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Saturday, October 3, 2020

How do we celebrate the holiday of the macabre in a year such as 2020?

All Hallows’ Eve, and its affiliated holidays, are celebrations of those that have passed beyond the realm of living consciousness.  From the ancient Druids, who believed they could commune with their beloved departed during the Sabbath of Samhain, to the modern Christian celebration of All Souls’ Day this is a season reserved for the remembrance of those that we have lost. 

You’ll often read in this blog that the modern American Halloween, latex masks, Zombie movies et al., is the embracing of our fears.  A night for us to dress to suit ourselves, hold our fears up to ridicule and scare off our demons with the knowledge that—at least for this one night-we can take control of the things that frighten us.  The most innate and endemic of those is the fear of death.

In the Northern hemisphere we see nature shut down during the fall to prepare for the prolonged cold and dark of winter—an act necessary for survival.  While we are cognizant of the renewal we will see in spring, it is difficult to visualize that renewal in the midpoint between the end of summer and the beginning of winter.  It is in this moment that our faith is most tested.

However it is in this moment we need to remind ourselves even more that we do not have to be prisoners of fear and we can take positive steps to take control over our situation.  This does not mean acting out in righteous rage, rebelling against sensible safety precautions or harming others.  It is a moment in which we need to steady ourselves and realize that the demons have no more power than that which we give them.  It is internally that we regain ourselves and subsequently the world around us.

It is still okay to celebrate Halloween, just put on your mask, wash your hands and save hanging out in large groups for next year.  Then remember to vote on November 3rd.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Tombstones: the Last Word in Mortality

One big staple of Halloween Haunts are mock graveyards filled with tombstones.  Tombstones come in many forms.  Some come from the store and are made from plastic and Styrofoam.  Others are homemade and crafted from plywood.  My experience, which often requires me to work with what I have on hand, has led me to use materials like cedar shakes, rigid foam insulation, waste paper baskets with wrapping paper and concrete patch mix--see Chapter 4 in 10 Cheap Tricks to Haunt Your Halloween.

All of these materials have their virtues and today my mock cemetery is a mix of commercial and homemade stones in different mediums with some garden sculpture thrown in for good measure.  I like to start early, or rather the beginning of October--see my post "Who Wants to Go First?"-building my boneyard slowly with a few tombstones at a time.  I usually add my Flying Crank Ghost next.  I then incorporate other elements like flame-less candles, bones and Zombies as the Halloween season builds toward the big show on October 31st.

The beginnings of my haunt.  From left to right:concrete patch mix stone, cedar shake crosses and "headstone", and a Styrofoam Celtic Cross in front of a Flying Crank Ghost.
View of the cemetery by night.

From Chapter 4
Now let us take a moment to enjoy some of the great tombstones that popped up on lawns in the 2017 season.
The above is a Halloween store offering.  It has a nice shape to it. I like how the designer has included a string of ghost lights--which are cool all by themselves. They have also clamped a bat onto the tombstone.

Above is a traditional graveyard scene.  These durable, homemade, wooden tombstones have been used by their family for years. They have also built a nice modular fence to add authenticity to the scene.  Another cool thing is the above ground crypt style of one stone in the center.  This is a rare lawn haunt find. While this picture was taken during the day,  at night this display is lit with colorful spotlights.

This lawn has gone with quality homemade stones. They have taken full advantage of the customize-able nature of homemade stones by writing their own rhyming epitaphs.  One stone is even specific to the town it is located in.

One of my favorite memories from my early haunting career was the year that I introduced the cedar shake "stones".  I handed out black permanent markers and the volunteers decorated the plain white shakes with epitaphs from their personal lives.  I still have some of those monuments.

There's nothing wrong with having a little fun with a headstone.  Halloween is about facing your fears.  Particularly your fear of mortality.  So don't worry what your tombstones are made out of; get out your rhyming dictionary and a permanent marker and write something witty.  Then put your slabs in the yard so that they can have the last word in your haunt. 

Below are some real life inspirations.  Enjoy!

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Clinton, NJ More than Just a Haunted Mill

The Halloween season is in full swing.  Homes are decorated. Candy is disappearing off of shelves and Christmas decorations are filling the stores. C'est la vie.

Central Jersey residents are  set to enjoy the famed Haunted Mill in the Red Mill Museum Village of Clinton, NJ.  However, Clinton has even more to offer. Residents are busy embellishing their already hauntingly beautiful Victorian homes for All Hallows Eve.

Below are some of the highlight from last Year's decorating contest.

The above home grabbed my attention by combining Halloween with mischief night.  I'm getting a kick out of toilet paper mummy face door.  This season, kits with plastic strips to wrap your door and the giant google eyes to go with are in the stores.  This is just plain fun.  The simplicity of the overall display is refreshing as well.  I like the placement of the bats.  There was definitely an eye for design at work here.

