Yard Haunting 101
Every year terror tornados hit our neighborhood lawns. Props, inflatables, and odd random decor is thrown about yards in haphazard ways. It's obvious these heroes love Halloween but with a little planning and restraint, your yard haunt can avoid the dreaded "haunt stew" look. Even with limited space and props, you can make the most of your yard haunt.
Step 1: Create 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: Tell a Cohesive Story
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 and showing restraint will benefit your display. Choose only the 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: Create an Environment
The scene you are building is like a set of TV show or movie. You have spooky props but surround those items with everyday things to fill out the space and create an authentic environment. The more "real" the scene, the more unease your display creates.
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 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: Use Effective Lighting
Good lighting quickly and easily transforms any space and is the single most important element to add an eerie ambiance. This can be accomplished using clamp worklights or in-ground stake floodlights available at hardware stores. LED spotlights from the seasonal stores run cool, have vibrant color and are highly energy efficient.
When thinking about lighting consider the direction of the light. Downlighting comes from above and casts shadows on the ground. Uplighting come from the floor and creates spooky long shadows on walls and faces.
Combine cool and warm colors to create dynamic tension: red vs. blue, orange vs. blue, green vs. yellow, purple vs. green but avoid plain white light which washes all other colors away.
Always keep safety in mind. Never run wires where anyone can trip. Suspend them above, behind props and 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: Let the Fog Flow
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 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.
Step 6: Transmit Scary Sounds
It is crucial to compliment a spooky environment with an spooky 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 MP3 player that allows you to repeat a selection of tracks. Set it and forget it, but watch the volume, turn it off after 10pm, and don't piss off your 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 effect.
Look at our list of Eerie Instrumentals to get you started or stream an album by Midnight Syndicate, the leaders in haunt music.
The 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.