Thrifty Halloween Decor How-To

Introduction: Thrifty Halloween Decor How-To

This instructable will show you how to mke a Magical Apothecary Living Room ...on a college student's budget!  This might be redundant, considering the stupendously creative DIYers in the audience, but I have two words for you:  Thrift Store

You know what?  You're right.  I have a LOT more than two words for you which you probably anticipated if you've seen my other instructables.  As usual, the important, basic stuff is [generally] in bold and my lengthy diatribes [generally] follow.

So, ya...I went back to school last year and as much as I love it, it's not great on the pocketbook, ifyouknowwhaddamean.  Well, Halloween is like my Christmas.  I love-love-love it.  Favorite holiday of the year and I usually decorate for the entire month of October... until I freaked out my boyfriend last year with my eye for the macabre ("But honey, it's supposed to be a happy surpise!").  This year, planning in advance, we agreed to three weeks of delicious deathly decor.  You could say I like an air of realism, I guess.  Incidentally, Martha Stewart (inc) is a great resource for classy, realistic-ish Halloween ideas, as is (drum roll please...) Instructables, of course! *pshah*

Just a few more things before we get started--I had zero Halloween stufff before last year's celebration (well, I had two boxes of stuff five years ago before I... nevermind).  The great [time-saving] thing about this decor is that I stored all the work I did last year in a box in the basement, and then just added to it this year.  Sure, it looks similar, but the savings in cost and sanity are worth it.  Thus, keep your stuff around--even the paper mice!  Also, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle any chance you get.  I shop for Halloween all year long just like some people shop for Christmas all year long.  I'm a frequent thrift store shopper, so almost nothing in the pictures is new or purchased at retail. AND, if you bring something to donate when you go to Savers, you'll get a 20% off coupon for purchases of $10 or more--cool, huh?   Finally, I'll put up mini-instructables for the stuff I added this year, and do my best to explain the rest.  

**Please note that most of these projectsd assume a working knowledge of basic word processing/graphics (like MS publisher), some familiarity with 'borrowing' images off the internet, as well as access to a computer and printer.**

Happy Haunting!!!

Step 1: Unpacking and Gathering More Supplies

Just as a point of interest,  I would say that the final cost, spread out over two years, hovers around the $150 mark, including candles, candy, and pumpkins. Everything is remarkably easy to do and many bits are great for kids.  My advice is to pick a theme and a color scheme and then STICK WITH IT!  Relish the creative aspect, too, and you'll probably surprise yourself by your own amazingness. 

1.  SCAVENGE!  Unpack any Halloween-y items you may already have lying in your own basement/attic/shed/other-creepy-storage location and then start looking around the house.  Gather the books that have intrigueing Halloween correlations, scrounge together all the candles you can, and be prepared to bust out the hot glue gun.  Ask friends for candle discards, gems, odds & ends.  They'd probably be happy to empty out some of their 'junk' piles.

2.   Start putting up what you have, then make a list of what you'd like to see.  For budgeting purposes, make the 'no compromising' list and the 'meh, if I have the funds' list.  My 'no compromising' list was:
  • white muslin for the couches (I used sheets from Goodwill last year, but then ended up cutting them up for sewing projects over the last 11 months (Reuse-recycle-repurpose!), so I needed new furniture covers.  Plus, my house mate bought a giant leather couch that was longer than any standard sheet size so I needed plain ol' 120" width fabric to do the job.  Used 50% off coupon for Jo-Anns and spent <$15!)
  • Candy corn
  • Halloween candy
  • Large old book--dictionary preferred
  • 3 pages of scrapbooking paper
  • white cinderella pumpkin for carving

My "meh" list was: 

