Halloween 2021: How to Create the Ultimate, High-Tech Haunted House

HALLOWEEN IS serious business in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., and adjacent Tarrytown. But nobody there embraces the area’s holiday heritage with more fervor than Arthur Klock. “Some people go pretty hard on their houses,” said Mr. Klock, “but not to the extent that I do. I’m definitely the crazy person in town.”


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Starting in August, the veterinarian begins constructing the frights at his home on Irving Avenue (named for Washington Irving, Tarrytown’s most famous resident and the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). Every year, Mr. Klock erects a 14-by-20-foot tent in his driveway to function as a compact, but full-fledged haunted house. This year, he’s styling the tent as the laboratory of “Regenerwrong” (a play on the maker of an antibody treatment used for Covid-19). In his fictional back story, the lab’s mission was to create a real-life Spider-Man, but, as he explains, “It’s a bad laboratory. Things have gone wrong.” Workers bitten by the lab’s experimental arachnids become half-human, half-spider radioactive zombie mutants.

If you’re hoping to make your own house the spookiest on the block, but haven’t yet dusted the cobwebs off your cobwebs, it isn’t too late. After last year’s muted Halloween, even those far less ambitious than Mr. Klock are ready to get their spook on. Two-thirds of American parents with a child under 18 (and a similar segment of people aged 18-34) plan to do more for Halloween this year compared with other years according to a recent survey conducted for Hershey’s.

The trick to making a home effectively terrifying, hard-core haunters like Leonard Pickel will tell you, isn’t to load your lawn with a chaotic assortment of props—a zombie here, a marauding clown there—as most people do. Mr. Pickel, whose company Hauntrepreneurs in Orlando. Fla., has created more than 300 haunted attractions, recommends giving your haunt a name and developing a story line (Mr. Klock’s is called Irving’s Nightmare, with the walk-through tent titled “The Spider Lab”). Doing so will keep you focused on a theme, which can help your guests/victims suspend disbelief and open themselves up to fright.

Kristy Ellison and her family in Ojai, Calif., call their yard haunt Moreno Manor. Their inspiration this year is the Netflix show “Stranger Things.” Moreno Manor is a full multimedia production with video projections, sound effects and elaborate props, like the demonic Demodog monsters from the show Ms. Ellison built herself. Her main advice, however, is far simpler: Focus on the fundamentals. “Lights are probably the number one thing you should invest in,” she said. High-tech effects and museum-worthy props are great, “but they’re not going to do any good if you don’t light them up properly.” Also crucial: “Be kind and considerate to your neighbors. Let them know what you’re planning, and bring them cookies.”

In Eagle Mountain, Utah, Damon Ferre’s neighbors knew his plans as soon as he started work on his display in August (beginning with a 7-foot-tall statue of Death he built in his driveway). They’ll go out of their way to check on his progress right up to Halloween, when, he said, “All of my neighbors are welcome to come over, warm themselves by the fire, sit in the electric chair and chitchat.”

It’s exhausting and expensive, he says, but then the neighborhood kids come by, delighted and terrified, and he thinks, “OK, I’ll get back to work,” and he vows next year’s will be even better.

Scare Tactics

From springing skeletons to laser-lit fog, these 13 pro-recommended horrors will help make your beloved home seem (temporarily) terrifying

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

1. Mist Connection

“Fog is basically a huge flag that says, ‘come over here,’” said production designer Griffin Stoddard. “It adds mystery and suspense.” Froggy’s Fog Laser Swamp Home Package comes with a pair of 400-watt fog machines capable of pumping out 2,000 cubic feet of haze a minute, six laser modules for giving it an eerie glow, plus two gallons of “Swamp Juice,” for long lasting, medium density fog. $500, froggysfog.com

