Keeping Up With the Addamses

Halloween decorating secrets from theater designers

The Ghoulish Gallos

Halloween is not just a favorite with kids-- it's also a cherished holiday among theater artists.  If you want to join in the fun, but aren’t sure how to begin, let these theater designers from around the country inspire your spooktacular Halloween display.

The Ghoulish Gallos

If the prospects of a pumpkin and a carving knife send you screeching into the night, you’re in good company. Tony® Award-winning scenic designer David Gallo insists, “our jack o’ lanterns never look like they do in magazines. Those must be Photoshopped!” David and his wife, Sarah, stopped trying to master the jack o’lantern face and opted for this modern alternative: carve the entire pumpkin (“No need to neglect 3/4 of the pumpkin,” says David) with a simple repeated shape—polka dots, diamonds, fleur-de-lis, hearts, you name it.  For safety (and longer life), use battery-operated tealights instead of burning candles.  You might stow a string of Christmas twinkle lights inside the pumpkin and let them do the illumination.

David groups several pumpkins together outside his front door, using different sizes for variety. Simply arrange them on and about a bale of hay (available at local farms and pumpkin stands), and David promises that your front stoop will look like a Martha Stewart catalogue.”

For people with kids, the best traditions allow children to participate without ripping into the family budget.  Last year, Sarah made a sensational Halloween garland using ordinary brown-paper grocery bags and twine. She simply cut out three different sized pumpkins and glued them to the twine. Instead of pumpkin shapes, Sarah suggests bats, witches’ hats, or even cats. The cardboard from a cereal box can be used to place stencils on the grocery bags – and of course, colored construction paper works, too. You can either glue the shapes vertically, to hang down from one end, or horizontally to drape the garland from several points. Sarah advises that these garlands work best inside or when hung in a sheltered spot.

Skeleton Theater

You can watch video of last year’s extravaganza on Christopher Walker's web site, along with a “making of” featurette hosted by Christopher’s daughter.

What better night than Halloween to shoot for the moon?  Seattle-based sound designer Christopher Walker goes way overboard. With a little help from his friends, Chris stages a skeleton show in his front yard, complete with moving pirate ships, theatrical lighting, and a talking parrot. His Halloween pageants are probably more involved than you imagined for your own sleepy hollow, but boy, are they inspiring!

If this elaborate display sparks your creativity, Chris advises to start small. He recommends a project involving the vibrating motor on a cell phone and an automatic battery-powered motion detector, like this LED light, to startle your friends and neighbors.  Since this project does require some wiring, kids will want to get an adult to help.

Open the motion detector unit, and disconnect the LED light.  Connect the vibrating motor to the motion detector unit, allowing 10-12 feet of wire so that you can locate the motor far away from the sensor. Insert the batteries, and test the rig. When the connection works, attach the vibrating motor to a scary skeleton, a crab shell (Chris once used a horseshoe crab), any Halloween decoration, or even directly to a bush or small branch. Test it again! When you approach the motion detector, the object should twitch and shake!  Place the motion detector where it can register traffic on a walkway and attach the vibrating end to a tree on your property or to the side of your house. When people approach, it should suddenly vibrate, and scare the daylights out of them!

Ghost in the Yard

Los Angeles scenic designer and artist Keith Mitchell made this “excellent outside spook”—that even frightens his dog, Puck! Using a one-gallon jug, plastic garbage bags, and a couple of hangers, you, too, can haunt the neighborhood. (Complete instructions are included below.) This recyclable ghost can be hung in a tree, on your front porch, off the basketball hoop over the driveway or used as a puppet.

To illuminate your ghost on a dark Halloween night, David Gallo suggests using the outdoor spotlight above your garage or driveway.  Purchase a colored lightbulb at the hardware store (orange, green, or purple might work best) and point it toward your ghostly creation.  Don’t worry if you can’t light the front of the ghost. Your spook will look all the more haunting and dramatic when lit from the back or side.

Typically, the neighbors decorate the outdoor trees and shrubs with twinkling lights at Christmas-time. Warm those trees up in October with these Halloween craft projects. Projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy enlists her young daughter to make paper-mâché spiders from balloons inflated to the size of softballs.  Add googly eyes and pipe cleaners for legs. “Then we criss-crossed white and grey yarn in the shape of spider webs through the branches of the trees in front of our house,” Elaine explains, and dangled the spiders from the webs. Elaine suggests protecting your spiders from the weather with a clear acrylic sealer.  She used a spray-on type available at most craft stores.

Detailed instructions for Keith Mitchell’s “Ghost in the Tree”


  • 2 wire hangers
  • 1 1-gallon plastic water or milk jug or similar, empty
  • 4 white kitchen garbage bags
  • Some string or fishing line


  • Scissors
  • Pliers
  • Serrated knife

The Head:

  • With the serrated knife cut off the spout so that the top of the jug is nice and rounded like a head (with a hole in it).
  • Keeping the jug upright, carefully poke holes where the eyes and mouth should be. You can use a marker to draw them on first, if you choose.
  • Use scissors to cut out the mouth and eyes in a jack-o-lantern formation.

The Arms:

  • While holding the hanger by the hook part, grab the cross piece in the middle and stretch it out straight, so you have a long skinny loop. Repeat on the second hanger. These will be your arms.
  • Straighten out the hook. Use the pliers to press the loop together and twist it for strength.
  • Using the scissors, poke a hole in each side near the base of the bottle at the spot where Frankenstein’s monster’s bolts would be.
  • Push a straightened wire hanger into the one side and thread out the other. Bend it back underneath, so that it doesn’t pull out. Repeat from the other side with the other hanger.

The Tattered Shreds of Ghost Flesh:

  • Cut the garbage bags vertically into strips, 1 – 3 inches wide. If your bags have a drawstring or other fancy top, cut that off first. Unfold into double-length strips.
  • Tie the strips onto the arms. Make them different lengths. You could also use an old sheet or an old shirt.
  • Tie the fishing line to the jug handle,and hang the ghost in a good spot in a tree. The wind should make it come alive.
  • Insert a small LED light in the head to make your ghoul glow!

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