DailyNightmare PODCAST Kathe Koja Interview

Kathe Koja (photo credit Rick Lieder)

Kathe Koja (photo credit Rick Lieder)

Recently I had the opportunity to sip a hot chocolate in a bustling (and noisy!) coffee shop with one of my favorite writers. Kathe Koja should be familiar to any fan of DailyNightmare. If not, you have a treat waiting when you discover her work.

Her first novel, The Cipher, is regularly cited as one of the greatest horror novels of all time. She followed up that striking debut with a series of novels that are literate, visceral and dark, works that are hard to pigeonhole with the label horror.

She has also written several award winning young adult novels, including The Cipher, Buddha Boy, Headlong, The Blue Mirror, Kissing the Bee, and Straydog.

Kathe is the director of Nerve, a Detroit based theatre company that specializes in immersive theatrical experiences. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing — or should I say, participating — in a couple of these performances and I’ve reviewed them here, here and here on the website.

Kathe is a native Detroit resident, not one of those young hipsters who’ve only recently discovered the D.

Kathe along with her husband, the artist Rick Lieder, will be guests of honor at the World Fantasy Convention in November.

But we sat down to discuss a trilogy of books she’s just completed that follow the exploits of Istvan and Rupert, life-long partners, business partners, sexual partners, quite literally partners in crime of various sorts, two grand gentlemen of theatre. We pick up their tale first in Under the Poppy: a novel and continue it in The Mercury Waltz“. And now, with the third book of the Trilogy, Bastard’s Paradise will be appearing on Roadswell Editions later this year, we discussed the series and her work as creator of worlds.

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About this time every year, a cricket or two makes its home in our cellar. Sometimes, when I am on my way to the Tinker Room, or off to wash clothes, I’ll hear the last snippet of song from our winter inhabitant, cut short like a song from the shower when the singer realizes someone else could hear.

This year, however, our insect troubadour has been more less self-conscious. While I created our costumes and masks for Theatre Bizarre, I was serenaded almost constantly. I think the cricket was curious about what brought me downstairs, what made me stay there for so many hours. Was I a refugee from the garden as well?

My cricket came out of hiding long enough for me to snap this blurry photo. We can tell the face of our friends apart. Some of us can identify specific dogs and cats that we’ve known and loved. I wonder if I could grow to recognize this particular cricket? Or is the difference between its lifespan and mine too great for me to pick out its specific, personal features?

For more about bugs, check out our Kickstarter campaign for “Quick Shivers about Bugs.”

For a different perspective on these black insect fiddlers, check out “Battle Cricket” on DailyNightmare: http://dailynightmare.com/2013/09/17/bug-du-jour-battle-cricket/

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Best Halloween Playlist: Songs about Ghosts!

Thirteen songs are enough to anchor a good Halloween party playlist. Not all of these are on your iPod, I’ll bet either. If your friends are like mine, their creativity shines brighter when they have a set theme to work on. The theme of this party could be “Ghost Town” and folks could dress up like ghosts or Wild West characters.

1) (The Obvious) Ghostbusters (From “Ghostbusters”) by Ray Parker Jr (or should I say Huey Lewis… a lawsuit alleged that the melody is highly reminiscent of “I Need a New Drug” but frankly the bass line of BOTH songs sounds like “Pop Muzik” by M) If you can get the video to “I’m in Love with the Other Woman” see if you can project that somewhere because it features a haunted house. This track is so obvious that is has to go somewhere. Succumb.

2) (Ghost) Riders In The Sky by, heck hasn’t EVERY authentic country western group recorded a version of this classic? – If I had to pick one, I think The Highwaymen did a serviceable rendition. Consider using several different versions of this track on the playlist, as a refrain. The Cowboy Cultural Society, an internet radio station, often plays a half hour of “G.R.I.T.S.” with different versions.

3) My Wife and My Dead Wife” by Robyn Hitchcock off Fegmania. This is a subtle alternative/folks ballad about domestic troubles caused when a husband is torn between his current wife and his dead ex. Told with Hitchcock’s typical irony yet with heart of genuine emotion. A nicely sing-able chorus too.

4) Ghost Of A Texas Ladies Man by Concrete Blonde. A little more raucous alternative rock tune by the band that brought you “Joey.”

5) Johnson’s Love (LP Version) – Dwight Yoakam. Straight ahead country. Mournful tale of a love that lasts longer than life.

6) Haunted House Blues— Bessie Smith. Do you really need a reason to put Bessie Smith on a playlist? She carved out a gutsy place for the female voice within blues of the early 20th century. A fun surprise from 1924.

7) The Ghost In You (Album Version) – The Psychadelic Furs. Moody, haunting love song that makes you want to mousse up your hair and wear tight 80’s style pants. Does she love you? Is she dead? Who knows, but it’s all sadness and doom. The Counting Crows do a just-as-sad acoustic cover version of The Ghost In You

8) The Ghost Of You— My Chemical Romance. A sad song to be sure, especially with the repeated line “Never coming home.” Since music and music videos have become fused in our culture and in our minds, it’s hard to hear the song without thinking of scenes of soldiers getting one last dance at the USO before they head off to the trenches of WWII.

9) Wuthering Heights— Kate Bush. Like a bit of literature mixed in with your art pop music? Kate Bush delivers a lovely concoction in this emotional song which went on to become her biggest selling single. Sung from the point of view of Catherine, who pleads outside Heathcliff’s room “I’m so cold. Let me into your window.” The lyrics take on a sinister twist if one considers the events of the novel; she may well be a ghost, inviting Heathcliff to join her in death.

10) Walking With A Ghost (Album Version)–Tegan and Sara. A good song to dance to while trying to exorcise the ghost of a ex-boyfriend or the nightmare you had last evening. Covered by the White Stripes too.

11) Spirit In The Sky — Norman Greenbaum. The tune combines psychedelic rock and gospel music with its distorted electric guitars, loud drums, tambourines and hand-clapping background singers to produce a feel-good song about meeting up with the Spirit in the afterlife.

12) My Life As A Ghost— Tanya Donelly. A sweet and sad song from the ghost’s point of view. She’s happy as she follows him around but seemingly has no impact on him.

13) Walking In Memphis (Remastered)— Marc Cohn. Anthematic 1991 hit from singer-songwriter Marc Cohn. The guy in the lyrics follows the ghost of Elvis to the gates of Graceland and later rock outs with a gospel band.

