might be lurking in the shadows around you. Like in a great horror movie, it’s the anticipation that builds tension. You’ll need to put in enough displays to keep your visitors on their toes, but space it all out so that they can’t predict where the next scare is coming from.
This year, I’m planning to make a cemetery-themed haunted experience in my yard. A cemetery. How cliche, you may think. But, remember that I want to go for setting a mood rather than startling my visitors. For this, the cemetery is the perfect backdrop, because my intent is to use the absence of elaborate scares to create a tension that will keep my visitors’ hairs on end the entire time. Feel free to take inspiration from this for your own haunted house.
The experience begins before guests even make it to the house. At the street, visitors will be enticed to enter by signs, but there will be no actual person to invite them in. The idea is that visitors will enter the yard unsure if there is anyone in the haunted yard. This way, we begin to build a sense of isolation and uncertainty from the onset of the experience. Along the driveway leading up to the house are scattered headstones that increase in numbers and density as they reach the top of the driveway. Again, the intent is to bring the guests gradually into the experience and set the mood early.
You can always buy the pre-made tombstone decorations from any Halloween store, but making your own is way more cost effective, easy, and a fun project for your kids. You can make them out of essentially any flat, rigid material and some paint. I recommend either plywood or heavy cardboard; each option has pros and cons. You can get sheets of styrofoam or insulation foam, but this can get expensive and you have to be careful which paints you use as many will cause styrofoam to melt. Plywood will be more durable, but will require wood cutting tools and a lot more adult supervision. Cardboard is cheaper and more readily available, but may not hold up well in the rain. However, cardboard is an easy material for your kids, since they can work on it with common household scissors. Make your tombstones by tracing outlines on your material (here are some templates you can enlarge). Two feet tall by about one and a half foot wide are good dimensions. The tops can be rounded or squared or scalloped. I recommend making several different shapes and sizes so that your graveyard will look more ramshackle and less uniform. Paint the tombstones using gray paint or spray-on textured paint to get them a stone-like appearance and texture, and then use black paint to letter them. Your kids can have fun coming up with unique epitaphs, or you can use a variety of sources for inspiration. To stand the tombstones up, glue or duct tape them to survey stakes from your local hardware store. (These normally come in bundles of 12 for around $4)
Scattered across the yard I’m going to put in 3-5 ghostly figures appearing to walk toward the entrance to the cemetery. To make these, I plan to build simple armatures out of PVC pipe, drape them with light, white fabric and top them with styrofoam wig heads. You can build a simple armature using PVC pipe and angle joints, or if you want to get elaborate you can use this awesome design. Building the armature might be beyond the abilities of younger kids, but they’ll have a lot of fun helping you pose and dress the figures. Wig heads are available from most beauty supply stores and cost between $3-$5. The kids can paint scary faces on the heads with any craft acrylic paint. The ghostly figures are just there to enhance the sense of motion toward the entrance of the cemetery, possibly creating the feeling of an inevitable pull for the visitors. You can use the armatures equipped with some old thrift store clothes and prop zombie heads to make static scenes throughout.
Once they arrive at the top of the driveway, guests will have to enter through a gate, kept partially open, forcing them to weave through a narrow space to get into the cemetery. This makes the entrance slightly uncomfortable, contributing to the overall mood.
Headstones inside the fence will be much more tightly placed than along the driveway, creating lots of obstructions to the visitors’ view. The primary tools I plan to use within the graveyard are light and shadow to toy with perspectives. A low fog, made with the help of dry ice pellets, will creep eerily around the graves. (Dry Ice Directory will help locate the nearest vendor). It’s worth investing in a high quality fog machine if you have money; I don’t recommend the small, cheap ones as they’re not very effective and prone to breaking. Also, the fog from a machine rises, whereas dry ice mist stays on the ground. (Especially practical if you have skittish neighbors who’ll dial 911 at the sign of “smoke” emanating from your yard.) Your kids will get a real kick out of the eerie mist created by dry ice, and there are a lot of fun science projects you can do with it. Be sure to show them how to properly handle it, or just handle it yourself (dry ice is, well, extremely cold, and can cause some nasty freeze burns if it touches exposed skin.)
