5 tips on creating a last-minute haunted house for cheap

Can Halloween fans bring a big budget feel to their haunted house on a shoestring? Well, thanks to technologies new and old it can be done not only for cheap, but without a ton of effort.

To find out how to make it happen, we spoke to Steve Eaton, a special effects man who works in Hollywood and who every year puts on his own haunted house in Santa Clarita, California. And he's able to do it with some simple tricks thanks to digital projectors and a handful of fog machines.

Here's a few things he uses to create that eerie haunted vibe.


1. Start with A Fog Machine

Fog machines are great because they easily set the tone for the feeling you want to convey on Halloween — other-worldly and spooky. A basic fog machine can be had for as little as $20 and up. These machines typically use a special water-based fluid called fog juice, and the machine heats up the juice to turn it into a steamy fog.

The size of your space should influence what machine you get — many can cover 1,500 cubic feet per minute easily, and are computer-controlled to go off at precise intervals. Read: they're pretty easy to figure out.

A video going around on YouTube right now by HouseholdHacker also shows a way to make a "$5 fog machine" with ordinary materials.

[Pictured: A DIY fog machine, as seen on Instructables]


2. Lighting Is Key

Simple flood lights with a couple of blue and orange gels connected to a dimmer or flicker switch can really make things look eerie. Your local hardware store offers lighting that is not only cheap, but also is clip-on for putting just about anywhere.

Until recently, there have been very few high-tech lighting displays for Halloween. Makes sense, since the Christmas season stretches from the day after Thanksgiving to just after New Year's Day. With that kind of time, it rather makes it worth it to invest time and money to generate an awesome holiday display that could make a Disney Imagineer jealous.

Not everyone has some programming know-how, though, and for those people, there's something like the Haunted House In A Box by Animated Lighting. For about $500, you can get a basic programming setup that includes flood lights, a strobe light, mini light strands, speakers, black light, and a program box with a set of lighting programs to choose from. It's literally plug and play. And you can add on with expansion packs which offer multi-channel controllers, singing pumpkins, and more. And they can even be used for Christmas and the holidays.

For those who really want to go all out and program, the technology is definitely coming of age. It sounds daunting, but something like the 16-channel Light-O-Rama Show Director, which can handle as many as 80 computer-controlled circuits, can allow for flickering of lights, turning them on and off on command, and even setting to music. Add an FM broadcaster and people who drive buy can get their fright on with a car radio set to an unused FM radio station. Sounds like a lot of work, I know. And some just love that hands-on work.

One last option: have one of your own or a neighborhood kid stand by the light switch and tell them when to go crazy. Just pay 'em with chocolate.

[Pictured: A geeky Jack-O'-Lantern by Evil Mad Scientist as seen our gallery here.]


3. Projection Makes Perfect

My friend Steve Eaton takes things up a notch by using his video camera and recording a ghostly actor in front of a black screen doing haunting things. Then, he hooks up a video projector and sets the video on a loop which is then projected onto some black screening that you can get at a local hardware and garden store. It doesn't attract a ton of attention, but sets a spooky mood. And thanks to PICO projectors, ghosts can be displayed being very small and in odd areas and the projector is easily concealed.

Projectors are also used for comedic effect as well. There are hearty folks out there who have taken to recreating the singing busts of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion using projectors and foam wig heads to great effect. And since everything eventually ends up on the Internet, the quartet of headless barber-shoppers can be found on YouTube to download and use to your heart's content. Or, you can go with singing pumpkins and download similar singing footage at sites like this one.


4. Music And Effects Are A Must

I remember as a kid, we'd always hear sound effects from this fantastic Disney Halloween Sound Effect album called "Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House". It had wind blowing, chains rattling, moaning ghosts and screams that were done by the guys who created the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. And it's still available (even on iTunes). There are tons of others available online as well, and with an old iPod, users can program an eerie shuffle of music or sound effects and then loop them to run automatically. All that is left then is to connect to an old stereo receiver and some speakers strategically hidden.

Bam, your music and atmosphere are locked down, and you probably already have a lot of what you need lying around.

[Pictured: the iBoo iPod dock, inspired by Pac-Man.]


5. Repurpose Your Old Gadgets

Don't underestimate the benefit of using obsolete technology until you can get the more advanced stuff. Craigslist and eBay are great places to find a slide projector here or an 8mm movie projector there, and even an old 8-track player can help in limited fashion. And then there's that old laptop you've got gathering dust in the closet. Pull it out, update the OS and then use it to play music or control the lights.

Now I know what you're thinking — investing in all this equipment can be a pretty steep price to pay for a few hours of impressing the neighbors. And I would agree with you. That's why it's best to start simple. Maybe the first year you get fog machines and a few lights. Next year step up to an eerie ghost projected on a black screen. Slowly, but surely you can add to your collection of spooky tech until a few years down the road your house is the envy of the neighborhood.

And then they take it down the very next day.

[Photo credit: mikeledray/Shutterstock]

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