Over the Top Halloween Display (inc. Updated Pepper's Ghost & More)

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Introduction: Over the Top Halloween Display (inc. Updated Pepper's Ghost & More)

I go overboard for Halloween. Its the only holiday I know of where the do it yourself spirit is embraced and encouraged. I see many commercialized American households buy off the shelf displays and call it a day, but in any given town there is at least one house where the display is a true labour (British spelling for emphasis) of love... In St Johnsbury, VT, that house is mine

We have a plethora of young children in our secluded little neighborhood; however, there is a distinct lack of Halloween spirit. If any display is attempted at all, it tends to be either saw-toothed Jack-o-lanterns or a Wal*Mart air-blown decoration. This saddens me deeply.

This year, in addition to the standard pumpkins and ghouls that adorn my porch and front lawn, I wanted to make one undeniably great, totally believable prop that would not so much scare or horrify the neighbors, but through its "Shock and Awe" factor, would coerce them to put up a half-decent display or their own.

I decided that, with the little I know about Stagecraft, I should be able to create a totally realistic ghost, so long as it was non-interactive, and non-examinable. With these caveats in mind, I settled on "haunting" an upstairs bedroom. It was too far away to examine, had a limited viewing angle, and was currently unoccupied.

That lead to the creation of "Pepper's Bride".

I also expanded upon my previous "Bone Phones" instructable, to create a truly frightful Grim Reaper to greet the children.

This instructable will cover the two big props in addition to a few scene-setters that really made this year's display "pop".

oh, and did I mention, I was pretty broke this year, so a lot got reused, and i used a lot of scrap.

Step 1: Plan the Scene

Intricate planning is one of the important first steps of a Halloween display... you don't need to place everything to begin with, but you should know what you need, in a general way.

1) Set Boundaries - decide what area your display will encompass, and stick to it. That way, your display is not a jumble, and people don't get the feeling that it "petered out" at the edges. Common boundaries include: house (duh), sidewalk, hedge/fence, Halloween fence, caution tape, driveway, and road.

I decided to be bounded by the house, the sidewalk, and the driveway on either side.

2) Enhance Boundaries - cemetery-style fences or caution tape need no enhancement, but my driveways did.

I decided that two torches, in addition to the house, would properly emphasize the display's boundaries.

1) Major Props - decide where your major props are going to be. These will be the most eye-catching/scary items (often the most expensive/complicated too). Use these props sparingly, or your guests will become jaded. The majority of your props should be simple, and planned to complement the placement of your Major props.

My Major props were a "Big-Scream TV" display(i keep it by popular demand, even though I personally think the videos are way too cheesy), "Grim" (an interactive talking grim reaper), and "The Bride" (peppers ghost). "The Bride" was limited to the bedroom, and the "Big Scream TV" was limited to the front window. "Grim" needed to be close to the kids, but his base needed a bit of camouflage, as he's based on a music stand, therefore I chose the front lawn, at a 45 degree angle between the street and the front walk. He was set in slightly, so as to place other props, obstructing the view of his base.

3) Minor Props - get a rough Idea of what you need to fill in the display, and how to make it "tell a story". Final placement can wait until Halloween, but the general ideas have to be there. Decide on a theme and stick to it. No aliens mixed with pirates. no 40s style ghosts mixed with gory axe-murderers. You don't need to do this if you can make it work, but I try to choose a theme...

I went with "a classic haunting" I.E. ghosts and ghouls, but no gore, and no "human" element (like a psycho-murderer). I wanted to include a nod to some classic horror "greats", and I wanted only a few "creatures", mostly just thematic elements.

4) Set the scene - be sure that your props don't work in a vacuum... fill in with items that make the props look at home... For example, a vampire does NOT stalk a 1985 ranch style home with a well kept facade, hot tub, and a 1973 Corvette Stingray up on blocks in the front yard. Try to alter your surroundings to match the theme (or change the theme to match the surroundings)

I moved the clutter of the bedroom out of sight of the window and added some classic decor. I added cobwebs and "gas" lamps to my porch. I killed the inside lights completely, and MOST IMPORTANT, I cleared everything off the front porch/lawn before setting up.

5) Be Flexible - over build/buy. Get enough props that if one looks wrong in the final placement, you can replace it with another, or if there is a "dead" spot, you can fill it in. Be prepared to "flex" your design to fit the realities of final placement. NEVER put out all the props you own. Keep a surplus, but don't crowd it onto the lawn at the last minute just because you have it.