  • Fake human skull.  It should be noted that my attitude towards this skull is far from "meh" but it's on my secondary list because (a) I can do without it and (b) I refuse to compromise on quality and size here.  This is a long term shopping goal that may or may not be accomplished this year.  Further, I'm consdiering sculpting one myself, along with some other misc. human bones (perhaps another 'ible idea!).  Another idea will be a clay sculpted human bone windchime.  Sounds pretty, no?
  • large candles and hurricane jars for fireplace. 
  • Mortar & pestle-ish thing fille with creepy poultice

3.  Go shopping!  Need I say more? :-)

4.  Break out the crafty bits and put it all together.

Step 2: Crafty Bits--apothecary Basics

5.  To make apothecary jars, you will need:
  • jars
  • spray paint
  • spray adhesive
  • parchment paper or parchment paper look alike
  • scissors/craft knife
  • pencil
  • ruler
  • time, patience, creativity, thesaurus

6.   Collect jars. This is a great chance for your to ask your neighbors for their salsa jar discards and make new friends.  This step is a particularly great way to count down to Halloween, too, as you collect jars throughout the preceding months. 

7.  Clean jars, paint lids, add corks.  This should be pretty obvious, but clean out your jars well & take the time to cover the existing labels on the lids (spray paint is adequate; maybe you can come up with more creative ways).  For smaller jars, discard the lids and substitute corks.  Corks generally cost between .09-.39 from the local hardware store. 

8.  Bust out the computer & printer and get creative.  Start designing some basic labels.  I used the website for some fo the more outrageous and/or creepy fonts, or for trade marked fonts like the Coca-Cola script you'll see on my 'Corporeal Cola' [cholula] bottle.  Get the kids involved in making up names; use the thesaurus liberally.  I have examples of my iteration scanned in below for ideas.  Another great way to involve the kids AND learn about your neighborhood (see mom!  Halloween is EDUCATIONAL!) is to take a walk.  Start looking at the natural world for inspiration.  We have some trees that drop branches which I think look like tiny spines.  The small conifer around the corner drops tiny pine needles that almost look like eyelashes.  The willow lined walkway has beautiful white berries that suddenly become albino warts (or eyes).  The garlic & onion skin in the fridge look just like pickled fairy wings!  Specificity is the key--the more specific you are, the more exotic and humorous the final product.  Look at your world with new eyes and teach the kids about genus/species native to your area as you go! 

not pictured below--I plan on filling a small pouch with pine cone seeds spilling out onto the table.  The tag will have something to do wtih Yeti toenails.  That little project is forthcoming.

 9.  Labels designed & printed?  Great!  Cut them out, spray adhesive on, and stick 'em' to your jars.  Then, fill your jars up with creepy stuff.  For some, you may want to add some food coloring and water to give that 'just been preserved' formaldehyde appearance.  For the more whimsical concoctions, try bright purples and blues. 

**Also, if you aren't of a squeamish vain, you can actually get real animal parts like brains, tongues, hearts, and eyes from your local butcher or carniceria.  My ex-husband was on board with this and I've included pictures from our 2004 Halloween party for reference.  My present house mates were not so thrilled about this proposition.  All in all, it turned out to be a boon for creativity because it forced me to come up with more outrageous specimens & to scout my neighborhood with an eye towards the creepy.  Oh, and my old apothecary/specimen setups came complete with mold garden--also a fun project.  Mold gardens take at least a month to prepare, so keep that in mind. 

10.  Display!  Craft your tablescape with a table runner base (some Halloween fabric or, as is the case here, a classy black swirly cotton calico serged or hemmed around the edges), some silver thrift store trays, candles, candlesticks, your awesomely creative jar specimens/potions, and some magical workbook symbols.  What's that, you ask?  Well, the next step will show you what I"m talking about.

Step 3: Crafty Bits--magic Symbols Workbook

 Yes, there's is something mysterious and strange about old dictionaries and chemistry books and the like.  Especially if you superimpose anatomical drawings and alchemical symbols.  If you've managed to distance yourself from the fact that you're about to tear apart and deface old books, you've come a long way.  The first dictionary page I tore out took with a little piece of my soul.  Not enough to stop me from doing it again, obviously, but still...

