If you've seen the Netflix hit Stranger Things, you know how awesome it is, and I'm sure you've seen decor and costumes all over the place referencing the show. If you haven't seen it, stop now, and go watch it! The following is how I transformed my yard into a full Stranger Things tribute.
Step 1: The "Pie-in-the-sky" Plan
Ok, Original Plan:
I always start big and then as the day gets closer, I have to make edits & cuts. I knew I wanted the following:
- An 80s van with Hawkins Power & Light on the side
- Animated Christmas lights synced to the show audio clips
- A stretch wall scare
- Lamps flickering in sequence
- Castle Byers (wooden fort)
- The Portal
- The Monster / Demogorgon
- the boy's bikes
If you've seen the show, you should get the references...if you haven't...that has to be one of the most confusing lists ever!
Step 2: Finding a Creepy Van
So a key part of the show are these surveillance vans that pose as Hawkins Power and Light utility vans. Needless to say, in 2016, there are not an abundance of 80's-ish white vans laying around in my town of about 3,000 people. I knew this would be the hardest prop to source out. Lo and behold, our local salvage yard happened to have this "beauty" sitting on one of their lots. We made a deal to borrow it for a month, so it was towed to my yard, and now it will be picked up in the next few days.
I made the Hawkins logo in Photoshop and sent it to a local print shop. The closest font I could find was Bolt Bold. The van was pressure washed and then I applied the decals for the logo and the 0808-84. I wanted to add the stripe, but I ran out of time and had to focus on the other props.
So the creepy van was set, it was time to get to the next parts of the yard.
Step 3: The Lights (aka Why I Have Several More Gray Hairs Now)
While I don't know the exact method they used on the show, the most practical way of recreating the Alphabet Wall is with RGB smart pixels. This step is just a broad overview of what I used to get the lights going, but I think the links provided will help you more than me rehashing what they already convey very well.
Pixels look like a string of Christmas lights, but each bulb has a small computer chip attached to it, and with the proper controller, you can turn each bulb on/off, set the color, make it flash, flicker, and more.
The pixels are available from a variety of shops. I bought mine from Amazon as well as http://www.environmentalled.com/. One thing, make sure that your controller and your lights are the same voltage. I used a 12V controller but accidentally bought a 5v string of lights and filled my office with smoke when it burned one of the chips out. Most of my pixels I used were the smaller variety, because they are a lot cheaper, but I did use one strand of the C9 larger lights for the alphabet wall itself.
There are several controllers, but I wanted one that met 2 criteria 1) expandable so that it could be used for future Halloween and Christmas displays 2) Easy to program and interface. There are builds that use Arduinos which would be much cheaper, but seemed to require a steeper learning curve. I was starting this project at the beginning of September, so time was not on my side. I ended up buying a Pixlite 16 MKII. It was pricey, but it seemed to do everything that I needed as well as be useful in future projects. It has 16 outputs, and each one can power several strands of lights.
There are a few software programs out there to control Pixels. Two top contenders are Xlights and Vixen. I started with Xlights because I liked the GUI better and I found a lot of tutorials out there. One great series is here. I had the show built in Xlights, and I felt pretty good about it...but then I decided to add a kink to the plan.
So, to make my life a nightmare, I really wanted to add a scene from the show where a set of lamps are lighting up in a sequence back and forth. The Pixlite controller is only for smart pixels; the lamps would be running on A/C power. So, to handle this, I had to buy an Arduino Mega and a relay board. I bought a 16 relay board, but they make them smaller. After a lot of trial and error...and more error, I ended up having to swap over to Vixen for the software because I couldn't find a good tutorial on Xlights and Arduino working together. I'm sure there is one out there, but I was more successful with Vixen and the relays. I used this Instructable on programming the Arduino to work with Vixen.
The Outlets & Relays:
This part is dangerous if done wrong, so skip it if you aren't familiar or comfortable with household current. To make the lamps dance back and forth, I needed 5 outlets - independently controllable. Here is a great write up of how to wire up the outlets to the relays.
Once I got everything wired up, I had the Arduino connected to my laptop via USB, and the Pixlite and laptop communicated over my home network. I would link up my Vixen programming, but it is 100% based on the show you want to create, so my show wouldn't do you any good.
Step 4: Building Castle Byers
Another iconic prop in the show was Castle Byers - Will Byers's hideout in the woods. Construction was pretty simple here. My nephew and I went to a local tree service's log pile and sourced a good collection of sticks. A basic frame was constructed out of 1x2 lumber and the sticks were tacked on with 2" brad nails.
The look was completed with a piece of fabric for the door. I had my niece help me distress it with a sander and I finished it off with spray paint and a razor blade. My nephew painted the signs for the castle (and he has claimed it to be moved to his house now that Halloween is over.)
This side of my yard was part of the "Upside Down" so I draped dyed cheesecloth over the fort and other props in this yard to mimic the look on the show.Black fabric was draped inside so that my nephew and other kids could hide and scare our guests.
I bought 100yds of cheesecloth from Online Fabric Store for about $40....that's a lot cheaper (for the volume) than those tiny packs of "Creepy Cloth." It was dyed with a bottle of Rit Dark Green fabric dye.