Songs about ghosts are always appropriate but are especially welcome at Halloween!

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How to Haunt Your Home, Part VI: Senses and Assessments

Zed's Hat

By Michael Cieslak

Considering everything we have covered so far, I can hear you ask “Zed, what else can we possibly have to cover?”

Well, voices in my head, allow me to first thank you for the lead-in. While sight may be our primary way of interacting with our environment, it is not the only one. You should not be at all surprised to discover that there are ways to incorporate other senses into your haunt as well, which is what we will be focusing on in our final installment.

We briefly touched on the often underutilized (perhaps with good reason) sense of smell when we talked about fog machines and fog juice additives, but what about the other senses? A trip through any haunted attraction will reveal that touch can be used to good advantage, for example via curtains to be pushed through, dangling things from above to brush against you, and even the cool touch of air and mist. This may not be practical for the smaller home haunts, especially when dealing with young trick-or-treaters, but there have been a number of mist-producing props that have appeared in brick and mortar stores over the past few years.

Sound Effects — A much easier sense to work with, however, and one which can easily control emotions, is sound. There is a very good reason that horror films have soundtracks. Music can be used to set a mood, to build tension, or to enhance a scare (whether a real one or a fake jump scare). This holds true for home haunts as well. The trick is matching the music to the mood of your haunt. Your death metal collection may be what pops into your mind when you think Halloween, but it might clash with a traditional Gothic theme. For this, think of chamber music, pipe organs, and the like.

One thing I would shy away from would be the Halloween themed party music compilations. If you spend any time in a brick and mortar Halloween store you will know what I mean. Your shopping experience will be done to the beat of “Thriller,” “Somebody’s Watching Me,” and the theme from Ghostbusters. These songs are fine to play if you are hosting a party, but they will do nothing to enhance the SQ of your haunt. There is just nothing scary about Bobby Pickett and the Crypt Kickers singing “The Monster Mash.”

When I have music playing at my haunt, it is almost always Midnight Syndicate. Their CDs are available online and from many Halloween retailers. Each of their albums has a different theme, so it is easy to pick the one to match the props you have set up. My personal favorites are Born of the Night, Realm of Shadows, and Gates of Delirium. Unfortunately, these are older albums and are no longer being produced, but it still may be possible to find copies, if you know where to look. Many of the best tracks from these albums are compiled on Out of the Darkness.

Some of the material by Midnight Syndicate contains sound effects woven into the musical tracks. There are also plenty of CDs available which feature spooky sounds, as well as collections on-line. There are even apps to generate different sounds. I am a big fan of appropriate sound effects. Once again, it comes down to matching the sounds to the theme of your haunt. Fifteen minutes of zombies shuffling and moaning for brains may be creepy, but if your haunt is free of the walking dead it just doesn’t fit.

I recommend making custom tracks of sound effects. Put them on an MP3 player hooked up to a set of small speakers (again, placed somewhere safe from the elements, interference, and theft) with enough blank space in between to make sure they are not always going off. Remember, your visitors will think these sounds are great, but you are the one that has to listen to them all night long.

If you are interested in making your own sound effects, I recommend Audacity, or a similar software. Audacity is a free but powerful little program which has a lot of audio manipulation tools built in. For a few years I had a werewolf pen as part of my haunt. The first year I did nothing to augment the wire-form props. The second year I added sound: I recorded my dog’s play growls while we played tug-of-war, then dropped the pitch, increased the reverb, and tweaked a couple other things. That year people swore that the werewolves were moving; in actuality, they were decidedly stationary.

I noted above that you have to remember that you will have to deal with whatever sounds you put in your haunt, so it is important to gauge your own tolerance with them. You are the one who will be around the haunt most often, and you don’t want to be scaring yourself or driving yourself crazy for the duration. You will also have to deal with the lights, the fog, and everything else. This is the primary reason I do not use strobe lights; they give me headaches. Pro-tip: make sure that you are not down-wind of your own fog machines.

Which brings us to the question of how active you plan on being in your home haunt. If you are setting up a large maze that people will be walking through, you may have to recruit some people to help populate it. How do you doll them up?

There are two answers here, which can be combined to various degrees: make-up and masks. Each has its good and bad points. Masks can restrict motion, limit vision, and can be unbearably warm, even on the coldest of nights. Make-up overcomes many of these problems, but lacks permanence and can cause allergic reactions.

Uncle Zed’s recommendation is to figure out how much running around you are planning on doing and go from there. This is not to say that you can’t run around while wearing a mask, just be sure you are familiar with the surroundings. Generally speaking, there is an inverse relation between the amount of moving you plan on doing and the visual limitations you will want to impose upon yourself. The plus side of some masks is that they do offer a little protection if you should happen to, I don’t know, run into a tree branch.

Trust me on this one. I speak from experience.

There is a third option which falls somewhere in the middle — latex and foam appliances. These can be purchased just about anywhere (or even made at home). They cover all or part of the face and body and are usually applied with spirit glue or liquid latex. Common appliances include demon horns, wound kits, ‘vampire brows,’ and zombie faces. These have the advantage of being less restrictive and less hot than over the head masks. Most are designed to be colored using make-up. Unfortunately, the adhesive does have a tendency to dissolve if you are sweating a lot.

Pro Tip — If you create a large maze or haunt which people are moving through, be mindful of the path that the visitors will take. Never have an actor (or a moving prop for that matter) between them and the way out of a particular area. You do not want to stop people from moving through by creating a barrier. Actors should be placed in such a way that they provide good scares while moving the visitors through the attraction. Remember to “scare forward” or to use P.T. Barnum’s method, move them “to the Egress.”

Some Notes About Masks, Appliances, and Make-up — As noted a numerous times above, make sure that whatever you use to disguise yourself limits your vision as little as possible. Be sure to read the safety notes which arrive with any new make-up or adhesive. Be extra careful around heat sources, especially open flames. Always perform a skin test with any make-up or adhesive to make sure that you do not have an allergy to it. This should be performed every year, as latex allergies can develop over time. Avoid getting any material in your eyes or mouth. If you are wearing a mask that covers your entire head, plan on taking breaks to allow yourself to cool off. Even on the coldest Halloween nights, I have taken off masks and poured out sweat. Stay hydrated (and I’m talking about water or sports drinks, not just booze!).