On the other end of the spectrum, below is a home that layered it on.  The decorators chose a trans-formative approach by covering the deck rails with camouflage
fabric to disguise the Victoria finery of the porch and transport the spectator to a medieval dungeon complete with strewn body parts.

I always like it when I see something new, and the bloody sacks are new to me. Nice job!  I also like the extension of the haunt to the fence surrounding the property.

Below is a display based on traditional motifs.  The witch, spider and jack-o-lantern combo is fun and sweet.

While beside the steps is a pair of skeletons in old clothes for a more contemporary add-on.

The final stop on our tour of Clinton is this front yard Cemetery.  I like the addition of a shackled skeleton in prison stripes.

I love seeing the re-imagining of a Victorian home for the Halloween season the gingerbread really adds to the spookiness.

My recommendation for this blog is simple, don't let the season pass you by.  Take a walk in your local downtown you may be surprised what haunting sights await.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Who Wants to Go First?

A pre-Labor Day entry into the Halloween season.

I have seen the question posed, "When is it acceptable to start decorating for Halloween?"  If you are like me you have been champing at the bit since last November 1st or at least Memorial Day.  Not because you wish for the summer to pass quickly, but because you know that some of the best times are in the fall.  And Halloween is certainly one of the best of times.

So who wants to go first? One answer is an eager beaver in Quakertown, NJ.  The display pictured above cropped-up in mid-August and certainly got my attention as the first public display of Hauntification for the 2018 season.

What I find brilliant? The pure exuberance of it.  That is a lot of dedication to Halloween very early in the season.

What would I add to the scene?  I would install a spotlight at floor level--of course I would be careful to keep it out from under foot in a doorway.  Which means that I would place it on the right side of the greeter and wrap the cord behind him.  A light color, like orange or yellow would would make him stand out while casting a big shadow on the door and porch ceiling.  This would make him twice the prop.

I tip my pointy hat to the seasonally precocious.

Getting an early start circa 1983.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Irish Eyes Smile in March

While I usually discourse on Halloween, I have been noticing the many amazing displays that celebrate the wearing of the green and bring out the Celtic in all of us.
Maybe it is the cold snowy March driving people to visions of rainbows or the stress of tax time that has people thinking green, but this year has been a particularly active one for St. Patty’s Day decorators.

Here are some highlights:
We start our tour of St. Patrick’s Day décor with this reveling mailbox holder.  I can’t put a finger on why this out-of-place-in-NJ sea cow holding a mailbox amuses me.  However, when its stewards dress it for holidays it is taken to the next level and I cannot help but smile.  The only thing that could make this more engaging is an accompanying flock of yard geese in complimentary attire.

manatee mail box decorated for St. Patrick's Day
photo by: R.D. Brookes
Bear with me; I am sliding toward the sublime.

Cruising through the neighborhoods of Hunterdon County I spotted a number of other honorable mentions.  These include the house for all holidays on Sandhill with green plywood cutouts of Shamrocks and Leprechauns on the lawn (a future column in this blog will feature this lawn’s Halloween extravaganza).

Another sight, and inspiration for this blog, was found in Frenchtown where a cast iron kettle hanging from a tripod—the kind that will soon have spring flowers growing in it-has been adorned to look like a pot of gold.

Mitchell's Cafe Sign

However, the grand dame of St. Patrick’s Day displays is found indoors and comes from a Grand Dame.  Mitchell’s Café in Lambertville is a distinguished place located at 11 ½ Church Street.  It has been a bar since the 1860’s and came to be in the hands of the Bishop family about 100 years after its opening.  Mitchell’s is a timeless space that could transport you to an Irish public house any night of the year, but March is a special time when the Leprechauns are let out to play by the barkeep, Carol Bishop. 

bar at Mitchell's Cafe

The impressive display of eclectic decorations run the gamut from Byers' Choice dolls to wreaths filled with Shamrocks.  It is enough to make all eyes smile, Irish or not.  Here are some favorites.
light up snowman wearing promotional St. Patty's Day Necklace
Frosty bedecked with beads

Byers' Choice Dolls behind the bar
Byers' Choice Dolls

What could improve such a scene? Just one thing a Guinness Stout poured into the perfect glass by Carol Bishop.

St. Patrick's Day wreath
One of a number of wreaths

wagon wheel Saint Patrick's Day

If Mitchell’s Café sounds enticing you can learn more about it from, dear friend, Chris Poh at the Pub Talk blog:

Mitchell’s is also home to one of the longest running Irish Sessions in the U.S. check out the American Public House Review article here:

tribute to fallen members of the Bishop family
A moving tribute

It is time to bid you adieu so that I might attend to the visions of bunnies hopping in my head. Until next time, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Erin go Bragh!

green hat and orchid
Wearing the green

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Laughing Our Pumpkins Off

The skits after "Weekend Update" on  Saturday Night Live can either be utterly forget-able or legendary.  A year ago, who would have thought that "The Haunted Elevator" sketch would have been the latter.  For those with early bedtimes or a lack of television, I will elaborate.