Set back among the stones, out of reach of the guests, an altar with strange symbols stands covered in candles and frothing vials of mysterious potions. Again, dry ice will create the effect of smoking potions. To get an idea of how this works, check out this video. Add a little food coloring to the water and illuminate with carefully hidden LEDs or glow sticks, and you can create a simple and easy effect. I happen to have a stone table in my yard that will work perfectly for this, but you can use any table covered with ground-length cloth. For a more decorative draping, arm your kids with some fabric paints and have them design their own creepy altar drapings. You can stick to dark colors, or even get glow-in-the-dark and blacklight reactive paints for a more dramatic effect.
I will scatter throughout the bushes, just outside of the light, glowing floating eyes using this design for another creepy background effect. This is great DIY activity your kids can help with. See how many different scary eyes they can create, so you have a good variety of disembodied eyes floating around your yard.
As a simple scare, strobe lights can be used to cast shadowy silhouettes around the cemetery. Simply hide a small strobe behind a tombstone, angle it to flash against a wall or flat surface, and place a cutout of a creepy design in front of the strobe to cast the shadow. Additionally, I’m using strobes to briefly reveal scares hidden in the shadows around the yard as guests pass by, and to illuminate frightening scenes in the windows of my house which are visible from the yard. If you want your kids really involved in the act, dress them up in scary costumes and have them hide in dark spaces of the yard, from which they can jump out at guests as the strobes flash them.
You can also position strobe lights behind a sheet or other opaque material so that they cast shadows of some frightening scene through the sheet. All of these elements together, if carefully spaced and timed, can create that mood of dread and anticipation. For the budget conscious, you can find inexpensive LED strobe lights in the $12-$15 price range from many online stores.
Another way of using light and illusion to scare guests is to build a bottomless pit illusion, similar to this. The setup in my cemetery will have what appears to be a pushed-up mound of earth above one of the graves with a faintly glowing hole in the top of it. When visitors approach and look into the hole, they’ll see the bottomless pit illusion. Beneath the lower mirror, the scare will be illuminated occasionally by a strobe. If you’re short on ideas for what to put in the false bottom of the hole, brainstorm with your kids. I’m sure they’ll come up with some really scary or gross ideas.
You want your haunted house to establish its mood using as many of your vistors’ senses as possible. If you can tie visual, tactile and auditory senses into one experience, it will be much more powerful. The easiest way to do this is with a sound effects CD. There are many Halloween sound effect products on the market, and I recommend sticking to the less is more mentality. Sound effects can go from spooky to cheesy in a heartbeat if they aren’t carefully selected. You’ll want to avoid cackling witches and Dracula wannabes, and stick to an effects reel that is more subtle, closer to white noise in the background. Wind faintly moaning through the trees, the occasional crack of a twig being broken, and faint, distant, indecipherable voices will add to the sense that there are unseen dangers lurking in the darkness. Just remember, sound is an important aspect of your haunted house, but should complement and accentuate what your visitors see, not take center stage.
While a creepy mood and some static scenes will go a long way to making a haunted house memorable, adding some kinetic elements will really help push your guests over the edge. You can get as elaborate as you want; the truly adventurous and technically-minded haunted house designers can even build their own animatronic elements. That’s beyond the scope of this article, but a list of great ideas with instructions on how to make them can be found here.
A little easier on the budget and technical difficulty are flying ghosts, powered by cables and simple motors. Here’s one I plan to use in one of the windows of the house:
Far easier is to get your family involved in the scenes, dressing them up in costumes to play roles throughout the haunted house. Children can be creepy little imps or devils, or pint sized monsters skittering in the shadows, just beyond the light. (Check out this other Nerdywithchildren.com article for some inspiration on great kids’ costumes.) Adults can hide in graves, behind bushes, or behind illuminated sheets as witches, zombies, mad scientists and more. Having live people populate your haunted house/yard greatly increases your ability to keep your guests on their toes, as well. One of the best ways to increase their sense of insecurity while exploring your haunted space is to have live actors jump out at the from behind or from areas that were seemingly benign just moments ago. The possibilities are endless and limited only by your imagination.
Don’t be the boring house on the block this year. Your kids will love dreaming up ways to scare friends and neighbors, and will take pride in their awesome haunted house. If you get stuck for ideas, the internet has a vast supply of inspiration and how-to articles. Get creative and remember to set the mood!
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