There is so much to love about Halloween, from watching scary movies (Ree Drummond certainly has her own list of scariest horror movies), to pumpkin carving, dressing up in a costume, and hosting the perfect Halloween party. But maybe this year you want to celebrate the spooky season by going really big and have been pondering the question how to make a haunted house? Where do you even begin? Or end, for that matter? How do you make it fun for all ages, without boring the older kids to death? And do you have to spend a lot of money to make a great haunted house?
It all might seem a bit overwhelming, but we checked in with a couple of designers who have been constructing haunted houses for years. Ahead, you’ll find their best ideas for how to design a haunted scene in your home and backyard—nothing too elaborate, don’t worry—along with recommendations on where to find props and decorations. So whether you’ve been hosting your own haunt for ages and want to level up or you’re ready to give those trick-or-treaters a good scare for the first time, this guide will help you design and make a haunted house that’s the hit of the neighborhood!
Can you make your own haunted house?
The short answer is yes! However, it helps to first decide how much money you want to spend as well as how big and elaborate you want to get before you start the actual decorating. If you want to make a haunted house kids (and their parents) will be talking about for years, begin planning it early, way before Halloween.
“I’m thinking about it 24-7-365,” says Angela Colone, who’s been an actor and designer for professional haunts including Screams at the Beach, in Georgetown, Delaware, and 301 Devil’s Playground in Galena, Maryland. “I’m always looking at Facebook Marketplace to see if anyone is selling cheap props or things that they’re getting rid of… I also look at yard sales and thrift stores. I’m always trying to pick up stuff.”
Kate Pearce, an interior design blogger and content creator from Chicago, Illinois, who has long created spooky Halloween scenes based on thrift stores finds, also advises searching secondhand shops. “My biggest piece of advice would be to go to the thrift store and explore the entire thing, not just the Halloween aisle,” she says. “Thrift is cheap, and therefore not a huge financial commitment, so you can really have fun and let your mind run wild.”
Otherwise, you can cut costs by buying one professional prop and using it as a guide for making your own version of it. For example, when Colone was creating a barn scene with a spider’s nest, she purchased one spider and fashioned the rest from papier-mâché and spray paint, hanging them from the ceiling with fishing line and on a dollar bag of Halloween cobwebs.
“It was really inexpensive,” Colone says. “Papier-mâché is pretty awesome and it’s disposable, so you don’t have to hold on to it the next season if you don’t want to. And it’s the kind of craft you could make with your own kids.”
How do you turn a house into a haunted house?
Let’s start at the beginning. If you’re building a haunted house that you want to appeal to younger kids, don’t make the entrance too scary. You can set a mood with fog machines and corn stalk décor, but make sure the area around your door is open and inviting, rather than claustrophobic—it should be well-lit, too. You also want to keep the scenes you create inside of your home illuminated, so kids can see everything and the lights aren’t directly focused on something scary.
“With kids, it’s more about enabling them to look openly at everything,” Colone says. “Usually for an adult haunt, you want it to be very chaotic. You want the fear of who’s going to jump out now and what’s coming around the next corner. But children need to see everything and be open to it. You want to allow them to come into your scene. You don’t want to push your scene on them.”
Speaking of scenes, Colone has a few ideas for sets and props the kids will love:
Cut a large hole in a refrigerator box to make a ticket booth. Dress one of your actors as a a clown and tuck them away at the ticket window. Offer carnival games for kids to try, like a bean bag toss, mini bowling, Pick a Duck or others. Bubbles drifting through the scene give it a festive feel, especially if they’re scented like cotton candy!
Stock shelves with children’s books you find at secondhand stores. Dress one of your actors like a wizard, who allows the kids to pick a book to take home with them. You can also make simple wands for take-home gifts. Tie twine on one end of a stick, and glue or tie faux gems on the other end of the twine.
