Author Robert Fulghum discovered that all he really needed to know he learned in kindergarten. Well, during the past few years I’ve had a similar epiphany: All I know about good display technique comes through in Halloween decorating! Let me explain. My town, St. Charles, Illinois, holds an annual Halloween House Decorating Contest. Since my family and I love Halloween, we eagerly signed up. We first entered five years ago. We created a typical cobweb-covered graveyard scene featuring our odd assortment of Halloween miscellany—witches, bats, skeletons, etc. The scene looked pretty good, but we soon discovered pretty good wasn’t enough to encourage carloads of visitors or to win votes. We knew for the following year, we had to step up our game. That’s when I began putting my knowledge of display techniques to use.
First, we realized that everyone could decorate with rubber bats, clanky skeletons, cobwebs and other everyday Halloween items. We needed to make ourselves stand out. We needed to create a scene that wasn’t going to be the same as our competition; we just didn’t have the elaborate decorations or endless funds to compete on that level. So we started thinking beyond the bats. We looked around our garage, walked through home hardware stores, and let our minds wander. We needed a clever display that had a different angle, but also wasn’t going to break the Wagner bank.
We hit upon the idea of creating 20 or so simple ghosts doing different things. The ghosts were easy to create from basic two-by-fours, wire hangers, and white plastic tablecloths (display tip #1—use materials that are inexpensive and easy to find). We posed three ghosts around a table eating snacks and playing cards; two other ghosts were playing Clue on a gravestone; one ghost was reading “The Handbook of the Recently Deceased”; one ghost was taking a bath (we had an old bathtub we were going to throw away; display tip #2—reuse!); three ghosts were playing jump rope; another was hula-hooping. You get the picture. We enclosed the whole display in fake black iron fencing to look like a graveyard and we made a big sign that read, “Ghosts in the Graveyard. Come Play!” (display tip #3—use signage to tell the story).
That year we won Honorable Mention. We were happy with the display, but had new ideas for the next year. The following year the Chicago Bears were on a roll having just come off the Super Bowl. I had painted a Bears logo on our front window and didn’t want to remove it just yet, so we decided to create Monsters of the Midway as our Halloween theme (display tip #4—play off current events). We dressed up our ghost bodies and dummies in simply made Bears jerseys and added monster masks and gloves to the figures. We arranged the monsters in a scrimmage line and had one player passing the ball. We created a goal post out of PVC piping and hung a skeleton from the post. On the sidelines, we created cheerleaders, fans, even the guy in the end zone holding the “John 3:16” sign (display tip #5—add as many extra details as possible to enhance the entire scene). We also positioned spotlights on the players as we discovered at night it was hard to see what was happening without the extra lights (display tip #6—use adequate lighting, include spot lights and ambience lighting). As a final touch, we recorded the Chicago Bears fight song and other football sounds and played it on a loop (display tip #7—incorporate sound into your settings). Again, Honorable Mention, but now we were starting to get a following of fans.
By now we had decided we wanted to do something different each year. Some of the other homes decorated the same each time, and while they were nicely done, after awhile it wasn’t worth stopping anymore. Visitors were telling us they liked to come by our house because we had a new idea each year (display tip #8—keep things changing; don’t just repeat yourself). The fourth year we planned on a spooky forest with children cooking marshmallows around a campfire and telling ghost stories while an assortment of monsters crept up behind them. Again, we created a bunch of trees from everyday materials and positioned them around the yard. We set the children in place, gave them fake marshmallows on sticks, added a backpack or two and recorded ghost stories to set the scene. We decided we needed some more light and movement in the display, so we bought a fake cauldron that looked like it had red flames coming out of it and used it to replicate a campfire (display tip #9—movement is good; consider adding a fan to move wind chimes or flags). We also incorporated a fog machine into the scene to create more ambience. To set the monsters in place, we used posts hidden in their bodies and strung various dark-colored wires through the trees. We made sure the posts and wires were dark and tried to hide them from view, but what we didn’t realize was that people wanted to walk through the scene to see the various characters, so unfortunately, we had to keep rearranging the posts and wires so they weren’t in the way (display tip #10 and #11—keep cords, wires, etc., out of site, and also make sure pathways around a display are clear enough for visitors).
We thought our spooky forest was our best thus far, but alas, still just Honorable Mention. This year, our fifth year, time got away from us, and we were considering not entering the contest, but by now we had become known as a great place to stop. Plus, we enjoyed chatting with everyone that came to visit, and we knew that if we didn’t keep ourselves in the eyes of the voters, we might slip out of mind. After three Honorable Mentions, we analyzed our competition more. We knew that more homes competed in the scary, gory and lots of special effects category, but few competed in the family-friendly category. So we went for the humor angle (display tip #12—play on words, or humor, can work wonders).
We made a large sign reading “Preparing for the Halloween Ball” and then set up mini-tableaus around the yard with different figures getting ready for a night out, but with a twist. Each character had a sign that had something humorous in a speech bubble. The werewolf was looking back at his tail and his sign read “Does this tail make my butt look big?” The witch was stirring a pot of little kid dummies mixed with vegetables and her sign read “Did she say feed the kids or eat the kids?” Three ghosts had a sign that said “I hope they serve spirits here.” A girl monster was sitting at a dressing table (complete with jars of eerie liquids, bones, spiders, etc) and holding a monster mask above a blank head; the sign nearby said “I’m almost ready. I just have to finish putting my face on.” Two skeletons hung from a tree, one with a black noose and a sign that said “I thought this was a black-tie affair.” The last grouping had two ghosts, one wearing a Pokemon sheet, and a sign reading “I never know what to wear to these things.” We put all our techniques to work: lighting, details, hidden wires, signage, etc.
Alas, still Honorable Mention. Whatever the judges are looking for must not be quite what we offer, but we found that more visitors come by each year, and many tell us they enjoy our decorating because it’s not too scary for their kids. So we’re building a following, and hitting a target audience—and, enjoying it while we’re doing it. Our Halloween scenes keep getting better, thanks to strong display tips. Now to start planning out next year’s theme.