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

2. Petrifying Reflections

Gazing upon one’s own visage on Halloween can be scary enough, but what if nightmarish companions are lurking in the mirror? Night Frights embeds a high-def video screen behind its ornately framed Haunted Mirror so killer clowns, zombies or the screaming, bloodied “Scary Mary” suddenly appears when an unsuspecting visitor steps on the pressure-sensitive mat or you activate a hand-held trigger. From $1,699, nightfrights.com

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

3. Spectre Projector

For windows and doorways teeming with virtual zombies and goofy ghosts, try digital decorations from AtmosFX. Its AtmosKIT Plus comes with everything you need to get started: a ViewSonic M1 short-throw projector, a piece of special translucent fabric to project onto, and 16 high-definition decorations preloaded onto a USB drive. (Download dozens more frightening files from their site). $359, atmosfx.com

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

4. Grave Expectations

No yard haunt is complete without a few cemeterial touches. Molly West will hand-engrave insulation foam-based grave markers with names and clever epitaphs for you, your family or, if you’re thinking wishfully, your enemies. Adorned with skulls and ravens, aged with paint, cracks, and texture, and sealed against the weather, these props are designed to last as long as you do. From $78, etsy.com/shop/Custombstones

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

5. Gourd-geous Carvings

Michelangelo had marble, Picasso had paint, and Marc Evan and Chris Soria have pumpkins. Don’t scoff: The Museum of Modern Art has trusted them to carve masterpieces like “The Starry Night” in gourd form. Extreme jack o’ lantern designs can cost $800-plus, plus shipping. Their order books are filling fast, but if you want to try your own hand, their website will also offer online classes. From $150, maniacpumpkincarvers.com

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

6. The Shining

Great lighting is often the difference between a truly spooky tableau and just a bunch of stuff on a lawn, according to Mr. Stoddard. The Ghostlight Yard Haunt Package includes a dozen ultrabright weatherproof 12-volt LED lights in two sizes and an array of colors plus a full complement of accessories including extension cords, dimmers and controllers to make lights flicker ominously. $400, halloweenfxprops.com

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

7. Eyes Without a Face

Lively, but definitely not alive, the computer-animated eyes on the Monster M4SK, from open-source hardware and electronics company Adafruit, add an unnerving flourish to costumes, props, even jack-o-lanterns. They’ll work right out of the box, though the tech-adept can download different peepers to blink and dart about on its pair of full-color TFT video screens mounted to an eyeglass-shaped backing. $45, adafruit.com

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

8. Bony Behemoths

The 12-foot-tall skeleton Home Depot introduced last year was such a sensation that it even caught the fancy of professional haunters like Bud Scholl, co-owner at Cincinnati’s Dent Schoolhouse. “It’s a pillar in your yard. It is absurd. It is gorgeous.” This year the store added a 12-Foot Inferno Pumpkin Skeleton with a light-up chest and LCD “LifeEyes.” Crafty creators have added motors and pneumatics. From $299, homedepot.com

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

9. Macabre Mutations

Dark Imaginings uses the trick of lenticular printing to make portraits that reveal monsters within their subjects as you walk past. Select from premade, vintage-style portraits which transform Victorian subjects from staid citizens to grotesque ghouls. Or, for next year, commission a custom portrait of you, your home or even your pets, capturing the true darkness within. From $15, custom from $600, darkimaginings.com

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

10. Night Flight

Rigging a ghost to fly across the yard is easy to envision, but hard to execute. Frightprops, which specializes in the kinds of DIY Halloween elements that professional and amateur hunters use to build their own props, makes an all-in-one Axworthy Ghost Kit to simplify the process. Included are a high-torque motor and a pair of ready-to-attach guide wheels, as well as line. Ghost sold separately. From $230, frightprops.com

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

11. Rented Demented

Dapper Cadaver, a “death-related prop house,” is a favorite resource of the film, TV and haunted house industries for its unsettlingly uncanny array of postmortem figures. They also offer a range of grotesqueries for rent—perfect for the person who doesn’t have the space, or the stomach to store a pile of severed heads or a (potentially) murderous clown in their attic for most of the year. From $10, dappercadaver.com