11.  Find some nifty art online.  I try not to infringe on people's personal sketches (i.e., personal artist websites; Then again, isn't it all someone's personal art when you get down to it?) but instead go for more common images, like Gray's Anatomy, etc.  Plus, I do NOT sell this art.  This is purely for at-home entertainment purposes.  Please do not steal other's artwork for profit.  That's just wrong.  Anyway, do your little Google search thing and then right click the image to save it to a file on your computer.  Then, arrange in whatever manner you like in your publishing/graphics/word processing program.  I just went straight to 'full page print' for these--quick, easy, and leads to rather quixotic final collection. 

12.  Print 'em out.  Now, hold your breath, apologize to the spirit of your grade school teachers, locate an old book, and tear a page out.   You can make this page meaningful, if you like.   I went with whatever page seemed to have the fewest graphics.  Make sure your printer knows its printing on 'specialty paper', otherwise it might not recognize the very thin sheets.  Feed your dictionary pages through the printer and...voila! Instant magical spell props that have character!

**For kids, try making spell instructions that lead to a treasure hunt!  If you're really dedicated, pick out pages that have appropriate vocabulary words and integrate that into the goal**

Step 4: Crafty Bits--gothic Art

Integrating Halloween appropriate artwork is a breeze with some very basic tools:

  • computer & printer (my decorating lifesavers)
  • scissors
  • utility/craft knife
  • self-healing mat (or something to cut on/through--cardboard sometimes works.  Once.)
  • celophane tape
  • Various colored or specialty papers
  • picture frames (I had  mine already, but if you don't try (say it with me now!) Thrift Store *in best sing-song voice*.)

13.  Do that google images thing again.  Print out some fabulous, inspired graphics from the likes of Edward Gorey or Chaz Addams.  Again--no selling borrrowed artwork!  Anyhow, using your very technical toolset, cut out a nice border edge with scissors and then scotch tape your images onto a gothic background, in this case, black/gray/white stripes.  Stick 'em in your frames and call it a night.  Or not.  Maybe it's the morning and you're just now getting crafty.  Either way, you can move onto the next.

14.  Google skeleton cameo to find the image for the next one.  I first came across these beauties on   and fell in love.  To make this art, save a nice straight-on photograph of one of these cameos to your computer.  Then, open the file in a program that will allow you to size it and/or crop it to your desired dimensions.  Then, take the color saturation out and increase the contrast so you have a clear black and white silhouette to draw from.

15.  Print it out in the size you desire.  If it's highly pixelated, don't worry.  We just need the rough sketch here. 

16.  Cut out the pixelated skeleton silhouette for a template.  You can do this with scissors, but to get good detail, you will probably want a craft knife and mat.  You can cut out as much or as little hair curling detail as you like, but the spine, ribs, and eye sockets are vital to conveying the idea of a skeleton cameo.  Also, if you feel more comfortable with solid lines, use a marker over the pixelated edges to make a clear silhouette as a guideline.

17.  Now, trace your template onto black construction paper.  A pencil should be light enough to see and dark enough to blend. 

18.  Cut out your black silhouette. 

19.  Cut out a white oval large enough for the background and tape your silhouette in the middle. 

20.  Finally, put it all on a neat-o gothic background. 
This can be a matching pinstripe like in the Edward Gorey pieces, or something totally different.  I was going to cover our Flash Gordon poster with bits of dictionary paper and then put this silhouette in the middle, but it turns out my house mate had that thing professionally framed.  I was a little hesitant to dismantle it for Halloween, so I will scavenge an old photo frame from the basement and hang it with black ribbon.  As you can see in the photo, I haven't done that just yet, but you get the idea.

**Take the opportunity to talk about the history of silhouette making with the kids!  Make their profile into a silhouette using a flashlight and empty wall.