I used my "excess" props to set up small scenes around the neighborhood, to improve the general atmosphere.

6) Keep Your Vision - Always be on the lookout for little things to add to the display... browse the aisles of every store you walk into.

Step 2: Setting the Stage

The Pepper's ghost illusion was going to succeed in its mission of "shock and awe", it couldn't be set in a little used home office / guest bedroom. It needed a bit more atmosphere. Luckily, the office already had a Great roll top desk. I just added some candles and an old-style framed portrait (actually, a "Goretrait" Halloween prop, but no one can see its plastic-y lenticular icky-ness from the street). I toyed with the idea of simulating torn wallpaper, but the room is just painted drywall, so it seemed wrong.

next up, lighting.

Step 3: Brownout Lighting

One of the classic scene setters in cinema, stage and haunted houses is failing lighting. In those settings, It serves a triple purpose. Firstly, it implies that whatever powers are afoot have supernatural control over the physical world. Secondly, It disorients the viewer, allowing a slow continuous reveal of the object of fear, without the normal inspection good lighting would allow. Thirdly, it preys on humans' fear of darkness. In addition to the above reasons, The common use of flickering, failing lighting in such venues has firmly cemented it in our minds as a horror fixture. It was a must have for this scene.

Some people would think, "OK, so we get some flicker bulbs at Home Depot and..." NO! "Flicker Bulbs" have two BIG drawbacks. Firstly, they will not illuminate a room. Secondly, they never really go out, the light just moves around.

For these purposes, we need to "randomly" pulse a normal incandescent bulb on and off. For a more complicated, or high power project, I'd use an Arduino and some solid state relays, but in a one bulb room, there's a much easier way. We use a familiar friend to stagehands and haunter's: The Fluorescent Starter.

Wiring a Fluorescent Starter in series with a bulb (and a fuse for safety) gives a beautiful flicker effect, at very low cost.

I got extravagant with mine, and used a bulb to outlet adapter, connected to a lamp-cord end, connected to the circuit, connected to a lamp base to make it a dongle that screws into the socket, and simulates the look of a hanging light bulb. see images for details.

In addition to the flicker adapter, I placed standard flicker bulbs in the porch lights, and a flicker candle in an upstairs window. (i got the bulbs at Home Depot, where they were overpriced and understaffed)

one thing to remember with a fluorescent starter, is that they rely on a mechanical switch... expect the starter to fail after a few days use... keep spares on hand, in case of failure.

Step 4: Pepper's Bride

Before I explain the workings of the Pepper's Ghost illusion I ran, I want to mention that I have a digital projector that I made from an LCD Monitor and an Overhead Projector... any commercial digital projector, or even a large TV will work, but the photos show what I had.

Pepper's Ghost is a classic theater illusion that reflects an image off a pane of glass angled at 45 degrees from the image and 45 degrees from the viewer. The viewer, in the right lighting, sees both the reflection and the scene behind the glass, superimposing a transparent image onto the scene... with different lighting, the trick can be used for many illusions, such as the girl-to-gorilla trick that was popular in many carnivals and fun houses.

to construct the trick properly, I needed a LARGE pane of glass. The glass should be at least sqrt(2)*windowWidth wide, so as to hide the glass and its frame, at least from directly in front of it. to accommodate for an acute viewing angle, the glass would need to be much larger. I would have needed a 48" pane to do the trick properly, so I cheated.

I used a 36" pane from Aubuchon Hardware ($17.00) and narrowed the window with curtains. I also removed the outer edge of the wooden frame, to hide the edge of the glass when viewed from a significant angle.

The projector sits in the corner of the room, running a custom video off my laptop. The video is based on a fan-made walkthrough of Disney's The Haunted Mansion, where he has a long clip of The Bride in action... i took the clip, stabilized it, edited the brightness, contrast, and saturation, and added fades. all this was done in VirtualDub (an open source video editing program) with plugins such as DeShaker and Fader. I've attached the video so that it can be used for other displays

Step 5: Grim Overview

Grim is my major prop for the front lawn. He is a 5' grim reaper with a skull for a head... he talks in a deep and ominous voice, reminiscent of the puppet from SAW (not that I endorse SAW). as he speaks, his eyes flare to the words, in a surprisingly spooky fashion. He's my scare prop, as no one expects him to talk, and they certainly don't expect him to answer them directly.

Grim is made from several pieces:

-His head is documented in my "Flashing Bone Phones" instructable. It is attached to the body via adhesive velcro and a pegboard stand.

