The best advice about Halloween decorations, from experts

Ready to take Halloween to the next level? We have advice — and photos — from extreme decorators.

(Paul Blow/Illustration for The Washington Post)

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Before you haul the same fake cobwebs and skeletons out of storage for another spooky season of acceptable-but-nothing-special Halloween decor, allow us to nudge you toward some self-reflection: What if this year, you went all in?

What if this year, your house became “the crazy Halloween house?”

Pandora Rose’s home in Aurora, Colo., has carried that honorific since 2009, when she first transformed the modest 1980s residence into Darkrose Manor, festooned, depending on the year, with the trappings of a haunted forest or a “dark carnivale.” Always a lover of Halloween, she and her husband married on the holiday. One year, after a costume contest fell through, she decided to surprise him with “super cheesy” decorations. “We didn’t have a single trick-or-treater, but boy, we had so much fun just sitting there and enjoying the atmosphere.” They have since built a business out of spooky production and art design.

Attracting trick-or-treaters is no longer a problem. Rose says her ghoulish adornments have given neighbors something to bond over: “We are very much a tightknit community that now comes together simply because of Halloween.” Indeed, the social benefits of all this All Hallows’ Eve fun are surely one reason Americans are projected to spend more than $3 billion decorating this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

If you’re ready to freak out (but also delight) your neighbors, heed this haunted advice from Halloween superfans.

Huge skeletons are just part of how we live now

Professional haunted attractions often lead you through vignettes — for instance, an alien encounter followed by an eerie circus, which leads to an undead Viking feast. Although you can certainly take a similar approach at home, many aficionados recommend picking one theme to guide you.

Colleen Delawder, who has lived in and decorated the Historic Herndon Halloween House in Herndon, Va., since 2005, says themes make decorating easier and more fun. Getting her own house ready for the big day typically begins on Labor Day.

This year, she’s basing her motif on the movie “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which means she’ll get to use her Christmas decorations, too. Previous Halloweens have featured clowns and haunted pirates. (This is why she still includes a pirate ship. “We have it, so why not use it?”)

Delawder also suggests incorporating your hobbies, which can save money. If you’re into kayaking, for instance, put out your kayak and throw some skeletons in it.

Rose changes her theme annually, too, generally taking anywhere from one to three months to put it all together. (Her longest setup took more than a year.) This year, she drew inspiration from the late Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński, whose surrealist work often depicted his nightmares. (Who says Halloween can’t be highbrow?) “We want [people] to feel like they have either entered into another world or they are viewing the portal to another world,” Rose says.

Paul Brubacher, director of operations at Markoff’s Haunted Forest, an annual attraction in Dickerson, Md., says his team’s ideas tend to come from “our own things that creep us out and what we get the shivers about.” Inspiration also can strike unexpectedly, such as while shopping at Home Depot: “I’ll just see something in the plumbing aisle and go: ‘Oh, wow, that right there looks like an interesting fitting. I could probably use a little paint, … maybe put a little latex on it, and I could make that into an alien feeding tube.’ ”

Don’t traumatize the neighbors

Although commercial attractions such as Markoff’s are designed to scare you silly, you should probably avoid serious horror at home, especially if you have younger children around.

To delight rather than traumatize, Brubacher suggests focusing on atmosphere over blood and guts. “There’s scary, and then there’s just gross, right? If I’m looking at a pile of dismembered bodies, I’m not scared, I’m disgusted.” He recommends using fog machines and eerie lighting to build mystery, no gore required.

Still, if you had your heart set on dismembered body parts, there are ways to be playful about including them, Delawder says. A recurring feature at her Historic Herndon Halloween House is a haunted grill, which has faux parts over the flame. “But it’s not disgusting in any way. It just kind of looks fun and whimsical,” she says.

Indeed, across the board, realistic blood and guts were seen as no-nos. So, too, were realistic references: The expert decorators we talked with cautioned against featuring anything too topical. “We’re not touching on subjects that could be touchy for other people or potentially disrespectful of someone’s belief systems,” Rose says.

Get scary-good deals on supplies

As with most holiday goodies, the least-expensive time to shop for Halloween decorations is right after the unholy day, when you’ll find items on clearance. But that’s not the only strategy for scoring bargains.

Nature can be a great (and free) source: “The more organic elements you can bring in, the more convincing your atmosphere becomes,” says Rose, who collects tree limbs, sticks and leaves for her graveyard setup and other macabre displays. “There is nothing more fall and Halloween than the sound of crunching leaves under your feet.”

Halloween is also a recycling opportunity. Francisco Santos, operations director at the Horrorland, a haunted attraction in Miami, finds props at flea markets and scours curbs on evenings when residents put out unwanted furniture and other items for city pickup. “We found a really nice old vintage table that we transformed into a rotting table where somebody’s eating somebody else,” he says.

When renovating his bathroom, Thomas Hall of Richmond — who has been creating intricate jack-o’-lantern displays for 16 years — saved the old toilet. He kept it for the following Halloween, when he staged one of his pumpkins throwing up into it.

Maybe you’re not ready to become the hardest-core Halloween house on the block. (There’s always next year.) But there are baby steps you can take to give your usual decor extra oomph.

  1. Start with store-bought skeletons. However, don’t they look a bit sterile to be human remains? Brubacher recommends coating them in liquid latex for texture, followed by a layer of wood stain to age them. (Or, you know, you could just roll them around in dirt.)
  2. Resist carving pumpkins until a few days before Halloween to avoid rot. Then consider swapping that orange plastic carving knife for a drywall knife instead. Lou Cantolupo, a large-scale pumpkin sculptor in D.C., says drywall knives are sharper and lead to more precise designs. He enlists a number of power tools, too, but those might be a little advanced for an amateur.
  3. Think about other senses. Finally, think of your decorations as more than just something to look at. “What do you smell? What do you taste?” Rose says. “If you think about those things in your mind as you’re creating your haunt, it’s going to make for an amazing experience.” She adds a seasonal scent — such as a campfire smell — to her fog machine: “We just really want it to be something of a sensory overload.”

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