- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Alexandria resident Karen Auth credits ghosts and goblins for helping her create quality time with her daughter.

Each October, Ms. Auth transforms her home into a haven for creepy critters. Come Halloween night, she and her 17-year-old daughter, Shannon — dressed each year as Winnie the Pooh’s friend Eeyore — sit outside all evening, passing out candy and soaking in the attention their decorated house receives.

Most children would rather do anything than hang out with their parents, she says. Creating this year’s Halloween decor, a task the two spent all of Columbus Day finishing, let mother and daughter work side by side.

Their display features a wealth of the usual ghoulish suspects, from ghosts to a large purplish spider crawling on top of an open casket made of cardboard.

“We do it every Halloween and Christmas,” Ms. Auth says of the holiday decorating. “It’s a family thing.”

Ambitious homeowners can create their own house of horrors with some imagination and a trip to the local hardware store. The building blocks of a frighteningly effective graveyard can be had on the cheap, design experts say.

“You’d be surprised what correct, proper lighting and a fog machine will do,” says Steve Myers, producer and director of Cox’s Point Haunted Mansion in Essex, Md.

The 25-year Halloween veteran suggests homeowners buy pink insulation foam, made of dense Styrofoam, for a flexible raw material.

“You can carve it, and it’s very inexpensive,” he says. “It makes some great tombstones.”

A few swipes with a wood-burning kit, and the tombstone can say whatever the homeowner wishes. A quick coat of gray acrylic house paint flecked with acetone for a weathered surface will finish the job. If that isn’t enough, he recommends spraying the tombstone with light green paint to suggest moss.

Cobwebs are a seasonal staple, and homeowners have a couple of ways to re-create them in and around the house.

Mr. Myers says stores sell cobweb makers for about $35, or holiday decorators can use a hot-glue gun to string glue strands from place to place while the glue is still drying.

Matt Fox and Shari Hiller, hosts of HGTV’s “Room by Room,” say some gauze strips and tea can make a home’s interior look rather tomblike.

Miss Hiller says tea-stained gauze wrapped over and around curtain rods can transform a window into an eerie sight. She suggests finishing off the gauze by snipping the ends with scissors for a frayed appearance. To complete the look, she recommends setting up a fan near the strips to keep them in slow, constant movement.

“At night, we were scaring ourselves,” she says of the designs.

Mr. Fox says tea-stained bedsheets can be draped over the living room couch to complete the haunted-mansion look.

For more interior decorations, Miss Hiller suggests shaping eyeballs out of white modeling clay and then baking them until they’re hard. Then paint the eyeballs with colored irises and red lines to suggest veins. The eyeballs then can be put in a clear jar.

Dry ice left near or in a caldron prop can make it appear as if some sort of brew is simmering.

“Once you get started, the ideas just flow,” Miss Hiller says.

Mr. Fox says he brainstorms for Halloween ideas by remembering what scared him as a child and recalling which horror movies left him trembling.

Allan Bennett, the owner and operator of Bennett’s Curse — House of the Vampyres in Hanover, Md., says he often gets calls from homeowners seeking advice on Halloween decorations.

Mr. Bennett, whose haunted house bears a medieval theme, says he and his crew have learned a great deal about Halloween decorating by asking the various experts they meet in different stores.

“We do it all on our own,” Mr. Bennett says of his haunted house. “It’s been [an] on-the-job training experience.”

One simple way to frame a person’s home for Halloween is to encircle it with a cemetery-style fence, he says. A series of half-inch-thick PVC pipes combined with wooden strips can create an effective re-creation of a graveyard fence, he says. A quick coat of gray or black paint can finish the look.

Mr. Bennett says another tombstone option is to use sheets of white beaded foam from a home-improvement store and write on it with a hot knife.

“You can age it using fire,” he says. “It’s quick and easy and lightweight.”

One of the trickier decorations to pull off is creating a humanlike form to haunt one’s front yard. Mr. Bennett says a frame built from 2-inch-thick PVC pipe is a good start. The pieces can be attached using PVC glue or duct tape for a less permanent solution.

Once the framework is finished, homeowners can bulk up the creature-to-be with rug padding before dressing the form. Carpet stores typically discard extra padding and may give away their throwaway materials.

“PVC bodies can be used from year to year,” he says. Plus, given their weight, they can be pushed into the ground to resist stiff winds and won’t droop over time.

If homeowners want to hang a human form, either from a hangman’s noose or as if it is floating in the air, they can use lighter-weight materials like chicken wire.

Gary Fischer, vice president and owner of Tulip Gulch, a group that produces Nightmare Penitentiary in Bowie, says creating an effective scare can be as easy as setting up a porch light to shine on a sinister mask.

He says parents should take care not to scare visiting kiddies too much. At a Tulip Gulch production, costumed actors make sure not to scare the younger visitors.

“In our show, if a little kid comes in, we take off our masks. We’re parents,” he says.

Ms. Auth also keeps the children in mind when whipping up each year’s display. She sets aside a portion of her decorated yard for toddler-friendly frights made of less realistic colors and features.

She even has a fog machine, bought a few years back, which she uncorks on Oct. 31 to give an extra sense of unease to her front yard.

“When the little ones come, I don’t turn it on,” she says.

She says creating her display is a welcome break each fall season.

“Life is hard enough,” she says.

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