How and Where to Find Bargains on Stuff for Your Haunt Throughout the Year
Welcome to my first blog of 2019. Since it’s right after the holiday season, I got to thinking about what we can do as haunters to get ready for what’s coming up. We’re all just twitching and itching to get back into haunt season, right? In this blog, I’m going to talk about shopping throughout the year for your haunted attraction. Let’s face it, there are things we all need and can only get at certain times of the year, and it’s ungodly expensive. So, why not plan ahead and shop throughout the course of the year to take advantage of the after-season sales or whatever?
Start the Year by Planning for your Halloween Haunt (and a Caveat)
To shop year-round, there are a couple of things you have to think about early on. First off, what theme are you going to embrace for the coming year? What’s the story you’re going to tell when Halloween time rolls around? You may be thinking, “It’s too early to even think about that!” But it’s really not, because, if you can plan ahead, you can find all kinds of cool stuff and save money.
First, I want to say that planning ahead can backfire. There was a project I was supposed to do in Canada last year and, during the course of the year, I had the opportunity to do a little bit of shopping. I bought a couple of things at the trade shows, because I knew what the themes were, and I bought a couple of things at clearance sales. There was a costume company that was going out of business, and I have friends at a major cruise line that were clearing out some costuming they weren’t using, so I took all of that. I now have plastic tub upon plastic tub of specifically themed stuff I don’t have a home for—or, more accurately, I don’t have a haunt for, yet. So, sometimes planning ahead does backfire, but I’m firmly convinced that, eventually, I’ll have a place to use some of this quirky stuff.
Figure Out Your Story and Your Storage
So, back to planning ahead. You need to figure out what your themes are, what your designs are, and what you’re going to need. That way, you can shop in a timely and cost-effective manner. The second thing you’re going to need is storage. Depending on where you live, you might need climate-controlled storage, because otherwise things mold. The werewolf mask will be furry—not with fake fur but with some kind of green fuzzy stuff that grew there. I strongly recommend, the moment you get something, that you put it into a plastic storage tub. Cardboard isn’t good, because critters can chew through it. After every major holiday is a great time to get those big plastic tubs with lids at Walmart or Target or wherever. I like the ones that have lids with handles that flip up to hold them shut. This makes them easier to stack, and you can label them, so you know what’s in each one. With transparent plastic tubs, you can actually see what’s in there, and you can label them, too.
To shop for your haunt throughout the year, you need two basic things:
1) A concept of what you’re looking for, so you don’t waste your money buying stuff for a project that doesn’t happen (this is the voice of experience talking); and
2) a place to store this stuff that’s climate controlled and some storage tubs that stack neatly so your spouse doesn’t yell at you for buying all this crap and leaving it in the living room year-round.
Christmas Shopping for Halloween
Now comes the shopping part, and I’m going to go holiday by holiday. Let’s start with Christmas, because just before or just after Christmas is a great time to start buying stuff, because so much goes on sale—like up to 50% off—and there are some things you can only get at Christmastime. This isn’t just for the cheapskates who want to save money; this is also for the practical people who are looking for things they probably won’t be able to find the rest of the year.
The first thing I think of is lighting. At Christmastime, you can get all kinds of relatively inexpensive, somewhat disposable, if you need it to be, lighting that can work really, really well in your haunt. You’re probably thinking, “I don’t want Christmas lights in my haunt.” But, you might.
Here’s the thing. If you take a string of Christmas lights and bundle them behind a piece of scenery, you have a great source of indirect lighting. If you have the opportunity to get twinkling lights of some kind, you can use them to create a fire effect if you put them in a tiny enclosure or behind something. If you put Christmas lights behind scenery or build scenery that will hold them properly—rather than hanging them in strings, which I hate—you’re in great shape. You can even use Christmas lights with a control panel if you’re doing something with a sci-fi theme. You can use those little rice lights—the tiny, individual units that are strung together with copper wire. Quite often, they’re battery powered. These are amazing if you want to do things like jars of fireflies or anything ethereal or ghost-like. These come in incredibly handy, and they’re really hard to find at a decent price except at Christmas.