There are a number of companies which make great Halloween appliances and make-up. Just about anything from Ben Nye, Mehron, Woochie, Graftoban, and Don Post will work great and be easy to find. Sweat guard liquid and setting powder are your friends, stock up. Fake blood comes in everything from a pourable liquid to spray pumps to pre-clotted ooze. You can also make your own using caro syrup and food coloring. There are a multitude of different recipes available on-line, but the best include some blue coloring in addition to the red.

Pro Tip — One place you can skimp is on brushes and sponges. You can purchase very expensive make-up brushes and clean them carefully after each use. I choose to buy cheap ones at the drug store and just pitch them.

YouTube is a great place to find make-up tutorials, as are websites devoted to Halloween. Some of the big retail websites have a section devoted to How To. If you are creating a bite, a bruise, or decayed flesh, find reference images. F/X people used to keep libraries of medical and forensics texts, now these images are available on-line. Another great way to see how professionals work with make-up and appliances is to watch the Behind the Scenes features available as bonus tracks on your favorite scary DVDs.

Unfortunately, due to an extreme phobia regarding things near my eyes, I am unable to wear costume contact lenses. Contacts can complete a character, but make sure you are purchasing them from a reputable dealer. This is not something you want to skimp on. If the retailer is not asking for a prescription from an optometrist, you should probably go elsewhere.

Another great finishing touch is a good set of fangs or teeth. I have multiple sets of fangs from Scarecrow as well as some Pro FX Veneers. The difference between the two is similar to the difference between a cap and a set of dentures. The fangs cover one or two teeth, the veneers are a full set of teeth. Both use molding pellets which take a little time to set up for the first use, but after that they will be molded to your teeth perfectly. VampFangs has a wide assortment at reasonable prices.

I have ignored the “I’m not going to dress up, I’m just going to stand there in a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt and not be scary at all” answer because I personally hate that. If you’ve gone to all of the trouble of setting up props and lights and everything else that we already discussed, don’t pull people back to the real world by being your same old boring self. This is Halloween! It is your chance to be anything you want!

But Zed, the imaginary voice I have assigned to you readers says, what about the little kids? Won’t they be too scared to come up to get candy?

In my experience, no. I used to be worried that I would give little kids nightmares (yeah, my ego is that big), but I have learned that smaller kids don’t scare easily. They are usually interested in the props, touching the skulls, picking up the bones. This kind of fear seems to be something that is learned socially. Older kids will be afraid, but will overcome their fears in order to get that sweet treat as a reward.

If you are still worried about being too scary, you can always enlist the aid of someone who will not be as done up as you are. My wife usually participates in handing out candy early on, when the young kids are out. I’ll be dressed up, but she will just have a prop which she can put aside. For example, this year will feature an alien invasion theme. I’ll look like someone who has been taken over by aliens, but she will just be holding a small alien baby. Previous years she has “banished the monster,” forcing me to the side while apprehensive trick or treaters venture up to the porch.

Worst case scenario, you end up with leftover candy.

Pro Tip — Always buy treats you wouldn’t mind eating if the costumed kids don’t show. Or at least get something you can pawn off on your coworkers without making them sick.

The Final Step — After the kids have all gone and you’ve turned out the lights, take a minute to relax. Bask in the joy of the evening. Think about the great costumes. Mentally relive the best scares. Then pull out a pad of paper and take notes on what worked and what didn’t. These will serve as reminders when you start thinking about the next haunt season. It’s never to early to start planning for next Halloween. This has been Uncle Zed with How To Haunt Your Home, signing off.

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How To Haunt Your Home, Part V: Professional FX on a Budget

Zed's Hat

By Michael Cieslak

A trip to the local Halloween store can be a little daunting. Generally speaking, I visit the Halloween stores in the area a number of times during the eight to ten weeks that they are in business before the Big Day. The first trip is always to see what new products have hit the shelves. This is purely a scouting mission; I never buy anything. I will, however, make note of any new, big ticket items I might want to purchase during the post-Halloween sales. I will stop by a couple of times during the season to see what is selling well (read: what is everyone else buying — I want to be original). On 1 November, I hit a number of stores and buy the things I had earmarked for purchase.

Now listen closely to your pal Zed; I’m going to let you in on a little secret: a lot of the props and gags that you can buy at these stores were originally created by home haunters.
That web-spinner using glue sticks? The eternal flame pot which is actually a couple pieces of cloth and a light? The jumping spider? The rocking coffin? The laser light vortex? The creepy sound machine? The lightning generator? The creeping fog? Every last one of these things was created by someone who like creepy stuff and had the time to tinker about in the garage. In other words, you can probably make a lot of the items available for purchase for a lot less, if you are willing to invest the time.
I am not putting down ready-made, for-purchase effects items. As I said, I hit these stores a number of times every year. There is something to be said for the convenience of being able to shell out a few bucks and have something ready to rock. However, knowing that you created something so scary with your own two hands is very rewarding.
With that in mind, this week we will explore some of the items commonly available for purchase but can be handcrafted by the average home haunter fairly easily.

The Fog Chiller — I’ll be the first one to say it, every good haunt needs some fog. Nothing helps create the proper at-mos-FEAR like fog creeping over the ground. The problem is, fog machines don’t create fog that creeps, instead creating fog which shoots all over and disperses. This is because the “fog” is created by heating a glycol-based fluid (fog juice) and propelling it outward via a small fan.

A homemade fog machine

A Note About Fog Juice: At its core, all fog juice is either glycol or glycerine and water in different proportions. I’ve actually made my own fog juice and it’s not that hard, if you can get the chemicals. There are numerous brands of fog juice available for purchase. Some have additives which make them heavier, thicker, or change the dispersal rates. You can even purchase fog juice with scent additives (or buy the additives themselves) to make your yard smell like a fresh corpse, a charred corpse, a chainsaw, a forest, a swampy marsh, or even a chocolate chip cookie. Most home haunters use whatever fog juice is available. For a consistently well-made product, the people I know turn to Froggy’s. To achieve the low-lying fog affect, the gas produced from heating the fog juice must be chilled before it is released from the machine. You can purchase a machine which does that for $20 – $30 above the price of a plain fogger. Or you can make one using a styrofoam container or an old cooler, some wire mesh (which you probably have lying around after using it to make your manikins), and ice. The low lying fog is created by heating the fog juice, then passing the resulting gas through a cooled area before blowing it out into the yard. There are an infinite number of designs which accomplish this. Simply search “Fog Chiller DIY” on your friendly neighborhood search engine for a plethora of videos.
Low lying fog is great for cemeteries and around the feet of your prop people, but it is not necessary in all situations. I have a burnt body prop named Ash whom I usually light from below with red and orange spots. By placing a fog machine behind him, I am able to create the illusion that he is on fire.