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

12. Invasion Occasion

The most effective way to lean into a theme is to purchase a horde of one element—zombies, killer clowns, or as the Horror Dome offers, aliens. Its “Alien Sci-Fi Props” package deal comes with six black-eyed creatures from beyond. Each latex figure is 4½ feet tall, foam-filled and precision-painted to spook during even the closest encounters. $1,100, thehorrordome.com

Illustration: Ryan Inzana

13. Startle Artist

Most props that promise to lunge and jump end up moving with the spunk of a tortoise in a race. But the Mini Leaper from DC Props uses electric and pneumatic parts to make the top half of a skeleton rocket from the crypt with scream-inducing swiftness. Or, switch the skeleton for other figures, like Mr. Klock has. “This year, it’s a spider. Last year it was a clown. The year before, a witch.” From $985, dcprops.com


From a diabolical forest to a spooky ship, unnerving attractions to visit (and steal ideas from)—not one of them a mansion

The Dent Schoolhouse

Photo: The Dent Schoolhouse

Since its opening 50 years ago next month, the Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World has convinced generations of park goers that there is no place more reliably haunted than a decrepit Victorian house. But for alternative terror, step away from the Mouse, and for that matter, from the house. Below, four not-houses of horror:

For 25 years, spook enthusiasts have viewed Cincinnati’s Dent Schoolhouse as one of the scariest spots in the country. The 1894 schoolhouse retains its layout: classrooms, laboratories, locker rooms, and of course, the basement boiler room, where you might find Charlie the Janitor (if he doesn’t find you first). Along with standard scares, the schoolhouse offers behind-the-scenes and lights-on tours for the timid. Tickets from $20, frightsite.com

Markoff’s Haunted Forest

Photo: Chris Knowles

The 35 minutes or so it takes to hike your way through Markoff’s Haunted Forest might feel like the longest of your life. Scattered throughout the 165-acre farm in Dickerson, Md., are more than 70 scare actors, hired to terrify. Scary scenes throughout the woods include a circus tent, caves, a UFO and a church. Tickets from $35, markoffshauntedforest.com

The 277.5 foot-long William S. Mitchell was built in 1934 by the US Army Corps of Engineers as a dredging vessel. “In just 45 years of active service, the boat was responsible for over 112 crew member deaths,” earning the ship the moniker “Death Dredge,” says the website that promotes it under its current name, the USS Nightmare. The haunt, which now features more than 20 scenes and 18 characters, sits docked in Newport, Ky. Tickets from $18, ussnightmare.com

For those who grew up in San Diego, Marshal Scotty’s Playland in El Cajon was likely the site of grade school birthday parties. It’s not like that any more. Abandoned and resurrected as the Haunted Amusement Park, it now features malevolent clowns who lurk beneath the decrepit roller coaster and in the shadow of the rusty ferris wheel. Tickets from $20, scaretrail.com


True fanatics don’t wait

An Alice Cooper Guillotine head from Distortions Unlimited.

Photo: Distortions Unlimited

It is never too early to start planning for next Halloween or fright nights beyond (Mr. Klock, who has 2023 sorted, is already thinking of 2024.) If you are the sort to dream up spooky display concepts that will need to be custom-crafted, that kind of forethought helps. By this time of the year, many of the most in-demand independent crafters of props and masks are already booked up. Get a jump on next year with a few of our favorite sold-out sources:

If you need a haunted teeter-totter or the head of Alice Cooper, check out Distortions Unlimited, which has been bringing the spook since 1978. (Dick Van Dyke’s legendary yard haunt in Malibu is full of their wares.)

Beastcraft brings a terrifyingly naturalistic style to their props, like their antlered Forest Spirit. The shop is already filling April 2022 on their production schedule.

While Immortal Masks can fill all of your gory and grotesque desires, their cartoonishly cute yet unnerving Funzies line is worth special attention. Screwball, a floppy-eared dog, integrates the video-screen eyes from Adafruit to unsettling effect.

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