-His body is a microphone stand with three pieces of 2x4 for arms. the 2x4's were cut at an angle, to give him a bit of an elbow.

-His hands are from scrap bones bought at Wal*Mart for $3.00 a bag. One of the hands was cut so as to fold around the scythe.

-His scythe was purchased at Abbot's costume rental / party store in Littleton, NH

-His robe was purchased at the local dollar store.

-His innards are based on a walkie-talkie (short range 2 way radio) and a voice changer, but enough edits were done to deserve a separate step.

all in all, he is an impressive beast.

Step 6: Grim's Innards

The basic idea behind the prop's workings is that a Walkie-Talkie outputs through a Voice changer, to the Skull and the speakers under his arms.
Grim is a bit complicated internally, so I'll break it down into components.

Walkie-Talkie (short range 2 way radio):
Power: Normally takes a NiCd battery or four AAAs, but was modified to run off AC, Via AC Adapter
Input: Obviously radio signal from other walkie-talkie
Output: 2.5mm (3/32") TRS miniplug. Goes to Headset Adapter
Details: Receives voice from handheld Walkie-Talkie.

AC Adapter:
to increase the battery life of the Walkie-Talkie, I created an AC adapter, which was made difficult by the lack of a barrel-style power connector. I took two dead AAA batteries and removed their plastic skin. I soldered a lead to each battery's body (doubles as the positive terminal) and covered the negative terminals with electrical tape. I then jammed the two batteries into the battery box of the radio, so that one battery's positive contact touched the positive contact of the radio and the other battery's positive contact (acting as a negative contact) touched the negative contact of the radio. The leads connect (via a switched box with screwdown terminals that I built for breadboarding) to a multi-voltage AC-DC converter (from radio shack, I think).

Headset Adapter:
Input: 2.5mm headset connector from Walkie-Talkie
Output: 3.5mm headphone connector to Voice Changer
Details: I needed to convert 2.5mm TRS (miniplug - tip mic, ring headset) to dual 3.5mm (headphones and microphone)... there are commercial adapters for this, like this one, but I used what I had. I'm not going to give details on my "tower to the moon" of adapters, because everyones will be different, depending on what adapters they have lying around. If at all possible, use a commercial adapter. I only used the headphone connector, but with a voice activated walkie-talkie, you could connect a microphone for a more seamless 2-way conversation.

Voice Changer:
Input: 3.5mm headphone connector from Headset Adapter. (goes to microphone input)
Output: 3.5mm headphone connector to Output Splitter
Power: 9v battery
Details: I bought a $10 voice changer from Abbott's Costume Rental & Party Store in Littleton, NH. I removed the microphone and speaker, and replaced them with 3.5mm TRS (miniplug) connectors to connect to the other components.

Output Splitter:
Input: 3.5mm headphone connector from Voice Changer
Output: 3.5mm headphone connector to Speakers & 3.5mm headphone connector to Skull.
Details: its a Belkin Headphone Splitter with dual inline volume controls (bought at Staples about a year ago for $9.99)

Speakers:
Input: 3.5mm headphone connector from Output Splitter
Power: AC
Details: Powered computer speakers under the arms

Skull:
Input: 3.5mm headphone connector from Output Splitter
Power: 2 AA batteries
Details: A tip 31 transistor, controlled by the audio input, is wired in series with the LEDs in his eyes... details are in my previous Instructable, Flashing BONEfones.

The Walkie-Talkie had a powered Speaker-level output, and the Voice changer took a Microphone-level input, so I should have needed an attenuator in between, to lower the power from the Walkie-Talkie. However, apparently, the microphone jack on the changer handles Speaker-level audio fine, when the Walkie-Talkie's volume was kept as low as possible. The adapter connected to the changer with an ordinary 3.5mm stereo patch cable.

Step 7: Torches

The Lawn's edges were defined by Tiki Torches burning with a bright green fire. To keep children out of harm's way, metal tubes were embedded into the ground to extend the torches' heights to 6'.