The Belching Smoke Prop — About two years ago I started seeing a number of smoking zombie props. They were essentially a zombie torso and head containing a tube connected to a fog machine. This idea as a whole puzzled me. I couldn’t figure out why something which was dead would be breathing, much less exhaling smoke. While it was confusing to me as a concept, I was also smug in the knowledge that I had done something similar three years prior.
This one is very easy. I used one of my wire frame bodies and a demon mask. I ran a length of flexible tubing through the body and out the mouth of the mask. I originally placed the tubing directly on the fog machine, but it didn’t quite have the oomph needed to shoot the fog all they way up. I ended up creating a sealed container much like a chiller and placing a small fan inside to propel the fog. I ended up with a fairly nice smoking demon, if I do say so myself.

A Note About Fog — You can’t really control where your fog goes. On a windy night, it may be torn away before it reaches the first tombstone. You can try to combat this by changing the angle of the fog machine or lengthening the duration of the fog bursts. However, be mindful of where your fog is ending up. I have received a stern talking-to from the local gendarme due to calls the fire department received. Apparently fog from my yard made it look like a neighboring business was on fire! Not my intention. So be conscious of your spook.
The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — So, how do you control your bouncing, spinning, fog emitting props? Once upon a time, this was a difficult question to answer. Fortunately, home haunters now have a lot of choices at their disposal. As with many of the things we have discussed, pressure pad triggers can be purchased in Halloween stores and on-line. These work like the old entrance mats in front of retail outlets. You place the pad where people can step on it. When it registers enough weight, the mechanism that it is connected to is triggered. These work well enough if you can direct your foot traffic so it will be stepped on.
An easier solution is to use a motion sensor. While these are also available from various Halloween retailers, inexpensive versions can also be found at just about any hardware store, electronics shop, and garden supply store. With a couple simple adjustments they can be hooked up to just about any prop you are using.
One thing that you may want to purchase from a Halloween store is a remote/timer for your fog machine(s). While you can also rig something up, there are controllers which are designed for the fog machine which control not only when the fog is released, but for how long. with only the flick of a switch.

The simplest projector: the jack o’ lantern

Projected Images — There are a lot of ways to project images onto various areas in your haunt. One of the more popular methods is to place an old television or computer monitor on its back and affix a piece of reflective plexiglass at a forty-five degree angle so whatever is on the screen is showing on the plexi, creating the illusion of something floating in space. You can then alter the distance between the image source and the plexiglass to control the size of the finished image. This is a great way to put moving images on windows or even on the side of a structure.
Of course, projectors have become so affordable that they are easy to pick up. There are even some which can be attached to mobile phones. The only real concern is to make sure that they are placed somewhere that they will be safe from the elements and from theft.
A Note About Projected Images — When projecting still images, there are a number of things to watch out for. One is content. It is a good idea to avoid the use of images which are too gory or explicit. Keep in mind that they will be visible to all passersby, not just those who are interested in your haunt. There is an additional concern with projections and light shows. Just like your fog, be mindful of the affected area. While it is cool to have your haunt visible from outer space, you do not want to distract traffic.

Lasers and Safety — Some light machines use small lasers to achieve the desired results. One example is a device used in conjunction with a fog machine to create a vortex in mid-air. It is important to remember that laser light can cause permanent ocular damage. Whenever you work with lasers you must make sure that no one can stand in front of them, even accidentally.
As I hope to have shown, you do not have to rely on expensive gadgets to create interesting, creepy visuals. One of the best scares that I have had at my house was achieved by placing a cheap window cling on an upper story window and placing a red light behind it. Of all of the things I had up that year, that window cling was the one which got the adults to jump off of the curb. Join us next week for our last installment of How to Haunt Your Home before the Big Event!

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2015 Theatre Bizarre


My only disappointment from the 2015 Theatre Bizarre was that at this fete exhorting us to “Ride the Goat,” there was no appearance by the Baphomet statue so recently flaunted by the local Satanists. It’s probably for the best. I suspect pious devil-worship would have paled in comparison to the joyous revelries and raucous naughtiness that Theatre Bizarre is known for. You know the drill: Theatre Bizarre has come a long way from that notorious renegade party it once was and for some folks, there ain’t nothing quite as delicious as nostalgia for auld lang syne. For my money, Dunivant’s crazy circus has hit its stride in the Masonic Temple. Elsa and I were on-site for a good eight hours last night which means our ticket gave us great value for money.


Hold the goat, Theatre Bizarre 2015, for me, was really the Year of the Performer. I was able to look past the luridly lovely decorations and outrageous costumes long enough to pay attention to the remarkable calibre of the events occurring on the many stages. I know I mocked it a couple years ago when placards appeared at the venues listing the acts. I felt the glory was precisely in NOT knowing what would be seen. I repent and recant. I only wish I knew the names of more of the itinerant mimes, clowns and fireworkers. May they be recognized at least by descriptions of their work.

All Packed up and Ready to Fork: The show starts even outside Masonic, which is fortunate because the wait is sometimes lengthy. This year there were two entrances which minimized the time Elsa and I spent in the cold… but we were there long enough to catch a Theatre Bizarre regular, one of many performers whose name I don’t know. His routine is classic and well honed. This mime struggles with a suitcase that possesses a mind of its own, simple fare that requires great control and nuance because there is little flash to distract. More crowd-pleasing, perhaps, is his sword-swallowing but what he does when he combines a fork and his nose is priceless.

The evening heats up with fire dancing contortionists.

The evening heats up with fire dancing contortionists.

Quest for Fire: I was also fortunate to be in the right places to witness the work of a lithe blonde fire-dancer. She twirled a flame-tipped baton and swirled a fiery circle in the Main Foyer and on at least one of the small table-sized stages that dot Masonic. But when she and another dancer parted the revelers in the Fountain Ballroom, sometime after midnight, that’s when I really took notice. The routine was a spirited tug-of-war / pas de deux of sorts where the pair struggled to possess a flaming bauble. With contortions and gymnastic flair, the two gleefully contested, wrestled and writhed… and never even singed the awestruck crowd. This is the kind of unexpected wonderment I’ve come to expect from Theatre Bizarre.

