Halloween in our neighborhood is a pretty big deal. In our little town of around 11,000, there are about 1,000 elementary-aged kids. Last year, 40% of them showed up at our door for Beggar's Night. One street over, even more turned out.
Our first year here was an eye-opener. Both my husband and I grew up in houses that got about 5 trick-or-treaters every year. Our neighbor warned us about the volume of kids we could expect but neither of us really believed her. Still, I spent several hours that year carving 6 pumpkins and we bought a few bags of candy thinking we'd gorge ourselves on the leftovers later that night.
There was no gorging. In fact, we had to reclaim all the candy we'd separated out for ourselves and only pass out one piece per child. We had 300 kids that year who showed up in a continual stream or in large waves, dressed as every sort of character imaginable, admiring the jack-o-lanterns, and departing with a bit of candy. We were so exhausted by the end! But it had been a lot of fun.
We decided we needed to start going bigger. Houses a street over had elaborate decorations, fog machines, Thriller blasting over some sort of PA, and flashing lights rigged to music.
My taste isn't big and flashy, but subtle and eerie. Have you ever read The Woman in Black by Susan Hill? Don't do that to yourself. It scared the pants off of me. It was so quite and ordinary. The ending was a little heavy-handed but everything else was perfectly, subtly, and slowly creepy.
I want to do decorations that capture just a bit of that atmosphere so I decided to start working on an old, haunted graveyard. This is our second year and we're up to 7 tombstones, 20 jack-o-lanterns, and one ghost.
First, the pumpkins.
At the beginning of October, we headed to the tiny town of Cantril, Iowa with Kevin's dad and stepmom. This town is in the middle of a belt of Amish country and has a country shop owned and operated by Amish called the Dutchman's Store. They have a really fantastic selection of local pumpkins and the best prices I've ever found. Most of the pumpkins we bought were priced at $2.50, though some were as low as $1 and as high as $7. We bought enough to stuff my father-in-law's truck.
I did go back the next weekend with my mom and picked up a few more pumpkins. I snapped the picture above of corn drying in one of the fields along our route.
In addition to these pumpkins, my dad and my husband's stepmom each shared a ton of gourds with us from their gardens.
A total of 20 pumpkins were carved into jack-o-lanterns while the rest, along with the gourds, were set out as props with our tombstones. I personally carved 14 while my dad and sister each carved 3. I did have some very welcome help: my husband and our friend scooped out all the innards for me! My pumpkins were mostly inspired by vintage Halloween ephemera from the 1940s although some are inspired by film stills from Hocus Pocus. Here are some of my favorites (you can click on them to make them bigger):
And now the tombstones.
These are all made of sheets of pink foam insulation. I used rosin paper to draw full-scale versions of each grave marker and traced the outlines onto the foam insulation. They were roughed-in with a jigsaw, refined with a coping saw, and the sides were sanded with 220 grit paper until completely symmetrical and smooth. The surface decoration was transferred by tracing over the full-scale designs with a plain ball-point pen with enough pressure to indent the surface of the foam. All the text was laid out in a word processor, printed, and traced onto the foam.
After that, I used a cheap soldering iron to carve, or rather burn, all the surface design. There is only one temperature for the soldering iron so if it was too hot I had to keep unplugging it to cool it down (so it didn't melt too much at once).
I then mixed up what is known on the Internet as "Monster Mud," a mixture of joint compound and latex paint. I just used a bunch of paint that had been left in our garage when we moved in and mixed in the joint compound until I liked the texture. I used a small paint roller to apply the Monster Mud to every surface of the tombstones, texturing them, sealing them against weather, and providing a primer for the paint job all at once.
I took a walk in the cemetery at the end of our road and snapped a bunch of reference photos of weathering patterns. With three values of gray interior latex paint, I aged the tombstones and highlighted the surface patterns. I also added lichen with a mixture of pea, mustard, and orange hued craft paint. The gravestones were stuck in the ground with two pieces of sturdy wire.
To help with visibility, each tombstone also had a lantern. Most were just large Ball jars with votive candles. I hope to slowly replace these every year with old lanterns picked up at garage sales and the like. To help with the haunted feeling, we also had a fog machine and chiller running. Last year we set up a game call with recordings of coyotes (sounded like wolves), which was pretty effective. This year we used it to play some creepy classical music (Night on Bald Mountain, Danse Macabre).
Most of the tombstones were funerary phrases or traditional Latin death inscriptions I'd come across. I did produce one tombstone inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe poem Annabel Lee. I think this will the first in a little series of monuments to the women of Poe.
Our ghost, which, I apologize, I do not have a picture of, was a video we purchased from AtmosFEARfx and projected onto some windowscreen we set up in our side yard, behind the tombstones. She looks like the wandering ghost of some ill-fated bride. I'll probably have to come up with some sort of tombstone for her, too!
My husband and I already have some plans for next year's expansion: I'd like to double our tombstones, build a cemetery fence, and make a number of paper-mache crows to haunt the graveyard. We'll see how much of that is actually accomplished! I'll also take some pictures of the jack-o-lanterns and tombstones in progress. I was just too pressed for time this go-around.