Step 5: Crafty Bits--more Paper Fun!

Ya, so I stole this directly from Martha Stewart, but heck.  they look great!

21.  Download mouse template from Martha Stewart's website here This will take a while depending on whether you've hacked into your Cricket, how many you're making, or if you don't have a Cricket at all (like me).  Using the holy crafting trinity (scissors, tape, paper), make meeces.  Yes, trace, cut, tape to baseboard, repeat.  *kid alert--have 'em cut these out.  It's like 52 pickup, but sorta fun.

22.  Do the same thing with bats.  I'm not sure Martha has a bat thing, but I used my google images search to uncover a bevy of bat silhouettes which I printed and used as templates. 

Step 6: Crafty Bits--fun With Flowers

Nothing warms up a room like a vase full of dead, black flowers and spiky things.

23.  Get some arteficial flowers.  These can be any color; I prefer to start with blood red (bwah-ha-ha hachdk *cough cough* Um.  Sorry.)  Also, you could totally use dying real flowers, but this way, I don't have to worry about it every year.  Next, go hunting for spiky plants or unusual sead pods in your neighborhood.  (Another educational adventure!)  Using theme colors, spray your roses and spiky things to match.  You don't have to saturate, just lightly mist. 

24.  Display in tableau with skull, candles, pumpkins, etc.  If you're not wondering, that bright silver plastic vase was a great thrift store find.  Also, if you elect to use real flowers (as I've done in the past--browining, dying white dahlias), sprinnkle some of the petals around the base for full decaying effect. 

Step 7: Crafty Bits--spider Web Madness!

There are several ways to get that dusty, spider web appeal.  One of those ways is to refrain from dusting your house for a few months.  This might not be great for those asthma sufferers like myself.  So, stick with homemade spiderwebs instead.

For these projects, you'll need:
  • cotton twine/yarn
  • tape/pins
  • hot glue gun

25.  For this part, I turn directly to bowmaster's amazing spiderweb tutorial right here on Instructables.  Thanks!

26.  The other method involves hot glue.  I use this for each of my little tableaus.  First, get your glue gun plugged in and ready to go with extra glue sticks standing by.  Then, put a small bead down on a hard surface (from which you can scratch it off later--plastic, glass, metal areas are best) and then drag the glue thread over the objects in tableau.  Do this back and forth and watch glistening webs appear.  Another way to think of this is:  It's like toilet papering a tree, except with hot glue, and the tree is really small. 

Step 8: Crafty Bits--random Dinner Party Stuff

Since I went through the trouble of digging out my old 2004 Halloween party pictures, I figured I'd insert a quick step here to look at dinner party tablescape.  As you can see from the photos, I think I was nearly as poor then and still into the black & white thing.  Know what you love, I guess.

27.  Gravestone Table Markers:  Make up pithy, rhyming epitaphs.  Print them on gray paper or just use grayscale.  Cut them out in the shape of a gravestone.  Using black or gray cardstock or cardboard as backing, glue the printed gravestone to the cardstock.  Make a triangle piece as a stand and glue it to the back of the tombstone. 

**Get kids to have fun rhyming.  Gruesome?  NO!  Both Walt Disney World FL & Logoland CA have some great silly rhyming epitaphs that might offer inspiration.

28.  Napkins:  Grab some Halloween themed fabric in complementary colors.  Cut into 12 or 18" squares.  Hem or roll serge the edges. 

29.  Centerpiece:  Use a plastic cauldron and fill with treats.  Make lolly pops out of black and white paper.  Look to this great Instructable by veta5 for more about 'candy' floral arrangements.

Step 9: Crafty Bits--fun With Fabric

Even if you do all the cool crafty bits you can, it's the fabric that will really tie it all together.  And, since nothing is permanently modified, it's easy to put up, take down, and launder.  So... let's begin.

