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Whether you've been collecting Halloween props for years or just getting started, having thoughtful plan of attack will ensure your haunt avoids that "haunt stew" look – you know when everything and the kitchen sink is thrown out on the lawn in haphazard ways. Even with limited space and props, you can make the most of your yard haunt. Hear are a few tips from a theater set and lighting designer.

 

Step 1: Focal Points
Depending on your house and layout, you'll want to choose one major focus and up to two additional focal points – just like a three-ring circus! The eye is always looking for the center of things, and likes to travel from a beginning to an end point. A major prop can anchor your entire display from which you build out the rest of the scene. For best effect this prop should be the biggest in the display. This can be a store-bought prop like an animated figure or something you construct like a scarecrow, mummy or witch. Consider the space and the path that trick 'r treaters will take to the front door. To create a good scare, distract their attention with one focal point as they enter the next one.

For this display, the gravedigging zombie was the focal. Every kid had to climb a few steps and walk past it to get to the candy. Many could not do it!

Step 2: Smart Props
The best yard haunts establish a clear theme, or story to tell. If you switch themes every year it's likely your collection of Halloween decor will expand exponentially over time. And while every prop is your favorite, not every prop will support your current theme. It's okay to rotate your decor and leave some things in storage!

The practice of editing oneself and showing restraint will benefit your display. Choose only the smart props that best support your story, but don't forget that props can be repainted or altered to make them work within your theme. More is rarely better and only creates cluttered, disorganized haunt stew.

For this graveyard scene it was simple to choose tombstones, a rickety graveyard fence, a sign to warn trespassers, and a spooky skeleton window cling that glowed with the lights from inside the house.

Step 3: Set Dressing
The scene you are building is like a set of TV show or movie. You have you Halloween props, but surrounding those spooky items with more everyday things and filling the space gives your scene an authentic touch.

Make sure to create levels by adding tables, boxes, or other items that give you variety of heights. This creates interest. Also consider depth and place things behind, in front and to the sides – don't just line up a set of props. And make sure to create some sort of backdrop. You can hang fabric, spiderwebs, dried corn stalks (sold in bundles at corn farms), faux leafy vines (available at crafts stores), or even bushy potted plants.

For the scene, potted plants were added in the background, mulch was spread over the floor, and oozing tattered fabric was hung as a backdrop – much better than having that blank wall!

     



Step 4: Effective Lighting
Light quickly and easily transforms any space and is the single most important element to add an eerie ambiance. This can be easily accomplished using simple clamp work lights and ground stake floodlights available in hardware stores. Color CFLs are now widely available, run cooler and are energy efficient if you plan to leave your display on all night. LED spotlights are also incredibly effective and have the most vibrant color. The spotlights available at Spirit Halloween and other vendors are the absolute best.

When thinking about lighting consider the direction of the light as well as using contrasting colors. Downlighting comes from above the scene and casts shadows on the ground. Uplighting come from the floor and creates spooky shadows on faces. Color combinations to consider are red vs. blue, orange vs. blue, green vs. yellow, purple vs. green.

Always keep safety in mind. Never run wires where anyone can trip. Suspend them above patios, along bushes and tape them down securely. If it rains, turn them off! Very few lights are weather proof and you don't want to shock anyone.

Step 5: Eerie Fog
One of the most popular features of any haunt is fog. Consumer fog machines come in several varieties and vary from 400W to 1000W. The higher the wattage, the more fog it can produce. Every fog machine also has a recycle time when it stops dispensing fog since an inner chamber needs time to reheat and covert the fog liquid to gas. Higher wattage machines have shorter recycle times and can put out more fog per cycle. Smaller wattage machines are best for smaller areas or covered porches, while larger ones will fill a good size yard.

To create low-lying fog that sticks closer to the ground you have to chill the fog immediately after it's produced. There are low-lying fog machines available (which have a built in chamber that require ice to be added frequently) but these don't work well since second the fog warms up, it starts traveling up into the air. There are also DIY ways to create a fog chilling chamber using a styrofoam cooler.

If you are lucky to have a chilly, non-windy, low humidity night, the fog will naturally cling to the ground. (I once accidentally entrenched my entire street in stubborn fog for hours.)

Step 6: Scary Sounds
The last crucial element you'll want to consider is creating a spooky atmosphere with an scary soundtrack. This could be actual music created for haunts, sound effects, or scary movie soundtracks. Simply hide a pair of computer speakers in your display and plug into an iPod or other MP3 player that allows you to repeat a selection of tracks. Look at our list of Eerie Instrumentals to get you started or download an album by Midnight Syndicate. A little goes a long way so watch the volume and try not to completely upset the neighbors.

If you can, have a different sources of sounds. Play a haunting melodic soundtrack near the front of the house. If you have a tombstones, play a selection of scratching and moaning sounds that seem to emanate right from the graveyard itself. If you have a nearby garage, crack the door open, have a strobe light inside and a soundtrack of never ending screams. You can have an accomplice bang on the garage door as trick 'r treaters pass by for even greater sound effects.

 

Our Complete Scene
Here's an image of the entire haunt which seems bigger than it actually is just by the use of lighting and creating a "three-ring circus" of focal points: the window and immediate area, the porch area where the trick 'r treaters walk through, and the projection on the garage door and the fog seeping from underneath it.

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