WHEN I was a kid, my family didn't acknowledge Halloween. We jumped ship and went to dinner and a movie while the neighborhood filled up with witches, ghosts and goblins. Consequently, we never had to worry about decorations. Others did that for us, and we usually spent the Feast of All Saints washing windows.
Maybe that's why the generation that I produced ranks Halloween right up there with Christmas and birthdays.
Dressing up as your own worst nightmare, begging candy from adults you know would rather vaporize you than give you a Mars bar is cathartic enough. But add to that parents with an annual, uncontrollable mania for the macabre and you have a case worthy of a Bettelheim study.
With the first few costume stitches the fever begins, and I lose all semblance of normalcy. My mind begins to focus on spider webs, graveyards, fog, bats. Without a qualm I enlist my kids and the rest of the neighborhood pack to turn our house into an Addams Family retreat.
Since my decorations grow out of the mania of the moment, they are easily replicated. Newspapers, tinfoil, spray paint, old clothes and a slight character warp are all you need.
Disembodied heads hanging from the porch roof and the trees, with recorded voices moaning for the return of their bodies or the loan of yours, are becoming a family tradition. The heads are made from newspapers loosely wadded into a ball, then covered with heavy duty tin foil (dull side out). Eyes, ears, mouths and tongues fashioned from tin foil are glue-gunned in place and the whole thing spray-painted black. Acrylic or poster paint in Day-Glo colors highlights the features and some old quilt batting pulled apart becomes hair. Hang them with fishing line, which is nearly invisible at night.
The kids learned to make scarecrows in Cub Scouts one year and we adapted the form for our decor. Stuff old pantyhose with straw for the head and then tie it to shirt and pants also stuffed with straw. Take a long needle and any kind of strong thread. Pinch out a good crone nose and stitch back and forth behind it with your needle. Add eyebrows and bulging eyes in the same manner and then give the whole face a nice wash with green poster paint. Add an old witch's costume or garner some crone clothes from your attic.
One year we stapled the old hag to a broom and hung her with fishing line in the maple tree. Another year we sat her in a rocking chair to guard the candy bowl. The chair was rigged to rock by itself with fishing line (what else?) strung through a nearby window and operated by my grinning husband.
A neighbor (with more guts than even I have) stole the show last year. He got an enormous cardboard box, cut a hole in the top large enough for his head, covered it with a sheet, and doused himself with white and black ghoul makeup. When trick or treat time arrived, he climbed inside the box and put his head through the hole. The candy was placed next to his head and as little hands reached for a Snickers bar the head snapped at them and gave dire warning about what candy will do to your body. His wife stayed nearby to save the head from the more extroverted teens and pre-teens.
All of these effects will be ruined if you overlook the details of light and sound. Since suing seems to be a national pastime, you have to have some light. But remember, we're thinking safe/creepy. I suggest a nice pukey green, painted on the bulb. It does lovely toady things to complexions, noses and chins.
Tapes are available with Halloween sound effects, but it's much more fun to make your own. If you are lucky enough to have pre-teen girls in residence, you have built-in screaming machines. Have the recording session outside at night when the crickets and shadows will inspire the group. Rattle chains, moan, record squeaking doors. Once you get started, you'll be surprised at the darkness in your souls.
Pumpkins are de rigeur for the season, but it's time to move beyond the mundane happy Jack carvings. I've found some really outstanding models in Goya's drawings. This guy obviously had Halloween in his soul. Copy some of these faces onto your gourd. Carefully scrape the rind down to a thin half an inch where you plan to carve. Get a really sharp knife and refuse to allow your kids to help with this one. Carve thin lines and make sure they don't intersect. If they do, the face will cave in.
Now it's time to bring "Night on Bald Mountain" to your yard. Over the years, we've had some pretty restless characters buried in our yard. Mound up a grave with leaves or mulch and, using half scarecrow or just a stuffed shirt sleeve and glove, make it look as though something is rising from your front-yard cemetery. We've successfully used Jack's arm with the famous ripper dripping blood, and Lizzie's delicate hands wrapped around that famous whacker -- the possibilities are endless.
Add cardboard tombstones with the names and dates of your restless spirits. Then sprinkle an ample dose of spider webs over the tableaux. (Spider webs are the only decorations I buy. Packages of webs are available in dime stores and novelty stores. They look like the cotton batting used in quilts. Careful, patient stretching will turn them into credible webs; the key word here is patient.
Finally let me pass on some hard-earned advice. When my eldest child first joined the candy marchers, we popped into the Alexanders' house and were greeted by a green-complexioned, warty-nosed, stringy-haired witch. My child rocketed up my leg screaming about "monkeys." In the months that followed, we had numerous philosophical discussions about monkeys, but never at a time that I would have chosen. If you do not wish to discuss the nature of reality with your young child in the wee hours of the morning, skirt the homes of the Halloween junkies.
Cathy Nikkel Orme is a Washington writer who usually acts normal.