Buy a few hay bales, pumpkins and corn stalks and decorate a room with them. Spread hay on the floor and add spider’s nests in the corners of the room. Dress an actor like a scarecrow in simple makeup and a costume. You could also take this idea outside and easily make a haunted barnyard.
What some tips for a kid-friendly haunted house?
After all, the idea is not to give kiddos nightmares, but to entertain them.
Use makeup rather than masks on actors.
“Masks can be a little too scary for some kids because they don’t see a human behind it,” Colone says. “If they don’t see a human face, it’s hard for them to approach.”
Speak in a normal voice.
“When we do an adult haunt, we like to get creative with our voices and our tones, whereas a child may not like that,” Colone says. “Instead, we talk to them in our normal voice, and we let them know they’re welcome to come in and look around.”
Give them something to take home.
According to Colone, from star or bug stickers to cardboard cut-outs of tombstones they can decorate at home, “kids like to have something to take with them that isn’t just candy.”
Engage more than one sense.
“What I’ve noticed in my years doing this is that both children and adults want to smell, feel, and even taste,” Colone says. “For example, we’ve used cake batter, so they could smell that it was sweet, but the texture was almost like brains… and obviously things like the dirt pudding cups with the gummy worms in it.”
How do you make a creepy haunted house?
If you want older kids to have as much fun in your haunt as the young ones, you’re going to have to give them a satisfyingly creepy experience. Consider constructing different paths in your house, and giving your guests the choice of which ones they want to take: less spooky or seriously spooky. “Sometimes, it’s nice to have multiple crossroads because the kids can say that wasn’t that scary, I want to try a scarier one,” Colone says. “So, that way, you’re breaking it up and letting them choose what they want to see.”
If you don’t have enough rooms in your home to build that many individual scenes, you can construct walls with white sheets and even spray paint them with background scenery if you’re feeling artistic. On the spooky path, use a bit more blood, full face Halloween masks and maybe even a ghoul or two popping out of hidden spaces. Decorate whole rooms when you can, like this killer dining room idea from Pearce, which utilizes items she found in the thrift store.
Put up a scary portrait.
Buy an old painting, poke holes in it and paint fake blood dripping from the holes. Extra points if you use the eyes for holes. “This same idea could be applied to a cheap portrait print that you don’t feel bad poking some holes in,” Pearce says.
Hang some doll heads.
Buy some creepy old dolls, pop their heads off and hang them with fishing line from the ceiling at different heights.
Sit a skeleton down.
If you have a skeleton handy, sit it at the dining room table. Pop off a bunch of old Barbie-sized doll heads and place them in a Halloween bowl with a spoon in front of the skeleton. It looks, says Pearce, “like the skeleton is eating a bowl of Barbie heads like cereal.”
How do you make an outdoor haunted house?
Why end your haunted house in your home when you can continue it in your backyard? You can begin by setting up a Halloween inflatables at the entrance, which will guide guests into the outdoor space. From there, a lot of Halloween outdoor decorations can be made by hand! A graveyard is fun and easy to build: you can craft crosses using sticks and twine, and make gravestones from cardboard and spray paint. Position an actor dressed as a ghost in your cemetery to point toward the next set.
Colone likes camping scenes, too. “Spray paint a sheet with Halloween scenes and toss it over an old tent,” she says. “Kids can crawl through the tent and you can have an actor tell camp fire stories on the other side of it.” Instead of creating a real fire, keep it safe with a faux campfire one you purchase or make out of cardboard.
The most important thing to remember when creating your haunt is “to let your imagine go and have fun,” Colone says. “It’s all about how you want to make your haunted house.”
Jill Gleeson is a travel journalist and memoirist based in the Appalachian Mountains of western Pennsylvania who has written for websites and publications including Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, Country Living, Washingtonian, Gothamist, Canadian Traveller, and EDGE Media Network. Jill is the travel editor for Enchanted Living. Learn more about her journey at gleesonreboots.com.