The other thing that’s really cool are those projector lights you see at Christmas that have cartoon graphics of snowflakes, pumpkins, Santa, or whatever. I’m not a huge fan of those, but they can be useful. I like the ones that break up light and make it look like it’s reflecting off of something else. These can come in really, really handy if you want to do a swamp scene and project the look of moving water on your walls. If you can get them at 50% or 90% off, do it. They usually come with yard stakes, but you can certainly modify those and use them indoors. If you have an outdoor haunt, obviously, that’s perfect. You can just stick them in the ground and plug them in. They’re LED, they run at very low power, they’re easy to install, easy to circuit, easy to focus, and they have a surprising throw distance. Normally, they’ve got a sort of globe over the front, so they throw very wide, and they’re good for just sort of creating an atmosphere. There are also multi-colored and laser versions that do that weird sort of green-and-red laser thing—which, by the way, looks really cool in a smoked room. If you’ve got the red and green, you can put them in a 3D house. They don’t really read as 3D, but the lenses on chromadepth glasses mess with them a little bit, so it makes them even more disorienting.
If I were going to do a haunt and I needed a new room, I’d go out and buy three or four of those laser lights right now, put them in a room, fill it with fog, and have them all going at the same time. It’s a cheap, easy effect. What you get are these little pins of light shooting through the room and moving, and if you put them at different angles, it would be amazingly effective. That’s how to take that Christmas laser light and use it in your haunt.
I realize there are a lot of people reading this blog who’ve already done this. I’m just throwing it out there. The way I look at it, I’ll keep throwing stuff at the wall, and some of it will be helpful to somebody.
Continuing on the lighting subject, I always want to know what I can get that’s battery powered. I don’t like to necessarily think of lighting just for lighting purposes; it’s also cool for costume purposes. You can illuminate a mask or a costume with battery-powered lighting. This is extremely effective for strolling characters. I like to self-illuminate strolling characters, because you don’t have to worry whether they can be seen. You don’t want to wrap them in Christmas lights, but you can put the lights behind a translucent fabric or in the eyes of a mask. There are these mylar masks that are just a blank face. If you put lights behind those, it’s a pretty cool effect. You can only do this if you can get battery-powered Christmas lights, and the only time to get battery-powered LED Christmas lights is immediately before or after Christmas.
LED candles and good flicker candles are super cheap around Christmas. You can use battery-powered, LED flicker candles, especially if they have a remote control. You can turn them on or off, you can set them on a timer, and they’re often dirt cheap. I realize it’s much better to wire them into your board, but if you’re operating on a budget or, at the last minute, you realize, “Oh crap, this room is too dark. Let’s put in some candlelight,” they’re great to have in your back pocket. I like the ones that are made of real wax, because the LED is sunk down into them, and it makes it look far more realistic. You get that flickering, candle-like light through the real wax candle. You can get these year-round, but they’re harder to find and more expensive, so it’s best to buy them at Christmas.
Tricks with Fake Trees
Another tool I absolutely love, especially for dark rooms or trying to create the illusion of outdoors indoors or a completely dark room that people have to feel their way through, is artificial Christmas trees. They’re an amazingly cheap way to create texture. You can put them along a back wall and shine light through them to create the vibe of being out in the woods. You can line walls with them so guests can feel their way through, and they’re sort of prickly and weird. Don’t look for them at stores. Go to the Salvation Army or a resale shop. People are getting rid of artificial Christmas trees all the time. You don’t even need to spray paint them black if you don’t want to. There are all kinds of ways to use artificial Christmas trees.
Remote-controlled outlets work really well in haunts and escape rooms. Everybody ways to switch on the Christmas lights without having to go around the house and plug this in, flip this switch, turn on that breaker, and blah, blah, blah. If you’ve never used or seen these, they basically plug into an electrical outlet, and you plug whatever it is you’re trying to trigger into that. They don’t have to have a line of sight, so you can keep the remote in your pocket.
