Driving through the neighborhoods at Halloween time our eyes are barraged by fake tombstones, giant inflatable grim reapers and foam body parts. All of this can be good fun, but in all reality we must ask ourselves, “Is it scary?” The answer is a simple, “no.” When I was growing up the scariest house on the block was the old abandon bungalow–grass overgrown, windows boarded up and a front porch that you dare never go on to. That house was Halloween all year around. The fright and horror came not from a bloody skeleton hanging on the front door but the imagined skeleton that just might be lying in the shuttered living room. As a person who has been in hundreds, if not thousands, of alleged haunted houses, buildings and cemeteries, I am happy to share with you 10 tips for creating a really frightening, perhaps horrifically traumatizing, stop for the trick-or-treaters in your neighborhood.
10. Don’t mow the lawn. I don’t mean don’t ever mow it, but if your neighbors are willing to put up with a lawn covered in fake fencing and plastic gravestones you should be able to get away with not mowing your lawn for 3 or 4 weeks. Overgrown lawns provide a feeling of disrepair and abandonment.
9. Your porch should be red or orange. Replacing that bright white bulb with a red or orange bulb still shows you are home while providing enough light for the kids to get up the porch. Red and orange lights also create unnatural shadow colors which can evoke feelings of uneasiness. Blue and green bulbs are recognized as totally unnatural light colors. It looks like you’re making an effort to be different, which negates the feeling of disregard you’ve built up with the unkept lawn.
8. Carve your jack-o-lanterns poorly. No one wants to see an R2D2 jack-o-lantern, except the kid dressed as Asajj Ventress or General Grievous, or Darth Vader for those of you don’t watch Clone Wars. A jack-o-lantern is supposed to be creepy. Think of it as a glowing light in the middle of a swamp, think of a face trying to scare away ghosts and spirits, but don’t get too crazy with the design. Stay simple with the concept; it makes the face ten times scarier.
7. Leave the screen door shut but the front door open. With all of the initial unease “treaters” will feel walking up to your house, an open front door will create a parallel psychological thought pattern. Since open doors are a sign of welcome the brain’s conceptualization of unknowing and knowing will compete for dominance, causing internal feelings of confusion.
6. Turn off the lights in your house. One or two candles in the living room far away from the front door will be perfect. This should be a no brainer. As soon as kids see a house all lit up, they know people are in there having Halloween fun. The fact that you have a porch light on but no other lights is very disconcerting. If your living room is totally lit up all horror rushes away from the “treaters” as they see the normal interior of your home. In the dim light of candle glow, shadows bounce and flicker, creating a world of unfamiliar shapes inside your house.
5. Play classical or orchestral music. Most kids these days only hear classical or orchestral music in a few places: religious ceremonies, weddings, funerals, and horror movies. As a plus, a lot of kids associate classical music with old people. Aside from their grandparents–sometimes including them–most kids are confused or even scared of old people.
4. Make them have patience. When you hear “Trick or treat!” don’t run to the door. Walk …slowly. And walk from another room. If you must be doing something, why not sit in another room watching TV or playing on the internet, sans lights. Let them see you coming, but make them wait. As you open the door of the room you are sitting in and meander down the hallway, the glow from your TV or computer can add some neat lighting effects as it shines and flashes behind you.
3. Don’t talk. If you must say something when you walk to the door say “Treat.” Most people strike up conversations and ask questions about the costumes. Kids don’t care. They are there for the candy and to be scared. They have asked you, “Trick or Treat?” and you should answer them, “Treat.” Trust me, it’s creepy.
2. Don’t let them see what you are giving them. It’s extra creepy to produce the “treat” from a suit coat pocket or purse. Retrieve the treat and hold it entirely in the hand away from curious eyes until you’ve placed it in the “treater’s” bag. Or have your treats just lying on a table out of view, or anywhere but a giant bowl. Don’t let them see what the treat is. Just let them feel it hit the bottom of the bag.
1. Don’t underestimate the power of subtlety. Horror comes from the unknown. We all harbor some fear of the dark or the unfamiliar. Children have a heightened sense of strangeness because things are still new to them and so much is still unknown. When kids leave your front porch whispering to each other, “what was that all about?” or “dude, that was weird” you can rest assured that they will be talking the next day about the creepy house they went to on Halloween. Your house.