October was my favorite time of year as a kid, because come the middle of the month I’d start working with my mom to decorate our front yard for Halloween. We’d put the pumpkins and corn stalks out and then get to cutting cardboard tombstones from boxes we saved, covering them in foil to create what I thought was a terrifying cemetery. We’d top everything off by making some dummy monsters by stuffing old clothes full of newspapers and topping them off with last year’s Halloween mask.
Of course in the two decades since I helped my mom decorate our front yard, having a killer haunted house setup has become something that requires much more than just tin foil tombstones. Thankfully, cheap hobby materials and some simple hacking skills makes it easier than ever to make the best Halloween display in your neighborhood. We spoke with a maker, and Arduino hacker, and the operator of the country’s most popular haunted attraction to bring you some simple and easy tips to hack together your own haunted house.
“Not everyone needs to have crazy engineering skills in order to make a cool haunted house attraction in their front yard,“ says Larry Kirchner, operator of the well-known haunted house attraction The Darkness. “It’s best to start simply and go from there.”
Starting simply, according to Kirchner, involves creating the staple prop of every good haunted house: a cemetery. You don’t need to be a master craftsman or buy expensive pre-made plastic tombstones to get one.
“The best way is to get sheets of foam that you can pick up from a Home Depot or a Loews,” says Kirchner. “You can take a simple hot knife and can cut the foam sheets into pieces, then glue the various pieces together until you have the basic tombstone design you want.” Use the hot knife again to cut chips and chunks into the tombstone to make it look ancient and terrifying.
Once you have the foam formed into the tombstone shape, make it look authentic. Most people spray paint it grey. But Kirchner says the secret to a realistic looking tombstone is to cover it in concrete.
“Just a thin layer of spray concrete that you can get at a home improvement store works great,” he says. “Since it’s just a thin layer on top of foam, it hardly adds any weight. And since foam is so cheap–and light–you could actually build a big creepy, realistic-looking mausoleum in your front yard.”
If you want to take your authentic-looking tombstones to hellraiser level, embed a wireless security camera into the foam–the kind that come in smart baby monitoring kits will do the trick. Use the camera’s accompanying monitor, or better yet a smartphone app, to cue a scary voice from a speaker that seems like it’s coming right from the tombstone when anyone walks near.
Once you’ve mastered the graveyard, the next expansion of your haunted house is the maze. “An average garage could be turned into two or three small scenes,” says Kirchner.
Lay out your maze by drawing your garage on graph paper, every foot of space equals five blocks on the paper. Use this diagram to design your walls, which can be built from large sheets of foam or plywood. The maze doesn’t have to be complicated enough for people to actually get lost. A few turns is all you need, especially after you add some cheap wireless Bluetooth speakers and AirPlay streaming to pump sound effects into every corner of the maze.
“Don’t underestimate sound effects,” says Kirchner. “Sounds in a dark unfamiliar place is often more frightening that visual effects.”
Once you’re wired for some Sinister Sonics, you can add creepy visuals without too much more effort. Jarod Reyes, a web designer and Technical Content Producer at Twilio, has spent the last few years hacking together his own haunted house to scare kids and adults in his neighborhood. In that time he’s made some cool haunted hacks (see below), but says not everyone needs engineering skills to create creepy effects.
“With a projector you could project ghostly shadows on to your windows or textures onto the front of your house,” he says, pointing out that many people have old projectors, TVs, and computer monitors laying around in the basement. Halloween is the perfect time to put these derelict pieces of tech to good use. A projector or even a discarded flat screen TV can be mounted inside your garage and used to play store bought CGI animations.
“The key is making sure you disguise the monitor so people don’t recognize it,” says Kirchner. “Put a false frame around it so it looks like a window. Put tattered curtains or fake cobwebs on it. When they suddenly seeing motion from it it’ll scare the heck out of them.”
Lighting is often overlooked when building a haunted house. Which is a shame, because a haunted cemetery is decidedly less scary with a white porch light glaring across the yard. The reverse isn’t helpful either: If there’s no light, who’s going to see all the detail you carved into those fake tombstones?
Creating a spooky range of colored lighting has become easier than carving a pumpkin thanks to the numerous smart lights available from companies like Philips and LIFX. Stick a few smart bulbs in your garage or on your porch and you can control the brightness and hue with a few taps of your smartphone. The best Halloween lighting is deep purples and reds, although dark greens can also work well.
For slightly more advanced lighting effects, however, check out this awesome haunted hack by Reyes. Using Twilio, Arduino and a few electronic components he created a way for people to change the colors of lit pumpkins just by texting a color choice to a mobile app.
Speaking of Arduino…
Arduino is a powerful computing platform that allows makers to create all kinds of ad hoc electronics. Mastering Arduino is by no means as easy as creating the Halloween hacks mentioned above, but if you start now you could have one of the creepiest interactive haunted houses on your block by next Halloween.
Just check out this haunting display by Chris Krueger, editor of The New Hobbyist. Using Arduino, some clever coding, a projector, some electrical components and some Styrofoam heads Krueger replicated part of his favorite Disney Haunted Mansion ride right on his front porch.
“I picked the Haunted Mansion busts in particular because I was in the process of experimenting with Arduinos and an older projector I had picked up used from a friend,” says Krueger. “I’ve been a huge Walt Disney World fan since I was a kid, this interest only intensified when I started learning about electronics and design.”
Incredibly Krueger’s singing haunted heads busts only took about two weeks of on and off work. “The initial programming of the Arduino and laptop controller took some time because I was still learning the Arduino platform,” he says. “I was fortunate to find the source video on Youtube and didn’t have to recreate it. One of the more time consuming parts was aligning the heads and projector to have a clean and focused image. This was all mapped out a few days before Halloween and marked on the porch with gaffers tape.”
Krueger’s Arduino Halloween hacks don’t just stop with severed heads. The platform allows for creating almost anything you put your mind to–and on the cheap.
“I helped a friend turn his air compressor into a ‘Ankle Tickler’ air blaster at his haunted house last year,” Krueger says. “We used his existing air compressor, a photo-resistor, a PowerSwitch Tail, an electronically controlled air valve, and an Arduino to add a scare to his display. When someone walked by the photoresistor it triggered the air valve and shot a quick blast at visitors ankles. Got quite a few good jumps from that.”
Total cost? Less than $50.
Looking at Kirchner’s The Darkness haunted house or Reyes’s color changing pumpkins or Krueger’s singing heads, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the amount of work that could go into creating your own haunted house. But the great thing about Halloween is that it comes every year and the grandest haunted house on the block didn’t start out that way.
Besides you probably already have more for your haunted house than you think you do.
“Projectors, speakers, receivers, can all add to the aura of a good halloween house. Why not wire up some speakers into the bushes that just sound like chains clinking, or wolf’s howling?” Reyes says. “Old RC cars are full of useful bits including Servo motors attached to a spine, which you could use to make an animated skull, a talking pumpkin or a floating ghost. Also keep your cardboard boxes around this time.They are useful for so many Halloween projects.”
But his best advice?
“Start small. Build out one feature at a time and over the years you too will have the best house on the block,” says Reyes. “You’re more likely to keep it up that way.”