Now that more and more is LED, remote-controlled outlets are popular. These are expensive at any time of the year, but they’re the most cost-effective after Christmas. Get them while they’re on sale, because they’re incredibly useful. They especially useful in escape rooms with an actor in it. You don’t need to have triggers for things. You plug them into this outlet, the actor has the key fob in their pocket, and they just hit the “on” button whenever you want that trigger to activate. This releases or turns on a mag lock and plays a recording or whatever. There are a million and one things you can do with them.
Thoughts on Holiday Haunts
As an aside, I don’t care for holiday-themed haunts, because they seem like a gimmick unless there’s a really good story that takes you on a journey through various holidays—or even take you to Christmas in October. However, if you want to do that, Christmas is the time to pick up your Santa suits, your Santa beards, your elf costumes, and all that sort of crap, so you don’t have to build them. You just have to distress them and make them look like Santa threw up in his own beard. Which, if I were to do a Christmas haunt, that’s probably what I’d do. I’d do homeless Santas, an army of homeless Santas. OK, maybe I’ve changed my mind. Maybe I want to do a holiday haunt. If there’s anyone out there who wants to hire me to do a holiday haunt, please contact me. I’ll be happy to write that and install that for you, because that would be kinda cool—an army of homeless Santas that rob and kill people. I’m kidding. I’m not going to do that.
I think that wraps up the Christmas shopping for your haunt. Oops, I forgot spray snow. That’s getting harder and harder to find because it’s probably carcinogenic or toxic in some way. That spray snow to put on windows to make them look frosty works really, really well when you want to create a silhouette behind a piece of glass, plastic, or plexi. Get a couple cans of spray snow while you’re shopping, because it’s kinda neat.
Valentine’s Day Shopping
Let’s move forward into the year to Valentine’s day. What on earth can you get for a haunt on Valentine’s day? Well, the thing you can’t get any other time of the year is heart-shaped candy boxes. Now, I have a quirky, dark sense of humor, and I think heart-shaped candy boxes with real bleeding hearts inside of them is pretty cool. Not real hearts. I’m not saying let’s load them up with human remains. I’m saying, let’s load them with things that look like human remains. If you have any sort of love story in your haunted attraction, this could be a prop. So, grab them up on February 15th, because they’ll be like 90% off. Eat the candy and save the box.
I strongly recommend you get a traditional kind of box—not an Avenger’s heart-shaped box—unless that fits in with your storyline or theme. If you have a standard heart-shaped box, you can always use it if there’s a love story going on. It’s kind of a fun little wink to the gore and blood and guts. You can fill it with severed fingers or whatever. You can gross them up pretty easily. Heart-shaped boxes can serve as a prop or set dressing in many, many different themes.
Artificial flowers are sometimes less expensive around Valentine’s Day, although you can get them at other times of the year. Using artificial flowers in haunts is really effective, because it throws people off. It’s like, “Oh, here’s something we think of as pretty, and yet it’s tied to something we think of as decaying and disgusting.”
Since we’re talking about Valentine’s Day, that brings up the topic of “personal massagers.” We’re all grownups here, so we can talk about this. Personal massagers are great to use in haunts. You can put one into a costume and, when the character touches you, you feel that brrrrrrrrrrrt. You can also use them as super cheap animations if you can find the ones that move in a swirling and twirling manner. You can use those to make really inexpensive animations you can turn on and off.
Continuing on this theme, we all know the best way to protect a prop is to cover it with KY jelly, a water-based, personal lubricant, because a) it doesn’t hurt most props, because its water-based, b) when guests touch it, they immediately go, “Eew!” and they don’t touch it again, c) it washes off, and d) it makes things look snot-covered, and that’s pretty cool. So, if there happens to be a Valentine’s Day sale on personal lubricants, that’s a great way to protect your props and add a snot layer over pretty much anything in your haunt.