The torches were fueled with a mixture of Boric Acid and Methyl Alcohol, so as to burn green. The Boric Acid was purchased at my local pharmacy, but can also be found as an ant poison. The Methyl Alcohol was Gas Line Antifreeze. Just add a few teaspoons of Boric Acid to the bottle of Methyl Alcohol, and you're ready to go. To get a cleanly green flame, be sure to use a new wick that has not been used with lamp oil...

although green is the easiest to create (easily available colorant), other chemicals will yield different colors of flame. Here's a quick list:

  • Green - Boric Acid
  • Red - Lithium Chloride
  • Lilac - Potassium Chloride
  • Purple - Potassium Nitrate aka "Saltpeter" (*Warning* Burns VERY hot)
  • Blue - Copper Chloride

- taken from homeofpoi.com

when I re-lit the torches to take pictures, i spilled some fuel on one... I thought, "oh well, it'll burn off." The bamboo of the tiki torch caught fire, and I lost some arm hair when the fuel container melted through, spraying burning alcohol everywhere... the moral being, don't spill fuel, and if you do, clean it up before lighting the torch.

also be warned that several of these chemicals produce toxic fumes when burned, so be careful as to where you place your torches.

Step 8: Other Props

I always like to add a bit of humor to my display. This year I used custom tombstones to accomplish this.

I cut wallboard into the rough shape of tombstones, and stenciled on famous names in Horror. I left a fourth tombstone blank, near the open coffin, just to leave the kids guessing. (I considered having it be an "in progress" tombstone with the first few letters of one of the neighbor kid's name stenciled, but that would have been mean.)

I felt that a bit more personalization was in order, so I added a couple more props, with Boris Karloff's hand emerging from the ground, and a raven on Poe's stone.

The coffin on the porch contained a boombox, playing a cd of moans and groans, to help set the scene.

There were also some masks on the lawn, stuffed with Styrofoam balls and put on sticks.

Otherwise, it was a pretty basic display of skulls, bones, and cobwebs.

I added a fog chiller / fog machine, but the wind killed the effect.

Step 9: Reactions and Final Comments

I got many unsolicited responses from trick-or-treaters, neighbors, and friends. My favorite responses were sounds of shock and amazement at "Grim" and "Pepper's Bride". A few parents called it "the best display in town" and my boss compared the ghost to "a Disney World ride", high praise from him.

In general, It went over very well. I have only a few comments:

1) The Ghost worked better with dusty glass than clean glass
2) The green torches needed better wicks. Fiberglass doesn't wick alcohol very well.
3) a professional projector would have leaked less light, resulting in a brighter, more "solid" ghost.

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36 Comments

I like your ideas although i am having a tough time getting your corpse bride avi to work. Do you have another way that i could download it? I am using it for the haunted house at the school i teach at.

Hope This isn't too late... It's really tough to find a workable video, and this is certainly not optimal, but it's the best I could do
https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/1350214/F7ZET3VF8IEN5GO.avi

I've still got a little while to get ready, and i've got an idea to mix a pepper's ghost with a bottomless pit effect using a flicker circuit... it may take some doing... but I think it's possible to have a "wishing well", that spews fog and red light, that seems to sink into the ground endlessly, but has a terrifying ghost attempting to climb out... not certain if it might be too scary for the kids... I'll have to think about it.

how do you do the bottomless pit effect a series of screams form bellow would also add to the horror

basically you build a crate that puts a piece of "privacy glass" (the stuff used in police lineups) on one side, mirrored side in, and a normal mirror on the other, mirrored side in. you light the crate from the inside, and what you see, looking through the "privacy glass" is a repeated view of the inside of the crate, going on forever...

I had written a really detailed description of one I built professionally last year, but it failed to post properly. If i get time, I'll rewrite it later.

i hope you could thank you i love the idea of a endless pit

I wonder how it would look if you made a round pit, then used a fog machine and a fan to create a vortex. I also wonder how well a 'Pepper's Ghost' effect between the mirrors would work. (FWIW, heat-shrink plastic window film works very well as a half mirror for PG.)

Hi, how do you make the stand for the glass or know where i can get one made?? thanks!

I made it pretty easily, but your exact design is going to depend on your use. because my ghost was in a window, I took two 7 foot pieces of wood (1" pvc electrical conduit might be easier because small notches act like clamps) and made a 48"ish long notch, starting at one end, for the glass to sit in.  I notched a third piece (48"ish long) for the glass to sit on and connected the three pieces into an "H" shape, with all notches facing in, then I built diagonal braces to stabilize the "H", similar to "|x|" in the lower half (the part that isn't visible).. Finally, I built T-shaped feet for the unit, to stand it up

if it had been made out of dry-fit PVC, it would have been easy to break down and store, but as it if, it sits awkwardly behind my furnace

Also, I have tried using a standard projector but the image just goes straight through to the wall, any advice on how to get it to work properly?