Step 5: Creating the Wall
Last year, I made a Haunted Wall for our Harry Potter theme. I reused the panels this year in a slightly different configuration.
I found some old wallpaper or shelf liner, not really sure which, at a thrift store and the cheapest paneling and chair rail from Home Depot. Unfortunately the wallpaper didn't stretch far enough for the whole wall, but you can't really go out and buy another roll of 20 year old matching paper that easily.
I turned one of the former portrait holes into a recess for a vintage telephone (burned up of course) and the other portrait hole was boarded up and I used a Fire and Ice light to create the "portal" that we see in one of the episodes.
I strung up a strand of the C9 large pixel LED lights and I painted the alphabet under each light as it was in the show.
A cable was strung from two trees in the yard and the lights were draped between the cable and the wall.
Step 6: Making a Monster
So, this is the prop that I was most hopeful for and probably most disappointed in the result.
The original intent was to have a lunging Demogorgon jumping at my guests. I was going to make it as screen accurate as possible, with functional opening and closing "face petals" but I started way, way too late on it.
We extended a standard 5' skeleton by about 2' to make him closer to 7' tall. the chest cavity was filled with foam and he was wrapped with a drop cloth that was then "corpsed" with a heat gun. He was a little skinny, so the plan was to go back and glue on some foam for muscle mass and then re-wrap and re-shrink more drop cloth over him.
His head was a mix of metal, wood and foam. I used a 6" speaker from Rockford Fosgate for the mouth area so that it could scream at people as it lunged. I used half of a basketball for the back of the head which also served as the back of the speaker box. I covered it all in a quick fiberglass layer and then a mix of silicone caulk, Naphtha, and red acrylic paint. I was going to add teeth, but by this point it was about 8pm on October 30th.
I built a small stretch wall that you can see in the video, it was 4' wide x 8'tall and covered with spandex. The pneumatic piston was mounted to the head and all seemed good. It was controlled via a PicoBoo controller, so it would play ambient growls when not activated and then scream when triggered. It was triggered via a Pocketwizard trigger that I use normally for my camera flashes.
About 3 test fires in, the head just stayed jutted out...so I fiddled with the air hoses and the cylinder, but it didn't budge. I took down the head, and it had bent the piston rod to the point that it couldn't return. The pneumatic cylinder was shot.
So, with about 1.5 hours until trick or treaters, I retrieved another cylinder and I rigged the skeletal body to lunge through the stretch wall instead. In the end, it still caused some decent scares, but nothing like my original plan had hoped for.
The awesome folks at Hot Wire Foam Factory provided some amazing foam cutting tools, so please check them out...I'm probably going to remake the Demogorgon head now that I have more time to concentrate on doing it right.
Step 7: Monsters Need Portals!
The portal was pretty simple. I tacked up a plastic drop cloth and sprayed it with a can of spray foam. I then painted the foam with green spray paint.
I finished off the look with more of the dyed cheesecloth and a purple Fire & Ice light.
On Halloween night, I used a snow machine to create the "floating particles of decay" and a fog machine to add a little more ambiance.
Step 8: The Stretch Wall That Got the Axe!
There is a scene in Stranger Things where Joyce sets up a series of lamps and they cycle on/off back and forth. You also see the monster begin to come through the wall.
I built the stretch wall out of 2x4s and spandex. I bought the lamps at a thrift store and programmed them as part of the light show in the earlier lighting step. When my Demogorgon broke its pneumatic cylinder, I had to use the one planned for the stretch wall as a replacement.
The plan was to have a head and hands stretch the wall at a climactic point in the audio show, but since i no longer had a pneumatic cylinder, I ditched the wall and I moved the lamp and retro radio over to the alphabet wall.
Step 9: Finishing Touches
Ok It's crunch time on Halloween day. Here's the little details that I brought together at the end:
- Spray painted bikes and placed them in the yard.
- I taped a walkie talkie to one with a bluetooth speaker under it that repeated Lucas's warnings about the bad men coming. (video attached)
- I used a corpse from last year and put an thrift store blouse and retro glasses to make poor Barb
- I wired up a horn to the van so that anyone sitting in it could scare people walking by
- I used an old PVC frame and hazmat suit from a zombie a few years to create a person exploring the upside down.
Step 10: Show Audio
There were a few audio bits crucial to my show. I bought the songs I needed and then I recorded the various show audio from the scenes needed.
- Theme Song & Tendril from the soundtrack
- Should I Stay or Should I Go
- Audio from Christmas lights scene
Monster (pulled from various episodes):
- Monster Ambient sound
- Monster Attack sound
- Audio pulled from Lucas's warning scene
- ambient CB static pulled from the web
Step 11: End Result
In the end, I think it all came together very well. I hope that you have enjoyed this Instructable and I'd love to see your creations as well. I've attached a Daytime and nighttime walk through from one of our guests. We usually see 800-1000 people each Halloween, and I bet a lot of them check out Stranger Things after seeing the yard.
Thanks for viewing, you can see all of the videos here.