Shopping for Leprechauns on St. Patty’s Day
Let’s move on to March. In March, there’s St. Patrick’s Day. Now, you’re probably thinking, “What in the hell is there about St. Patrick’s Day that I can include in my haunt?” I’m from Chicago, so the first thing I think of is green beer and dying the Chicago River green, which, interestingly enough, uses a chemical that starts off as orange. The only reason I put St. Patrick’s Day in here is because you can occasionally get some leprechaun stuff that’s kind of fun. If you’ve got a leprechaun theme going—or you think you might—and you want a little evil troll or something like that, you can include the ears and noses and that sort of thing. Plan ahead, because this sort of stuff is hard to find except around St. Patrick’s Day.
A Different Kind of Fun with Easter Bunnies and Plastic Eggs
Next comes April and Easter. Many of you know I have a strong affinity for rabbits, for several reasons. I was born in the year of the rabbit, and I was a magician for many years. As part of my act, I had a rabbit that was probably one of the meanest creatures on the planet. I still have scars on my arm from where that little stinker scratched me with his hind claws. I was also the puppeteer for Bunny Rabbit in the all-new Captain Kangaroo, which was on Fox Family Channel for a while, and is an award-winning children’s television program. My right hand received an award, and I was very proud.
Of course, Easter is a great time to get rabbits, and I’m always looking for ways to incorporate rabbits. Pretty much every haunt I’ve done over the last few years has a rabbit in it somewhere, and I like to think of it as my signature. After Easter, I always go looking for rabbits—usually stuffed rabbits, because I think children’s toys can always be creepy. There are some really creepy stuffed rabbit toys out there, like the ones with plastic faces that almost look human and are stitched to fabric. Those are hideous.
Anyway, go out there and get your rabbits. You can get realistic ones that you can disembowel and fill with guts, which is kinda cool. That might even work if you don’t get realistic ones. Get one that looks like a cute child’s toy, rip it in half, fill it with Great Stuff or Silicone, put a little personal lubricant on there so it looks wet and gooey, and then put it next to a child’s bed. Now, that’s fun! I can’t believe I talk about stuff like this, but you guys want to hear it, so I’m going to keep going.
Don’t forget Easter eggs. You’re probably thinking there’s nothing scary about plastic Easter eggs. Wrong. If you make your own masks or props, and they involve creating monsters, the cheapest and one of the most effective ways to make large, bulbous eyes are half a plastic Easter egg. They come in many colors as well as glow-in-the-dark. You can get them in mylar-covered silver if you’re making an alien or a robot. There are eggs that don’t just open around the width but along the length, so the two halves are almost almond-shaped. Those make great eyes, and you can build lids over them with latex or silicone or whatever. So, get those plastic Easter eggs, because, when you need them, it won’t be Easter.
They are also giant, inflatable eggs that you can get at the dollar store around Easter. Those make great alien heads, or you can use them as a start for a mask. I’ve seen people use those as a form to make a papier-maché animal skull. They’ll use the round part of the egg to create the top part of the skull and build off of that. It gives you a nice form, and it’s dirt cheap.
There’s nothing much happening in May or June, so that brings us to July 4th. The only thing I could think of around the July 4th holiday that might be helpful to a haunter—other than fireworks, if you want to go there, which I don’t recommend because of safety issues—is bunting. Bunting is those red, white, and blue banners that are draped on grandstands or porches. That’s really cool if you happen to have a scene where you have an official who’s making an announcement about how bad the zombie apocalypse is or something like that. Bunting works really well for scenic decor, and you can’t get it, affordably, any other time than the 4th of July.
Keep Your Eyes Open All Year Round for Bargains
So that takes us pretty much up to haunt season. By July 4th, most of us are doing our auditions and have built three-quarters of what we think we’re going to build—even though we’re only at half. We think it’s three-fourths, because we’re constantly saying, “Let’s add that, let’s improve that, and let’s put more of this in.”