30.  White Muslin furniture drapes.  This is about as easy as it comes.  Take lots of white fabric in the form of sheets or plain yardage.  Cut it to proper draping size, if need be.  Drape.  Easy-peasy.  But why white?  Well, it looks uninhabited, since that what you would do if you were leaving the house for any extended period of time.  Plus, white sheets=ghosts.  Plus, it's a blank slate for the rest of the color palate, and covers non-Halloweeny couches that might have floral prints, say, or 1980s brown strips (*ahem*).  Plus, if you have mismatched furniture (*ahem*, again), it makes it match.  Plus, if you have a halloween party, you get a barrier between couch and spilled beverage.  Anyway, you get the idea...

31.  Curtains.  Again, so easy.  I got lucky to find a 75" wide meshy, stretchy type of black fabric  for $0.99/yd when I used to cruise the fashion district.   I can't identify the fibre aside from "synthetic".  I bought 15 yards and have used it for lots of random projects.  Now, I've preserved the last for Halloween.  One big square makes the under-table cloth for my kitchen table, and the rest is curtains.  It tears reasonably well, too.  So, some jagged edges and a couple pushpins do curtains make.  If you already have curtain rods, drape them artistically. 

32.  Lampshades.  I have previously covered our lampshades with WWII aircraft fabric.  They are cylindrical, but a conical lampshade is easy to cover too.  Start with a square, cut a whole in the center just large enough to not catch fire with a lightbulb and/or just small enough to reach about an inch inside the top of the shade.  If you have a double layered shade (I recycled a stained red sheet and threw some black lace on top), just serge or stitch the pieces together around the inside of the hole.  Drape loosely over lampshade and appreciate your fabulous work. 

33.  Other bits:  table runners, misc. drapes.  For the table runner, measure 12-18" wide and as long as you like.  Mine is about 55" long.  Then, just hem or serge the edges.  To cover a few stacks of books so that I could highlight my specially chosen titles, complete with scrying bowl, wand (14" Willow, by the way), chandelier and nifty clock, I used the leftover black calico with its raw edge and just draped it over the stacks.  Also, I hid the comfy couch pillows under this same fabric in the corner.  Why?  Because there's no evident comfort in this Halloween space--but my housemates won't kill me because they can't snuggle on the couch for 3 weeks.  Compromise, compromise...

**The lampshades & table runners are so easy, why not let the kids learn how to sew by assigning them this project?

Step 10: The End.

34.  Congratulate yourself and have the neighbors over.  Now, put it all together, light all your candles, and relish your haunted-magical-apothecary-palace!

So, the final tally:

jars--$0, unless you count the food that used to be in them.
candlesticks/tealite holders--$12
crafty supplies (papers, glue, etc)--$45
A living room that makes my BF uncomfortable??--um...priceless? (sorry honey.  And thanks!)  What a sport, eh?

Oh, and just for grins, you could add a calendar or 'to-do' list with creepy things on it.  You could also sculpt some clay bones and fire them in your own fireplace (if you have one) on the nigiht of your party, that way they turn red hot and look kind of like you're burning the evidence...
You can also make a bleeding cake for your party (I might make an 'ible on this one) or make a jello-heart!  One of my favorite food 'ibles for Halloween is here, by the way. 

And again--

Happy Haunting!

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    5 Discussions


    8 years ago on Introduction

    This will be the 17th or 18th year we do a home HAUNT, this is just one of many Halloween related "ibles" I've done  we didn't set out to decorate in a halloween theme but we needed a place to keep the skull chandelier so its in the living room over the couch, the barbie sized toepincher caskets and skeletons reside on either end of the knick knack shelf, skulls and potion bottles are scattered all around. I really like the spell pages you created, I may have to update my book of the undead for this year! Thank you for sharing. HAUNT ON


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Soooo many great ideas! My favorite is the printed-on book pages, bloody well brilliant!


    9 years ago on Step 2

    This 'ible has lot of cool ideas- especially love the jars- and the chandelier!