A couple of haunt-goers board the 100 Floors of Frights ride anticipating the scare of a lifetime.  The couple are seated in an elevator with an operator who has no shortage of haunting puns.  As the doors of the elevator open to different floors the couple are assailed by different scary characters like a suicidal bride and a demonic chef.  Then the door opens on Tom Hanks (the evening's host) wearing one of those three-piece, jack-o-lantern-print suits that emerged on the market some years back.  Tom declares his name to be David Pumpkins and says that he will, "Scare the hell out of you!"  He and the two b-boy skeletons bust out into a spastic, urban, dance routine at the end of which David asks, "Any questions?"  The couple are stunned not with terror, but with the lameness of the routine.

As the skit progresses the elevator door opens multiple times, sometimes revealing horror scenes but other times revealing more David S. Pumpkins themed entertainment.  When the couple complains to the elevator operator about the preponderance of scenes involving the pumpkin-suit-clad man and his dancing skeletons he remarks, "It is 100 floors of frights, they are not all going to be winners."  Finally the door opens on just the b-boy skeletons who wish the couple a Happy Halloween.  The couple appear annoyed momentarily until the booming voice behind them of David Pumpkins asks, "Any questions?"  Then they are rightly scared witless.

The skit went viral and those suits--the hybrid professional wear and Halloween costume that had been languishing in the back of costume shops-went flying off the shelves.  A mythology sprang-up and the response to the character has been so strong that Loren Michaels has executive produced an animated special to air on NBC at 11:30 PM on Saturday, October 28, 2017.  More on that can be found at

So why discourse on a Saturday Night Live skit?  In actuality, I wanted to write this post last year.  The first chapter in my book, 10 Cheap Tricks to Haunt Your Halloween, covers ideas like using humor in your haunt and having your spectators experience a range of emotions.  The haunt portrayed in this sketch uses both these ideas.  This seemingly goofy scene of skeletons who can't dance and a man in a silly suit that has no connection to anything is what gets the biggest scream in the end.  At one point the elevator operator remarks, "The scariest thing to the mind is the unknown."  I could not agree more, it is in our imagination that fear originates and it is the unknown that leaves the most to the imagination.  Furthermore, when we let our guard down that is when we are most susceptible to the unexpected and that is when we are most vulnerable to a sudden fright.  Laughter causes us to let our guard down; if you really want to scare someone get them to laugh first.  Then take them by surprise.

Nine million plus YouTube views cannot be wrong.

As always, please haunt responsibly.

Any Questions?

Friday, October 13, 2017

Oh Sweet Terror!

Not only is this the season of mocking our fears, but it is also the season of candy. Sure sweet treats are important to a lot of holidays, but, given our modern celebration's ties to beggars night, they are the superstars of Halloween. It is no surprise, then, that candy stores are some of the first places to decorate for the season.

Here's a no brainer, Lambertville's La Chocolate Box, has its window filled with vintage-look cat and pumpkin-head figures.  They also have black branches woven with a black bulb light string to create a spooky thicket against the glass while black vines and bats lead to the ceiling where a dark canopy awaits.

Minette's Candies in Frenchtown, has kept it seasonal with hay bales and artificial squashes including Rouge Vif D' Etampes pumpkins--the preference of Cinderella's fairy Godmother.  It is look that can work from September through November with a little tweaking.  Here the scene takes an eerie bend with the addition of a black light tree and crows.  Amazing how one simple addition makes the difference between fall and Halloween.

The Goody Bag & Basket Company in New Hope, PA has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to the macabre.  Here they show off a split personality with a warm orange window and a sinister green window. The former with autumnal decorations and Jelly Bellies. The latter features everybody's favorite green, electrified, Victorian monster and old favorites like Pop Rocks, wax fangs and licorice pipes.  I like the juxtaposition of the two seasonal windows.

Where do I find brilliance?  All these windows make great use of vertical elements, the vines in Lambertville, the tree in Frenchtown and Frankenstein with green lights in New Hope, that move the eye both up and down to take in the entire scene rather than keeping the elements at normal eye-level.  Although it is difficult to see in the pictures they also suspended things from their respective ceilings which is great way to get more elements into your scene and make it more robust.  Additionally, everybody was well merchandised with smaller thematic items.

Don't let these frightful windows scare you off, take a trip downtown and see how your own Main Street is celebrating this season. While you are there you may want to pick up some sweet indulgences for yourself, how much is between you and your dentist.