Halloween Party Decorating: Scream 101

Hemera Technologies/Photos.com/Getty Images

Like a chilly wind, Halloween sneaks in every year. Although virtually every corner store is stocked with ghoulish decor before Labor Day, the bewitching hour still creeps up on us, forcing panic mode and, too often, a thrown-together party.

Halloween is big business. National retail experts estimate that it is second only to Christmas in the amount of money spent on decorating, costumes, trick-or-treat candy and party planning. But professional event planners say you don’t have to succumb to a mad dash through the party store to ensure that your party is a thrill. In fact, with a little thoughtful planning, you can actually save money and still set your party apart from the norm.

“The best Halloween party planner is the one who is clever, not the one who spent the most money,” said California event planner Marley Majcher, aka “The Party Goddess.”

It’s like going to the grocery store hungry; you can’t go to a party store and expect to find inspiration.

Marley Majcher, event planner

Pick a Theme & Work It

The tricky thing about Halloween, Majcher says, is that it’s a theme all by itself. And, she says, people often get caught up trying to incorporate all of the many facets of the holiday into one party.

“You have to look for a creative theme within that Halloween theme,” she said. “You have to keep your eyes open and have a direction. That’s crucial.”

Majcher says she trolls for Halloween party themes year-round by photographing things she sees, browsing blogs and magazines, and brainstorming. She often starts by considering a specific color theme or by using only certain textures. She has built themes off pumpkins and gourds or used only items made of wood as a primary starting point.

“You have to get focused,” she said. “Start with a backdrop of one theme and then augment it with what you can find at the party store. It’s like going to the grocery store hungry; you can’t go to a party store and expect to find inspiration.”

Home stylist Tara Riceberg orchestrated a Halloween party by using an “antebellum gothic” theme that incorporated elements of "Gone With the Wind."

“It was sort of a 'Sunset Boulevard,' grand-home-gone-to-decay idea,” she said. “There was jute wrapped around columns, Spanish moss on bookcases and banisters, cobwebs strategically strewn around. You can have a sophisticated, elegant air to Halloween and still have a spooky effect.”

Riceberg says that people try to bring too many ideas into their party and end up forcing a theme. “You can just have one or two good ideas if you execute them well,” she said.

Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images

Repurpose: Shop Your Home

Part of making a party truly ghoulish isn’t about overwhelming guests with skeletons, mummies, bats and corpses, planners say. Using household items that don’t seem like obvious decorations are what catch people off guard, says Majcher. You can always add in some well-placed cobwebs in doorways and skeleton bones in a planter.

“Save those broken teacups, burned-down candles, dead plants or tarnished candelabras. Those become your go-to items for displays,” Majcher said. “If you want a party that’s not like anyone else’s, you have to draw from more than one source.” She suggests going to the florist and asking for the flowers that will be thrown out. Dry them and spray paint them with silver glitter. Display them in old wine bottles with candle wax dripped down the side. Other decorators advise using other low-key options like draping muslin or other fabric in a doorway or hallway as a way to carry a theme in a subtle way.

“Don’t be seduced by too much of any one element,” Majcher cautioned. “Most people don’t edit well. Halloween can be best made simple.”

Riceberg recommends setting aside a spot that you can decorate with a traditional Halloween scheme of pumpkins and jack-o'-lanterns for indoor trick-or-treating or a photo backdrop.

“Embrace it,” Riceberg said. “Everyone wants candy and photos of themselves and their kids.”

Light, Sound & Beyond

When it comes to setting a haunting mood, there are equally subtle ways to chill your partygoers without overwhelming them. Don’t forget the obvious: lighting and sound. State-of-the art fog machines can dispense a spooky haze, and lighting devices can be purchased or rented that will flicker, crack and strobe to music.

“There are some very distinctive devices that can really add to your Halloween party,” said Patrick O’Gorman of Magic Etc. Fort Worth Costume in Fort Worth, Texas. The store caters year-round to the theatrical crowd. He says savvy Halloween party planners snap up specialty props, dry ice, strobe lights, mirror balls and sound machines from the store to add a dramatic flair to their events.

Majcher says that music and lighting can take a party to another level and should be considered early on in planning. She recommends that clients work up their music playlists and blend it with their lighting scheme, which she says should be low lights or candlelight (battery-powered tea lights are best in high-traffic areas). The occasional strobe or color-highlighted cobweb also makes an impression.

Ghoulish touches like draping strips of cheesecloth painted blood red around vases, dripping red candle wax over white candlesticks or fashioning a bowl of “chunky blood” out of Jello make a big impact without being too complex, Majcher suggests. She likes getting kids in on the decorating act, too, by making “bloody” handprints on windows using washable paint or having them write scary messages on mirrors in the hallway or bathroom with red lipstick.

“Halloween is all about fantasy,” O’Gorman said. “Your options are wide open. Just pick a vision and stick with it.”

Ideas for a Handmade Costume

Party stores, toy stores and Halloween stores are packed with aisles of pre-made costume options for adults and children. But what if you want the old-fashioned, handcrafted kind?

“Just because the whole world is running to the party store for a costume doesn’t mean that you have to,” said event planner Marley Majcher. “Halloween should be much more about creativity than 1-800-Halloween.”

Majcher and home stylist Tara Riceberg share their favorite ides for authentic dress-up choices:

-- Focus on a standout mask. Think Zorro or a Venetian variety. “Halloween is about the element of disguise,” Riceberg said. “It doesn’t have to be an entire costume if you have a fabulous mask.”

-- Simple themes score with the right touches. Become a witch or a cat with fake eyelashes, a rhinestone birthmark, evening eye makeup and a signature piece like a great witches’ hat spruced up with netting and a personal brooch or a luxe pair of tiger or cat ears.

-- Let the kids have their characters: the do-it-yourself kind. “I love a modern trend done with a home-grown twist,” Majcher said. “Let them have SpongeBob, but make that homemade cardboard costume yourself.”