Today’s Halloween Haunters have no idea how hard we had it way back when, before special lights made just for Halloween, strobe lights, and fog machines were part of the scene. I remember when I had to travel to Sleepy Hollow uphill both ways on a sway back horse in 3 feet of snow!
No, really, Halloween was always fun in the “good old days” because to create a really scary “set”, like a stage, you had to be able to extract as much as you could out of what you had to implement the trick or treater’s imaginations.
So, what’s the best way to create a scary scene? Simple – lighting.
Lighting is probably the most important aspect of creating fear and trembling when decorating your home for the festival of Samhain (Sow-in). You know, Halloween.
Around my home, when I lived in the city, my neighbors would go all out to out-do each other with decorations on all holidays. Some even went so far as to hire professional decorators to come in and decorate their homes.
However, simply by following the basic rules of lighting, I was the only one who had trick or treaters crying, trembling in their boots, and standing in my yard telling me they certainly weren’t afraid of my house, which really meant they were scared stiff! And here’s how you can too!
Set the Stage – Create a Story
First, you gotta have a STORY. Not a theme. Themes are for parties. A story draws in the viewers like a play or movie draws in the audience. It must be a simple story that can be told in just a few sentences. This is called a “treatment” in the movie world. The story must have the element of letting the viewers use their imagination… The scariest things are what you don’t see, or just barely see, or see only for a flash. You’re just not sure if you saw anything, right?
For example, here’s a tried and true good one:
A guy (or gal) comes home after work on Halloween eve, in no good mood, tired, his wrinkled white shirt unbuttoned at the top, tie pulled slightly loose, perhaps nerdy plastic frame glasses with tape holding them together, and as he walks in the door carrying his briefcase, a dark figure comes up behind him and puts a knife to his throat. He drops the brief case, eyes wide.
“Tonight” says the stranger in a raspy voice, “you are going to lure the trick or treaters into your home. I will take care of the rest. But, just in case you decide to run, I’m going to chain your leg to the banister on the porch.”
Next (and this is the “scene” the trick or treaters see) we see the guy standing, holding a bowl of candy, on the porch, his leg chained to the . . . whatever you wish. He’s still in the same clothes he came home in. He’s sweating, even though it’s cool outside (a mist sprayer is good for this).
The front door is wide open and you can easily see inside the house. When the trick or treaters come up to the porch … and remember, they can see in the house … it’s dark, but they can just make out a shadow of a guy in the background, in the house, swaying back and forth. But they’re not sure …
Without moving his mouth much, his eyes looking to the side, he says quietly, through his teeth, “Take a piece of candy and get out of here. NOW! Please, just take the candy and pretend I’m not talking to you. Don’t look in the house. DON’T LOOK IN THE HOUSE! PLEASE. GET YOUR CANDY AND LEAVE. NOW!”
Inside the Stage – The Backdrop
Ok. So you’ve created the story scene above. Now ask yourself: How would it look when the trick or treaters look in the house (and of course they’re going to look, the guy told them not to!)
First rule of lighting a set: Always start with the background. The background frames the foreground, and gives it depth. It’s night. The color for night is blue. Not ultra-violet. But blue. Dark blue cellophane from a dollar store wrapped over the light, but not touching the bulb. Most craft stores will carry colored cellophane.
If going with cellophone, you can also buy special heat-resistant cellophane. They’re called “gels“, available at Amazon, theatrical stores or cinema supply houses (usually in bigger cities). Also try www.StageSpot.com. A popular gel in the theatrical business is from a company called Rosco.
Don’t let the cellophane touch the bulb, by the way. Try to use just the lights you have, but NO, I repeat, NO overhead lights (like the ceiling lights). Try to get the lights as low as possible. Low = scary.
A good light fixture to use is a simple reflecting work light with a clamp on it. It’s nice because, well, most people have at least one of these in the shop or garage, and you can put it just about anywhere. They’re also cheap if you do have to buy one. You should use a light bulb that is rated at about 100 watts or better. WARNING: The more watts, the hotter the bulb, so be careful! You could also play with CFL’s, but I find them too sharp (I don’t care that the manufactures’ say it’s closer to true light – for a creepy effect, you need a light closer to campfire light.)
We have homemade wooden boxes that sit on the floor that are about forty gazillion years old with sockets in them and have two sides open. We use these for Christmas, too. Point the open sides toward the wall. Bing botta boom, you have scary stage lights!
The Background – Casting the Shadow of the Bad Guy
You’ll need one light that makes the shadow of the bad guy. This needs to be white or red. I don’t really like red because it’s overused, and may not create the effect well.
Put the bad guy off to the side where the trick or treaters can’t see him, but put the light low to cast a big shadow where they can see that – and it’s the shadow that creates the scare. The shop light is good for this.
