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Decorating on a Dreadful Budge

Building props is a many Halloween enthusiasts' dream, but unfortunately, you still need a few props that may be too time-consuming to build from scratch, or outside of your creative skills. Browsing through any Halloween store and you'll see how expensive props can be. But you can turn to discount, thrift, and hardware store finds to stretch your budget and embellish those props to make them your own.

Drugstore Tombstones

Tombstones are a great place to start your decorating. If you are crafty, they are fun to make using insulation foam but they can be time-consuming.

I found that drugstores (like Walgreens) carry ready-made tombstones (3 for $10) that you can embellish and repaint to your liking. Use the existing design and hot glue items like skulls, mini-pumpkins, leaves, spiders or bats, and carve out new lettering or jagged cracks with a craft knife. If it's too smooth, roughen up the some areas with sandpaper. You can even use papier mache or clay to augment the basic shapes.

After your design is complete, paint the whole thing thing using grey craft paint (or water-based spray paint). Hardware stores also sell amazing faux stone spray paints but beware that it will "melt" raw, unpainted styrofoam. You can then repaint lettering, and add drips of watered down brown and green paint to age the tombstone. Add drips of blood if you like things gory, and hot glue some Spanish moss for extra eeriness. Maybe even hot glue a raven standing on top.

Stretchy Webs

Inexpensive nylon spiderwebs are readily available, inexpensive, come in various colors, and perfect for decorating but they should be used correctly. The secret to making these webs look good is to stretch them beyond what you think is possible.

Unfold the webs from the package, locate the corners (believe it or not the material has a basic rectangle shape), secure one corner to a stable anchor (using a staple gun or small nails), and slowly stretch the opposite corner until it won't stretch another inch. They will extend a good 12 to 18 feet! Continue stretching and anchoring in several directions and look for jagged edges, molding, furniture, branches or posts to catch the nylon webs. The more stretched out the better the final web will look.

Add a few spiders of various sizes throughout the web. For a creepy touch, use clear fishing line to hang a couple spiders straight down from the ceiling (secured with a staple gun or hook). It's sometimes tricky getting these webs off trees and bushes so use with caution on prized plants.

Plastic Pumpkins

Plastic smiling or jeering pumpkins are available in most stores. Unlike real pumpkins, they don't rot, can be lit with electric lights, and can be stored for use year after year. Funkins are available at crafts stores in many shapes and sizes, have thin, sturdy walls for intricate carving, and can easily be embellished and painted.

Plastic pumpkins look a little fake with their perfectly smooth orange skins. Roughen them up with a little sandpaper and paint a mottled texture using a sea sponge and dark orange or brown craft paints. You can also spray paint the pumpkins (black pumpkins with orange lights are great combination). Create elongated stems by wrapping foil around the existing stubs and shaping a longer stem. Wrap in masking tape and paint, or wrap again in green floral tape.

For the best impact, cluster several pumpkins together of varying sizes and expressions. Use bales of hay, books, or even furniture vary the heights, and accessorize with rats, snakes or a crows perched on top and light with a strand of cool burning LED bulbs.

Color Light Bulbs

Quickly transform any space with a few carefully placed colored CFL lights. Inexpensive CFL "party light bulbs" are available in many home improvement stores. The CFLs have rich colors, burn cooler (and safer), and use less energy so you can leave the lights on all season long. Avoid the standard incandescent light bulbs that burn very hot and often burn out very fast. If you're like the look of black lights, CFL (and LED) versions are the only safe alternative – incandescent black light bulbs can cause fires and can give you third degree burns in seconds.

Replace the white lights in lamps and fixtures with color CFLs. Use a mixture of cool (blue, green) and warm (red, orange) light bulbs to create a contrast. You can also use clamp work lights from the hardware store to create directional lighting. Think in terms of downlighting (lights hanging above pointed directly down) & uplighting (lighting sitting on the floor pointed up). Uplighting creates very stark shadows and is very dramatic. The last few years, Spirit Halloween has offered some fantastic and highly-recommended LED spotlights that throw lots of light with very rich tones (but they are somewhat pricey).

Also use special lighting throughout your haunted house like battery powered candles or faux lit pumpkins (live flames are never recommended in costume party settings). Always think in terms of ambience, but don’t forget safety. Guests should be able to easily move across a room, and always keep a couple flashlights handy in case someone drops a phone, earring, etc.

Tattered Cheesecloth

Fabric stores provide a surprising wealth of resources for Halloween. Whether you need backdrop, curtains or table cloths, you’ll have plenty of options (and usually on sale). Cheesecloth is the best decorating fabric for Halloween. It is versatile, easy to color and inexpensive. It comes in various qualities from 10 grade to the premium 90 grade. For Halloween decorating, the 10 grade is perfect and you can get a 100 yard box of 10-grade cheesecloth online for under $50. The box will last for for several seasons. Some store also carry dyed cheesecloth but these tends to be more expensive since a bottle of RIT dye will give you superb results.