Love the glove

Love the glove

Elsa and I started the evening in the Dirty Devil’s Burlesque, since we know the room crowds up early. A patron could spend the entire evening watching these beauties and get a great introduction to the state of the burlesque art. Dahlia Fatale and Dangrrr Doll were remarkable for the fluid physicality of their acts but I was glad to finally see Lou Lou Roxy, a Las Vegas performer who has recently relocated to Detroit. I believe I could watch her work out of her gloves for quite a contented eternity.

IMG_8820We drifted and indulged and found ourselves in the first floor Ballroom early enough to secure a table for several of the signature performances. There are several traditions at Theatre Bizarre, set pieces repeated and revered to the point of becoming rituals. The Devil’s Tightrope is one routine that, while not precisely my taste, is a remarkable, must-see stunt. It features BOTH kinds of mischief, both clowns and devils. A rope is suspended between hooks sunk into the flesh of two strong men, lit on fire before a hapless clown is forced at knife-point to walk across that perilous line. Don’t try it at home.
One of Theatre Bizarre’s recurring cast is “The Doll,” whose joyous zeal really epitomizes the weird fun of the affair. We spotted her as usual all around the festivities, sometimes atop stilts and brandishing a massive hammer, sometimes just cuddling a doll. When she appeared onstage in “The Doll and the Devil,” I feared that her innocent joie de vivre would be besmirched by that compellingly androgynous faun who attempted to seduce her. Ha! I worried in vain. The Doll was triumphant and the Devil got his comeuppance in the end, quite literally.
“The Clown’s Surprise” featured two more of the Theatre Bizarre regulars, a lanky clown and a remarkably acrobatic devil girl. Both performers pop up all around the show, accosting customers and performing bits, and Elsa and I have thrilled to their talents, year after year, but it was fun to finally see an act where both could play off each other’s strengths.

Then there were the big name acts who deserve their notoriety; Ray Gunn, Roxi D’lite, Red Rum… It’s a privilege to say I’ve seen them perform.

There was ice cream and dancing, popcorn and short-attention span porn movies, in addition to other naughtiness best left unmentioned. Theatre Bizarre is an event ruled by serendipity, happy accidents of being in the right place at precisely the right time. These blessings more than compensate for the moments found trapped somewhere, surrounded by far too many people, pushing along in line for some attraction. Elsa and I have learned to take the long view, to relax and look around because at Theatre Bizarre, something amazing is happening just about everywhere.


Dance 'til you drop

Dance ’til you drop



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Photos from 2015 Theatre Bizarre Gala

The Theatre Bizarre Gala for 2015 is but a pleasant memory. Elsa and I know to arrive early to prolong the night. As usual, clowns, mimes and other shenanigans entertained us while we waited in line.

This poor clown had an absurdly suitcase with a mind of its own.

This poor clown had an absurdly heavy suitcase apparently with a mind of its own.

Clowning around on the steps of Masonic, waiting for Theatre Bizarre Gala 2015

Clowning around on the steps of Masonic, waiting for Theatre Bizarre Gala 2015

Both kinds of entertainment: Clowns AND Mimes.

Both kinds of entertainment: Clowns AND Mimes.

The evening heats up with fire dancing contortionists.

The evening heats up with fire dancing contortionists.



No, no, NO! Forks go in your MOUTH!

No, no, NO! Forks go in your MOUTH!

Don't feed the Devil Girl... though it looks like she might just take a bite

Don’t feed the Devil Girl… though it looks like she might just take a bite if you get too close

A contract juggler with his mesmerizing crystal balls

A contact juggler with his mesmerizing crystal balls


Undead bellhops prepare an elevator to Hell...or to the Odditorium

Undead bellhops prepare an elevator to Hell…or to the Odditorium

The evening heats up with fire dancing contortionists.

The evening heats up with fire dancing contortionists.

Even the undead bellhops were snapping photos

Even the undead bellhops were snapping photos









Two heads

Two heads

David J of Bauhaus performed memorable, Big Band version of "Bela Lugosi's Dead"

David J of Bauhaus performed memorable, Big Band version of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”

Can there really be too many photos of Roxi?

Can there really be too many photos of Roxi?

Roxi Delite, onstage in all her luminous glory

Roxi Delite, onstage in all her luminous glory


Roxi Delite prepares to Ride the Goat,

Roxi Delite prepares to Ride the Goat.




I'm told each piece of candy corn is laced with LSD

I’m told each piece of candy corn is laced with LSD


Even andorgynous fauns enjoy the show

Even andorgynous fauns enjoy the show



Elsa and I pose for one last selfie.

Elsa and I pose for one last selfie.


More of the AMAZING dioramas

More of the AMAZING dioramas

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Cool 3-D Souvenir from Theatre Bizarre 2014

3-D Portraits from Scan-o-rama

The Doktor and I have acquired quite a shelf of memorabilia from Theatre Bizarre, and my most treasured item is a 3-D souvenir portrait we had done at the 2014 Gala. True, the Doktor may have been temporarily more excited by the Saunders Bumpy Cake and he strutted like a peacock when he (finally) won a Zombo doll at the Feats of Skill, but a couple weeks later, when we received this hand-sized statue, we both were able to recall the glories of that special evening all over again. Many thanks to the Great Fredini who brought his Scan-a-Rama rig all the way from Coney Island to capture these memories.

The statue itself is bright red and made from hard plastic, roughly 5 inches tall and perfectly captures the weird get-up that the Doktor and I assumed for the evening. Honestly the scan is quite remarkable. The Doktor and I are fans of 3-D printing and in fact have been scanned previously using various homebuilt rigs, but never in full regalia. Fredini’s statuette captured the nuances of our costume. It recalled for me the childhood glee of those coin-operated, wax-model machines that we popular in the 60’s. (The Henry Ford Museum has a half dozen working examples BTW.) Our statue is a personalized remembrance of that delightful evening.

The scanning process was a particularly interesting experience. The Doktor and I stood on a rotating platform that slowly moved while Fredini’s fabulous contraption scanned us. Sorry, no lasers, no tingling magnetic rays. We had carefully worked out a pose –the Doktor’s adoration and my bemused benediction– but found it rather a challenge to keep from laughing… and to stay still after partaking of the Gala’s open bar.