Put aluminum foil around the lamp, open on one side so that the light is focused just on the guy. There’s another product that is heavy duty foil called cinefoil, also made by Rosco. It’s usually heavy aluminum foil that is painted black on one side. It’s really nice because it works easier than flimsy regular aluminum foil, and doesn’t collapse when you look at it wrong.
When I set this up for real, I decided that just the backlight was good enough. And, I used a strong floodlight in the shop light fixture so the light was more directed. I experimented with several poses to get the right effect. Here’s how they looked:
Here’s without a hat, the light is set about three feet off the floor, clamped to a chair:
Here’s with me squatting, wearing a hat:
Here’s with the light set about a foot off the ground. It was so low that my body blocked the light… time for a diet!
I ultimately decided to stand with the hat and set the light about three feet off the floor:
Of course, if you really want to spend money, you can buy what is called an Arri kit. It consists of four lights ranging from 300 watts to 1000 watts each. You can buy these at most photo stores, Amazon or B&H Photo in New York. Did I mention they’re expensive? Yeah, but they’re really nice if you’re doing a lot of professional lighting work. They’re nice because you can focus or unfocus the light, and block light with barn doors, etc.
There are cheaper versions of light kits for video available from Smith Victor that you can buy. Also check out “PAR cans” from Theatrical stores or Amazon. PAR cans are simply light fixtures made especially for stage work.
Another thing to use to control the light levels: A dimmer that can turn the light down to the amount that creates the effect you want. The last time I looked at these at the hardware store, there were three basic dimmers: Low wattage dimmers (about 300 watts = three 100 watt light bulbs) with a knob you turn, higher wattage dimmers (about 600 watts), and digital dimmers.
I don’t think the digital dimmers can handle as much current, but I haven’t looked into what’s out there to find out. If you’re just using regular light bulbs or flood lights, you won’t need anything more than what I’ve just described. You can mount them to a board (usually one dimmer per light) and wire them into an extension cord that then goes on to you lights.
I’ve included a crude wiring diagram to get you started. It wouldn’t hurt one bit to get a professional to do this if you don’t feel comfortable doing it yourself:
For the Real Professional – Dimmer Pack Control Boards!
If you go to an electrical supply house, you can get rheostats, which is a really big “dimmer”, that can take up to a couple thousand watts, but you’re now starting to teeter on the edge of the professional “gaffer”. Of course, you can buy control boards like those that are used for shows and in theaters, but, of course, these are pricey, too. It all depends on your budget.
Usually, you have what is called a “dimmer pack”, and then a control board to go with it. The dimmer pack will have several “channels”, and each channel controls one light. Less expensive dimmer packs have enough dimmers for 8 lights (8 channels), or down further to 4 Channels
You don’t need more than this, but for real control, you can get programmable control boards that will turn the lights up and down as needed, and some even coordinate these with music and/or videos and will drive motors to move the lights. A lot of music bands have these. A relatively good and inexpensive brand is the KLS Electronics USA, Inc. line of PAR cans, dimmers, and control boards.
One more thing about the background (and the foreground as well). Light usually has an origin. If you place a light, try to make it look like it’s coming from a reasonable source, like a window, or a lamp. If you place a light on a wall, try to imagine that it is coming from a source that the viewer can’t see, but assumes is there.
That’s it for the background. Of course, nowadays people want to use fog machines and strobes, but try to do this without that stuff, because less is better … and scarier ’cause it feels more real. Would an actual monster come carrying a fog machine? Exactly.
Lighting Effects – The Foreground
Now for the foreground. This is where the action is, and the focus is to light the “action”, to draw attention to it. You don’t want to overlight the foreground, just the characters from your story. For our example story, the light on the porch is easy: a plain light with foil mask around it, with a slit cut to point from the ground up toward the guy’s face.
The light on the porch is easy: a plain light on the ground with foil mask around it, with a slit cut to point from the ground up toward the guy’s face. Of course, light the walk way, too, so no one trips.
If you live in an apartment or condo where there is no porch, then make a “stage” in the hallway and use the box lights like above as “footlights” like they have on old stages. If you don’t have time or the shop to make wooden boxes, then make cardboard box foot lights. Just don’t set them on fire!
To light the outside of your house, the principle is the same: Blue lights set low and pointed up makes for very scary stuff!
Here’s how it turned out:
A Real-Life Haunt
My son made a variation of the above story and stage which was very effective: He lit the background like above, except he used candles, too, and he used his fog machine.
In my son’s story, the bad guy is dressed in black with a black cape, a black stocking over his head, a black fedora hat on, and he is standing in front doorway, backlit instead of from the front. The candy bowl was sitting on a bar stool on the porch.
When the kids came up, without saying anything, he simply pointed at the candy bowl, but when he moved his arm to point, he revealed a bloody knife in his belt. We literally had a riot when a crowd of teeny boppers jeered him with shouts of “We’re not afraid of you!”… and you know what that means 🙂 We had to close the scene down early. Sometimes you can be too good!