Haunt your Chicago backyard

When it comes to seasonal decorating, Christmas continues to be tops among families eager to festoon their homes with festive frills and colorful décor. But creeping up as a close second is Halloween.

Consider that in 2011, nearly 50 percent of Americans decorated their yards for Halloween. The National Retail Federation estimated that just under billion was spent on Halloween decorations last year. In fact, Halloween spending as a whole (including costumes, candy and décor) increased from an estimated .3 billion in 2005 to .9 billion in 2011, it reported.

The evidence is clear: All Hallow’s Eve is serious business-and serious fun for parents who want to indulge their inner Great Pumpkin.

Meet Mr. Halloween

I’m one of those parents, a kid-at-heart whose favorite memories center on Oct. 31. Raised in a cramped Rogers Park apartment by a family that didn’t have a lot of disposable income, my opportunities for Halloween decorating were limited to what I could tape on the walls and windows. Yet, I always wished for a more grandiose way to express my unmitigated love for Halloween.

My dream wasn’t realized until I became a parent and a suburban homeowner many full moons later. Inspired by several impressive outdoor displays in and around my town, I decided to create my own front yard home haunt in 2004, which I dubbed, after the street we live on, Spirits on Sproat (visit welovehalloween.blogspot.com for details).

What began with a few carefully staked and dressed-up dummies across the lawn has turned into a full-blown neighborhood phenomenon, with hundreds of visitors returning every year to see who’s new in our ever-growing gallery of ghouls. Our collection now is comprised of 33 different characters, consisting of classic monster icons from movies and books (such as Frankenstein and the Headless Horseman) as well as several originals (the Green Ghoul and Broom Helga).

I don’t claim to have the greatest or most popular home haunt in the area. We lack animation (figures that move via compressed air and motors) and a fancy light show. But it makes up for these deficiencies with attention to detail, humor and heart.

Young kids and seniors alike can visit without being frightened. Adults relish our museum-like approach, with amusing signage posted in front of most characters. And fans of all ages appreciate occasional live musical performances on keyboard by our teenage son, “The Blue Phantom.”

Be the “ghoulest” house on the block

Hosting a home haunt of your own can be a great way to bond with your kids, make new friends and conjure up some frightfully good fun. And surprisingly, it’s not as hard as you’d think to pull off a crowd-pleasing Halloween display, provided you plan ahead carefully.

Try these tips:

  • Get proper buy-in and protection. Be sure your spouse, children and immediate neighbors approve of your festive ambitions. Additionally, check with your homeowners insurance provider to ensure that your property has adequate liability protection should someone file a claim for an injury caused by your display. To reduce such risks and minimize threats to your home’s security, it’s probably best to limit your haunt to the front yard. Also, consider installing security cameras and signs indicating that your property is under video surveillance.
  • Create the “boo-print.” Consider building your haunt around a particular theme: for example, a field of zombies on the loose, a pirate ship with a “skeleton crew” or a pumpkin patch populated by poltergeists that hide behind headstones with funny engravings. Aim to add a few items each year so as not to overtax your finances or your schedule the first season. Think carefully about what characters and props you want. Research the costs of materials (including costumes and masks, your largest expenses) and set a realistic budget. Determine what you will build from scratch and what you will buy pre-assembled. Draw a map of your yard and plot out where you want each piece positioned.
  • Make the monsters. For homemade figures, create a simple frame using two-by-four lumber you cut to size, with a horizontal board (the shoulders) screwed to a vertical board (the spine) that is fastened to a horizontal board beneath it (the hips). Vertical boards (the legs) are then fastened on either side of the hip board, and a 1-inch by 2-inch 1 ½-foot-long wooden stake (the neck) is attached vertically to the shoulder board. Plastic PVC pipe (3/4 inch or 1 inch), screwed onto the shoulders, can be used to make the arms, which can be made poseable and jointed with the help of PVC elbows. “Fatten” dummies with old clothes stapled and duct-taped onto the frame, then adorn them with costumes. Place your figure’s mask onto a Styrofoam head (available at Party City stores) that is mounted onto the neck stake; add lifelike hard plastic hands (also available at Party City) to complete your dummy. Secure your figure with wire to a 6-foot metal heavy duty u-channel fence post staked deep into your lawn, which prevents tip overs and damage from heavy winds.
  • Add lights, sound effects and barriers. Illuminate each prop using either a light stake fitted with an outdoor flood lamp or a bright, colored LED light source. Invest in a pair of wireless outdoor speakers with an included transmitter that, when connected to your computer or receiver, stream spooky sound effects or ghoulish music of your choosing. Connect all your outdoor rated extension cords to a high-amp power outlet box with a timer that will automatically turn your juice on and off. Lastly, prevent visitors from interacting with your display by fencing off your front lawn using the same u-channel fence posts and rope or heavy-duty chain.
  • Publicize your prized display. If you build it, they will come-but only if they know you exist. Promote your home haunt by submitting it to HauntedIllinois.com (hauntedillinois.com/submitform2.php) and contacting your local newspaper (they often publish lists of area holiday displays).
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