This is pure magic, of course, but not rocket science. A dedicated hobbyist could assemble similar equipment using off the shelf components. In fact, Fredini has even shared the plans for his rig publicly. The artistry comes in when it comes time to print the 3-D scan. Our printed statues are smooth, entirely lacking the jaggies of low-resolution, hobbyist-grade 3-D printers. The details are soft but expressive. (How did the Doktor convince me to wear a mask with such a big nose?) Fredini is using figures like these to populate a scale model of the entire Luna Park amusement park at its heyday.

At its core, Theatre Bizarre is a glorious expression of weird ingenuity, from its genesis as a renegade backyard amusement park to its full-flower at the Greatest Masquerade on Earth. It seemed appropriate on a couple levels that the Great Fredini of Coney Island fame was on hand at Theatre Bizarre 2014 to create 3-D portraits of attendees. Amusement parks were originally somewhat licentious excursions for young lovers to indulge in exotic fantasies and extravegant treats. Is there a better description of Theatre Bizarre? And what could be a more fantastic souvenir from that fabulous night than a 3-D statue of my lover and me?

Who knows what wonders will appear at this year’s Theatre Bizarre! We can hardly wait to find out.

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How To Haunt Your Home, Part IV: Lights, Props, Action!

Zed's Hat

By Michael Cieslak

Why are we afraid of the dark?

Humans rely on sight far more than any of our other senses, so it seems a pity that our night vision is not as good as that of a lot of other predators. In addition to our poor sight in the dark, we have giant brains which can imagine all kinds of terrifying things which could be inhabiting that great, unseen area. I’m Zed, and today we’ll be looking at how to leverage this particular human vulnerability to scare the pants of anyone who comes to your house around Halloween.

Lighting must be considered as an essential element when setting up your home haunt. For this post, we will assume that your haunt will be designed to be viewed in the dark. Whether this means it is going to be creepiest at night or if you have built something that people will walk through does not make a difference. Either way you are going to want to control the lighting to create the maximum Spooky Quotient (SQ). 

Unfortunately, the power of light is sometimes out of our control. If you happen to have a streetlight at the edge of your yard, there is nothing you can do to diminish this illumination short of shooting out the bulb with a BB Gun. (For the record, I do not endorse shooting out streetlights with BB Guns.) What you can do, however, is control the lights which you do own. Red, green, and yellow lightbulbs are available at just about any hardware store (although you might have to downgrade from fluorescents for the evening). Even bug repellent bulbs will work in a pinch.

First, consider the color of the light. Many people make the mistake of grabbing a red bulb because of its blood-colored associations. Red light will tend to give things a bloody or possibly demonic cast certainly, but this is not the only choice. If zombies populate your haunt, consider a yellow or even a green lightbulb. These options can give everything a pale, sickly, almost jaundiced cast. Blue lights can create a spectral or otherworldly glow. They also work well with ghosts, animated skeletons, and aliens.

Your second concern will be the kind of lights to use. One of my absolute favorite purchases was a set of mini LED spotlights. The bad news is that manufacturer is no longer in business. The good news is that countless companies have sprung up to take their place. The benefits of these mini spotlights include color choice, the ability to mix colors, directionality, easy concealment, and energy efficiency. The ones that I use require so little electricity that I am able to connect them using stereo speaker wire.

Alternative light sources abound. Glow sticks are a cheap and colorful option. Flashlights with colored cellophane over the lens make great (and cheap!) sources of illumination. The amount of light coming from them can be limited by covering the lens with a piece of cardboard with a slit or hole cut in it. Lanterns, gooseneck lamps, and even mechanic’s lights can all be put to good use.

woman-702012_1280A note on lighting and safety: Keep in mind that the lights are going to be outdoors and exposed to the elements. Because of the way I have wired mine, I do not use the mini-spotlights in inclement weather. Be aware of positioning. Once one of my can lights, which was rated for outdoor use, slipped off of the clamp holding it and ended up pointing directly up. This allowed it to collect water from the light drizzle. Water + electricity. Not a good mix.

Definitely avoid using open flames. At best you are going to have to deal with the fact they will constantly be blown out by the slightest wind. At worst you have an open flame meeting a flowing costume. If you want to achieve a flickering candle affect, invest in flameless candles.

The third and most important thing to think about is placement. Don’t fall into the habit of always lighting things from the top down. Illuminating an object from above, be it a person or a prop, will cast many of the features in shadow, especially if the prop has a large head or hood. Even more damning is that things illuminated from above tend to appear smaller than they actually are, and nothing ruins the ominous 12 foot tall figure of the Grim Reaper like lighting it from above. Conversely, lighting something from below tends to make it appear larger than it actually is. By placing the source of illumination below a prop and a few feet out, you will create a looming shadow behind it. This also allows you to control which parts of the prop your visitors will focus on. Such an easy way to ramp up the all-important SQ of your haunt! An added benefit is that by lighting from below and focusing on the head or chest (if it is a person-shaped figure, that is) anything you put behind it — say the wires holding it in place — will be in shadow.
Other options abound. Another eerie affect can be created by backlighting the object. A light placed behind a prop will not only make it look bigger, it will also dazzle the eyes of the viewer, making it more difficult to see any details you might want hidden. The shadow caused by backlighting will engulf the viewers, making them feel as if they are already in the grip of whatever monster materializes before them.
As an example, think about the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). When Freddy first appears to Tina, he is backlit at the end of a long alley. His shadow reaches out to her, threatening her even though he is far away:

As I hinted above, the easiest way to scare someone is to allow their own minds to do the work for you. An oblique light source, one which comes from one side or from above or below but only illuminates a portion of the prop, will force the viewer to imagine what the rest of it looks like. In most cases the portion filled in by the imagination will be more frightening than what you could actually build. In addition, shadows create the illusion of movement, lending even more believability to what is actually a static prop.
Of course, you don’t have to rely on static props. There are a number of ways to bring your props to life using everything from gravity to small motors to pneumatics. Popular moving props include spinning ghosts, crank ghosts, shakers, lifters, and poppers — my own terms. A lot can be accomplished with a small motor and a little know how. Depending upon how it is set up, a motor can cause a prop to spin in place, or it can drive a pulley system which will make that same prop move back and forth. These are often ghosts and light skeletons as increased weight will cause the motor to burn out.

