Haunted Houses Haunted Houses

One of the great joys of being a kid - or having one - comes at the end of October: Halloween. In recent years, many communities have placed more emphasis on indoor celebrations rather than on trick-or-treating, and this means there's a good chance you'll find yourself elected to host your local haunted house.

In creating a haunted house, you'll be able to use the Sheffield Guidelines to Interior Design - function, mood, and harmony - but in a drastically different way than usual. You'll still want it all to harmonize, but the function and mood of your home will have to undergo a transformation for a day.

The function of the haunted house, of course, is to scare the kids without really scaring them. We all thrive on a little adrenalin rush every now and then; the box office numbers for scary movies and the enduring popularity of the Tilt-a-Whirl at the county fair attest to this. But none of us like fear when we know the cause is real.

So in creating a haunted house for kids, you want to carefully tread that line between giving a shiver and creating a total meltdown. One thing to bear in mind regarding this is the age of the children. If your haunted house is for children whose ages range roughly from six to twelve, you'll have to have some parts of it off-limits to the little ones, so that the older kids will still be able to get a scare in a special "older kids" section.

If you're anywhere but the most urban cities, you can start by spooking up the outside of the house. Of course you'll dim all the lights on the night in question, but you need enough light for the visitors to be able to find their way to the front door. Candles in flame-proof paper holders lining the pathway to the house would work well here, and you could plant two tall torches to mark the entrance to the path.

Don't just let everyone come inside the house itself right away. The less the visitors see of your regular house, the scarier their feelings will be, so start with something outside. One charming idea, and not too scary for little ones, is the "Wizard in the Woods" (of course, you could put your own variation on this, such as the "Witch on the Back Porch" or the "Wizard on the Swing Set"). First, arrange for an adult to be hidden in the recesses of the yard; if you have trees, and the adult is able to get up into the sturdy branches comfortably, that's perfect. Otherwise, do what you can to obscure the adult; hang dark material around the swing set, for example, so that the voice of the adult can be heard but he or she can't be seen.

As each child approaches, the Wizard asks the age, and then gives a riddle appropriate to the age of that child. Of course, the child may receive hints, and when he gets the answer right (or close to right), the wizard grants him a wish, or gives him a piece of candy. One trick to keeping this a little spooky is that the Wizard has to be far enough from the crowd so that no one else can overhear the riddles; even wizards have a limited supply. To this end, you could have an older child or teenager act as "bridge guard," allowing passage to the wizard's nest to only one child at a time.

  • Tip: Next, have the visitors come to the house, but don't let them come in the usual entrance, or it will be obvious even to the tiniest tots that they're just going to the Anderson's. Instead, have them enter through the garage, or the back door, or, even better, the bulkhead to the basement.

Here again, big swathes of cloth will come in handy, and the darker the better. You can easily create a tunnel by hanging cloth from the ceiling, and this will create an instantly spooky mood. Keep in mind the stuff of nightmares: confusion, darkness, and things that are hard to pin down.

First, baste some creepy things onto the curtains. Rubber snakes from the toy store are one good idea. It won't hurt to have - about five feet in - a silk scarf hanging straight down from the ceiling that each visitor will have to find a way to push aside.

Along the passageway, you'll need to have a several adults or teens stationed at intervals. At one point, have an adult standing on the other side of the curtain, holding something in a dish that the visitors will need to touch as they pass by. The items in the dish should be sufficiently icky to the touch, like peeled grapes or peeled, whole peaches or plums. Here, often silence is best, although a little crying or moaning in the background will enhance the mood.

A hand coming out from under the curtain on the other side and grabbing onto the ankle of a visitor will further the feeling of claustrophobia. The grab must be very brief, just enough so the visitor feels it and just starts to fight it, but not so much that he starts really kicking.

And then there's the far-off scream, maybe enacted from somewhere in the house, high-pitched, with a few thuds thrown in.

Be careful not to overdo the screaming and the other events designed to instill fear. In a haunted house, as in many kinds of decorating, less is more. You don't need to have someone jump out at the visitors screaming like crazy. Instead, go for the more subtle, utterly creepy things: the things that you can't quite see, that you aren't quite sure are there, but that give you an undeniably scared twist to your stomach, like in a nightmare, or a dream.

Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Interior Design

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