I want to make it clear that you should be keeping an eye out for stuff all the time. I’m a huge proponent of shopping at Salvation Army or any of the various and sundry thrist stores. It’s a great opportunity to donate to a charity, but it’s also a place to get stuff that’s already beat up, so you don’t have to destroy it from a costuming or scenic-design standpoint
Some of these thrift stores have mailing lists and you can receive alerts about sales. I get text messages from my local thrift store when they’re having special sales. I know when everything will be 50% off, and I’ll just walk through and see if I can find an unusual prop or costume piece. You can usually get men’s suits and even formal wear. You can buy a suit for $1.50, clean it, distress it a little bit more, and save hundreds if not thousands of dollars on your costuming budget.
A lot of people get rid of their wedding dresses at these kinds of places. You can use those as props. They’re great to put on a manikin and stand in a corner. If you’ve got an attic with a dress form, you can put an old, grungy dress on it, cover it with cobwebs and dirt, and light it properly (put some of those Christmas lights that you got on sale inside the dress to give an eerie glow to it), you can create your own really, really cool scenic pieces without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can take the money you saved and go to the various trade shows to buy one or two signature pieces.
Finding the Unusual on Vacation
When you go on vacation, keep your eyes open. If, for example, you have a concept that’s supposed to take place at Area 51 and you happen to go near Area 51 on your vacation, look around. You can pick up things like banners, tee shirts, or whatever, so you have those extra bits and pieces to make your scenic area seem authentic. If you are doing something about Day of the Dead and you happen to be in Mexico, that’s a goldmine. You’ll spend way more in the US for the same items.
Keep an eye out for any period props or clothing that fit with the theme of your haunt. Those little details really help create an immersive atmosphere and, you know me, I’m all about creating an immersive atmosphere. If you want to set something in a diner, start shopping for tee shirts that have a diner’s name on it. That way, you don’t have to create them yourself.
Always Have Your Camera with You
This leads straight into always having your camera with you. Take photos of anything and everything you think might be haunt-worthy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back to my own photos, printed stuff up, framed it, or used it as a flyer. I’ll take pictures of old handbills if I’m in a museum. I took tons of pictures of the Queen Mary when I was there on the ghost tour. You can either use them as inspiration or, if there’s something particularly creepy you happened to catch on film, you can use that as a prop or blow it up and use it as a poster. Use your Photoshop skills to add something to the natural background.
We’re haunters and, when we go on vacation, we just don’t go to Walt Disney World. We go to weird places. We go to those creepy old historic buildings or to those lighthouses that supposedly have ghosts living in them. Taking photos is probably the best thing to do year-round and, when you take those photos, organize them in a way that you can find them.
Seminar on How to Have Interactive Events Year-Round
So, before I wrap up, I want to mention that I’ll be at the Transworld Halloween Attractions Show in St. Louis from March 20th through the 24th. I’m team teaching a seminar with my dear friend, haunt aficionado, and theme-park master, Robbi Lepre. We’ll be team teaching a seminar on how to keep doing interactive pieces, like haunts, year-round. We’ll talk about the different audiences and opportunities, and how you can create a template and change the content for each season. You can do a haunt and then a Spring event, a Summer event, your haunt again, and then a Winter event.
This will be the first time I’ll have a booth at Transworld. I don’t have a ton of details yet, but my booth is basically going to be me sitting there with some video in the background showing what I’ve done. I’ll be selling my consulting services and helping to promote my podcast. So, if you’re at Transworld, please stop by the booth and say hi. Soon you’ll have the opportunity on my website and on social media to make a reservation if you’d like to talk with me in person about an upcoming project. We can do that at the Transworld show.
On a non-haunt related note, if you’re in Tampa in May and are into quirky, odd theater pieces, I strongly recommend that you participate in the Tampa Fringe Festival. My one-man show, called Preach! will be at Tampa Fringe. It runs from May 6th through the 11th. Look for more information on social media. It’s a one-man show where I’ll be doing improvised sermons based on suggestions from the audience. It’s not too different from what I do on my podcast, except I’ll have input from the audience. I’m excited about that.
If you’d like to comment on this show or make suggestions, please do. Check out our Facebook group, go to AScottInTheDark.com or my website, or email me at [email protected]. Until next time, this is Scott Swenson for A Scott in the Dark saying, rest in peace.