Another common method of making movement is to use compressed air to cause a prop to pop up, lean forward, or shake. Pneumatics are used to make coffin lids shake as if someone is trying to get out, cause 20-foot monsters to leap forward menacingly, and everything in between. The construction of these kind of props is not necessarily something that beginners want to try on their first time out. Fortunately, there are many places where you can learn skills to safely build more advanced material. The Motor City Haunt Club meets monthly on the University of Detroit – Mercy campus. They welcome all Halloween enthusiasts from the novice to the expert. People looking to build their own props might be interested in joining a local maker space or hacker space. There are a number in the Detroit area including i3 and the Tech Shop. These and other similar facilities have all sorts of tools and equipment for use. Members pay a monthly fee and generally have to qualify on the equipment before using it for the first time. They are great places to do woodworking, metal crafting, needlework, laser etching, and even 3D printing without having to break the bank purchasing the equipment yourself.

A few final words about pneumatics and safety: unless you have the necessary skills to construct your own framework and pneumatic props, I strongly encourage you to purchase them from someone with prop making experience. DC Props and Frightprops are excellent sources for the materials you will need to safely construct your own pneumatics. There are other (less reputable) retailers who will sell things much cheaper, but it is important to note that these are generally made from things like screen door closers which are not designed to withstand the pressure put out by an air compressor and could explode. You must also make sure the prop you are using is properly affixed to the framework so it does not go flying off and injure someone when activated. Safety first, haunters!

Stay tuned next week for our discussion of special effects on a budget!

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Horrific Snacks: Skull Pies!

Skull Pies from Why Not Pie

Skull Pies from Why Not Pie

Can a pastry truly capture the spirit of Halloween?

Skull Pies from Why Not Pie certainly try very hard! The pastry takes on a pleasing bone-like appearance when cast in the form of a skull, and the fruit filling inside provides a lovely and flavorful contrast.

Why Not Pie bakes them all month and ships them to pie lovers and horror aficiandos across the US. See the website for details.

Skull Pies ready to ship!

Skull Pies ready to ship!

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How to Haunt Your Home: Part III : Skeletons, Skulls, and Straw Men — Populating Your Haunt

Zed's Hat

By Michael Cieslak

By this time, you have spent months planning your home haunt, meticulously determining where each and every prop should be placed. You’ve arranged your material to maximize your Spooky Quotient (SQ), but it still looks like something is lacking.
Your problem? You need to populate your haunt. Without an array of characters, all that you have is a diorama, a set. It’s like being in a creepy cabin in the woods. Sure, it’s scary, but after a while you get used to it. What you really need to get the blood pumping is a chainsaw-wielding maniac to burst through the door.

Pun intended.

The best way to do this is to have actual people in costume there to help you scare the little demons and goblins. Now, I understand that is not always an option. Don’t fret, your old Uncle Zed is here to help! I’ll show you how to make friends and influence people.
By that I mean literally build people and use them to scare other people.

Calling All Creatures
Some people who are looking to up the stakes in their yard haunts spend a lot of time looking for cast off mannequins. Unfortunately, the ability to acquire them has become rather difficult as of late. The demand for used dummies has come to the attention of most department store owners. Your chances of finding one in the dumpster behind Sears are extremely rare. Naturally, you can order them on-line. Expect to pay around $100 for a life-sized or near-life sized plastic model, and anywhere from $150 to $400 for fiberglass. Halloween prop supply companies have mannequins made from a wide variety of material. The “inexpensive foam” models usually run about $400 and the prices go up from there.
The reason for the higher price is that the products supplied by the Halloween stores are usually not blank slates. You are paying for material that is already mutilated, painted, and gory. The exception would be the inflatable figures which are cheap, but not posable. They are also susceptible to high winds and puncture damage.

Given that you will probably want more than one figure in your yard, allow me to suggest a few alternatives. Most of the figures in my own yard are built around a chicken wire frame. These models are inexpensive to build, can be built to your own size and specifications, are posable, and reusable. All you need is a roll of chicken wire and a pair of tin snips. I also recommend a pair of sturdy gardening gloves to protect your hands. Simply create a large cylinder for the body, folding in the top portion to support the head, and smaller cylinders for arms and legs. The trick to attaching them is to have one side a little longer than the other, allowing a more limb-like connections (instead of arms that stick straight out to the sides).

The next step to turning them from wire frames into someone spooky is dressing them. If you want, you can cover your bodies with papier-mâché, but I find this unnecessary, as it adds the additional task of waterproofing your monsters. I just cover the wire with whatever I am dressing the creature as. Old shirts, pants, or suits are great for zombies. To add some realism, roll the clothing in the dirt before dressing them. Street clothes are also great for werewolves. I am a huge fan of creatures wearing robes — a larger than life Death figure, demons, etc. (This is primarily because my legs tend to come out a little on the thin side, and with robes you don’t have to worry about legs at all, just the head, torso, and arms!)
The only real problem with wire frame figures is that they tend to be light. A strong wind will knock them over, or occasionally turn them airborne. My wife has a great video of me futilely chasing my Grim Reaper across a park. To avoid this, and to give the figure some stability, I use PVC pipes planted in the ground. Fishing line is an excellent tool for attaching a ghoul to a fence, post, or other structure. Another way to keep them grounded is to buy a set of cheap tent stakes, the ones that look like metal candy canes. Simply drive the stakes into the ground with the loop through part of the chicken wire.

Anything can be used as a stand for a home-made mannequin. I’ve used rain barrels, a broken oscillating fan, even the bushes by the house. Tomato cages make great goblin sized people. they can also be wrapped in spider webbing to create the look of a person trapped by a giant spider (or a monster sized spider egg sack). One of my reoccurring characters is a pumpkin-headed scarecrow. I place the head and arms in one of the bushes and it looks like it is coming out of the woods.

You can make your own heads and hands, if you have the sculpting skill. If you are making them out of paper mache, make sure to add enough salt to prevent mold growth and make sure they are completely dry before painting. You might also consider a water resistant shellac as well. I take a much easier route. Almost every Halloween store places its material on sale the day after Halloween. The horror themed retail outlets that spring up every year rent their spaces on limited leases. This means that by the middle of November they have to get all of their merchandise (and their displays in some cases) out of the building. Most would rather sell than ship and store. This is the time to score the essentials like spider webs as well as any big ticket items for half of what you would normally pay–although it does require a bit of foresight on your part. I always pick up a couple of masks and sets of gloves. Theses become the heads and hands of the creatures in my yard the following haunt season. If you follow this method, you can have a wide selection of creatures to choose from after only a few years.