To use cheesecloth, unfold the fabric and using scissors, jaggedly cut it into strips or sheets and drape over furniture, lamps (avoid blocking the light bulbs), chandeliers, picture frames, mantles, and tables. You can also hang several layers as curtains, using the scissors to cut jagged holes or create snags. With scissors tear holes and stretch by hand to give it that tattered look. Rip the ends to create strands and then roll them between your palms to create defined tendrils. Layering a few pieces of fabric will yield better looking displays.

To dye the fabric, use a RIT dye and follow the package instructions (which is basically a hot water bath). You can also use diluted craft paints in browns and yellows in a spray bottle, mist the fabric, and let it dry thoroughly. (Some suggest using diluted coffee and tea which looks great but these can get a touch moldy and smelly if stored after the season.)

Bloody Options

Liquid blood is messy but you can suggest blood by using fabric cut into thin strips. For the picture above I used red lining fabric that is opaque and silky feeling. In the light it shimmers like blood. This fabric cuts almost like paper (with sharp scissors) so you can even cut drips and tape along the edge of the mirrors, windows, picture frames or even the ceiling for a gruesome effect.

If you want to use liquid blood, bypass the bottles of fake blood from the Halloween store. Those are expensive, sticky, don’t ever dry, and stain everything! Everyday latex house paint is a great choice since you can get it in high gloss, the color is rich, and it will set permanently. They sell sample jars at the home improvement stores for about $3, and it should be diluted with a touch of water to get it slightly runny. Remember to pick your paint carefully – there are hundreds colors and latex paint will look darker after it dries. (You can also use craft paints, but I don’t find the viscosity and opaqueness to be very blood-like.) Use the paint to drip onto props, tombstones, or buy inexpensive towels or curtains and splatter them with a paintbrush. Coat your hands with the paint and stamp handprints on towels.

There’s also a great product called “Hot Blood” which is red colored glue sticks. You can use them in larger glue guns to decorate just about anything without any staining after it dries. It’s essentially melted plastic so don’t expect to get it off props or clothing. You can also create drips and blobs directly onto a glue pad, let cool, peel off and place on furniture, sinks, etc.

Menacing Vines

Autumn leaves are a classic way to decorate for Halloween. If you don't happen to have an enormous oak or maple tree in your front lawn, craft stores like Michaels carry large strands of faux vines with colorful Autumn leaves in a variety of colors - some even have mini pumpkins. These vines can cover a large area fairly quickly and give an overgrown and abandoned look. (Make sure to wait for a sale - I've never bought a vine at less than 50% off!)

With a hot glue gun, combine a few strands together joining end to end. Cut some of the vines to uneven lengths and glue them sporadically throughout the larger strand (as if branching out in different directions). Using a staple gun, tape, or non-wall damaging hooks adhere the vines starting from a ground up. Go up the wall, drape over furniture, banisters, and let some droop down from the ceiling.

For a more gothic look, paint the vines with black spray paint prior to hanging for an unnatural and unsettling appearance.

Dark Silhouettes

Silhouettes are a super easy way to decorate a large window with maximum impact for people on the outside and inside. Martha Stewart Crafts offers a great set of window clings at craft stores. These are black ink printed on translucent plastic sheets. Spray a little window cleaner, position the sheet on top, and use squeegee to get out any air bubbles. That's it. While the solution is wet, you can easily reposition the window cling, and since it has no adhesive there is no residue – it peels right off.

If you are good crafter, you can create your own silhouettes using black construction paper or an enlarged printed image that is tiled and taped together, then taped to the window with transparent tape. You'll also need a light source in the room for the shadow to be seen from the outside. If you are an artist sketch out your own image, and if not, simply Google the words "creepy silhouettes" and you'll see a plethora of images to inspire you. There's no need for precision since these are diffused shadows meant to suggest eerie shapes. MAKE Magazine has an excellent tutorial and downloadable PDFs for this project: Haunted House Silhouettes.

Rickety Fence

Halloween stores carry ornate plastic fences that are really expensive and sort of short. For under $15 you can build this rickety fence using wood lath bundles from the home improvement store, a heavy duty staple gun (or wood glue), and some craft paint.

Wood lathes are lightweight wood strips 48" in lengths and sold in bundles. Simply layout a series of strips, run another piece in a perpendicular position and staple, nail or wood glue into position. You want to have irregular spacing with a few leaning or missing boards. Also, snap a few strips and position on top or bottom to look like broken boards.

Dilute brown, black and green craft paints with water until very thin and using a foam brush, drip paint on the wood strips to give them a weathered look.

Stand them up using lawn stakes driven into the ground, then wrap wire to secure the fence onto the stake. It's not a real fence and won't be super sturdy, but it will stand up to wind, rain, and less raucous youths.


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