If you will be using masks, I recommend picking up some inexpensive styrofoam heads typically used as wig stands. You can also make heads out of chicken wire or styrofoam balls (available at any craft store), but the heads fill out the masks better. To really make your people stand out, focus on the eyes. Plastic animal eyes can be purchased relatively cheaply from taxidermy supply companies. Most are semi-spherical set on posts which can be driven into your styrofoam head without a problem. Get the creepy looking ones like those for great cats or goats. There are also people who make eyeballs which light up. I found mine on eBay for only a few dollars. Two AA batteries converts a somewhat creepy mask into a demon with glowing eyes.

Skeletons, skulls, and bones of all sizes are also essentials for any spooky house. If you will be doing a lot of work to them (for example, partially melting them for a really creepy look), get the cheap ones available at a drug store or at craft stores. Michael’s usually has their Halloween material out by the end of August/beginning of September and on sale by October to make room for Christmas material.

For quality skulls and skeletons, buy a Bucky. These are anatomically correct skeletons which are not quite good enough for use in a school or university. They can be purchased online from a number of retailers, simply search for “Bucky Skeletons.” The Skeleton Store and the Skeleton Factory both carry reasonably priced Buckys. These are well made, available in different sizes, and will last for years. I’ve had my Bucky for over a decade and he’s still in great shape. These same retailers will sell skulls, skeletal arms and legs, and even bones by the pound.

There are a lot of videos which will show you how to “corpseify” your Bucky, should you want a rotted corpse look. This method uses strips of cloth and stains to turn the white bones into something which looks like it was recently dug up.

Finally, consider simply hinting at more people. A well placed piece of white fabric can and will look like a specter when lit properly. If you have a lot of trees or bushes, you can populate them with hidden creatures using toilet paper rolls. Cut two eye shaped holes in the roll, place a lit glow stick inside, and place the roll deep in the bushes. When the sun sets you will have a bunch of eerily glowing eyes peering out from the foliage. Do this behind one well lit prop, say a spider or a bat, and people will assume that there is a whole colony of similar creepy crawlies in your yard.

One last note, when you are planning your haunt, keep in mind how your yard will look in October. Those lush, green trees that are perfect for hiding things might be bare branches come the Fall.

Stay tuned next week for How To Haunt Your Home Part IV!

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Nightmare #368 – Scorpions

(20’s, Nevada) When you’ve spent most of your life in the desert, you develop a cavalier attitude. Sure, the desert is filled with things that can kill you, but let’s face it—-it’s probably not going to happen.

I know people who are terrified of black widows. Absolutely terrified. But, honestly, they’re not that bad. Unless you’re very young, or very old, or very sick, a black widow bite isn’t going to kill you. Chances are, you’re not going to get bitten in the first place. Not unless you do something stupid, like stick your hand in a gardening glove that’s been left out overnight. But people who live in the desert know better.

Even rattlesnakes aren’t that bad. They’re startling, sure. But unless you’re way out in the desert without any hope of getting to a hospital anytime soon, you’re probably not going to die from a bite. No, you won’t die, you’ll just have a crazy story to impress people with. Remember, that one time you got bitten by a rattlesnake?

And sure, people have been known to die from the heat itself. Bodies have been found with their insides melted. But for the people who live here, the extreme heat is just part of it. Experience enough 115-degree days and you don’t even notice it anymore.

Yes, it’s very easy to be cavalier about the desert. It is for me, anyway. With one exception: scorpions. I know they’re no worse than anything else in the Mojave, but I’ve never seen one. I know people who find scorpions in their homes as routinely as I find black widows in the yard. But it’s never happened to me. And with every scorpion-less year that passes, I become more afraid of actually seeing one.

So afraid that I’m even dreaming about it.

I wake up in the middle of the night needing to use the bathroom, pretty normal. But this night feels different somehow. Something feels wrong from the very start. Ominous.

I creep through the dark bedroom, turn on the bathroom light before entering. I expect to see something waiting for me there, I’m already flinching, pulling back. But the bathroom is empty. Everything is normal.

It’s not until the toilet is flushing that I see it. In the corner of the bathroom there’s a tiny scorpion. My stomach sinks. I start to sweat. There’s a scorpion and I have no idea how to get it out of my house. You can’t just swat or stomp on it.

And maybe it seems like it should be less scary since the scorpion is so small, but I know better. I’ve been raised in the desert, after all. It’s the little ones you need to look out for. They’re the most venomous. The most likely to kill you.

It’s one of those milky-clear scorpions. Which makes it seems worse for some reason. I could handle it better if it were black, or dark brown. There’s something more alien about this one. And sneaky. It almost blends in with the bathroom tile.

I’m terrified and I don’t know what to do. But I’m also relieved. I’ve spent so long dreading this moment that I feel almost powerful now. There’s something liberating about knowing the thing you’ve been fearing has already happened.

I guess that’s what makes me do it—-the sense of power, sense of freedom. Instead of trying to kill the scorpion, I find myself reaching out to it. I slide my hand along the bathroom floor. Closer, closer. It moves towards me. I inch my hand forward. And soon I feel eight tiny legs moving across my palm.

I stare at the scorpion in revulsion and wonder. I bring my hand closer to my face, examine the creature closely. The segmented tail, the poised stinger.

Then I see movement from the corner of my eye.

I glance down at the bathroom floor. And realize my mistake. My scorpion had not been alone.

They’re swarming from a crack in the wall. Tens of scorpions, maybe hundreds. I try to move back and stumble. My hand closes in a fist. That’s when I feel the first sting.

I wake up suddenly. I’m in bed. There are no scorpions. But my hand still has the memory of a sting.

I need to use the bathroom, but decide I can hold it until morning. It was just a dream, but you can never be too careful. The desert is full of things that can kill you.

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How To Haunt Your Home Part II: Setting The Scene

Zed's Hat

By Michael Cieslak

Welcome to part two of our discussion of how to haunt your home. As noted in our first installment, we’re investigating what is required to turn your residence into something fantastically frightening for Halloween.

In terms of full disclosure, I should let you know that my own level of haunting is probably somewhere around Beginner+ to Intermediate-. I have multiple fog machines, an extensive light array, and pneumatics. I both purchase and make my own props. I do have some experience with mask creation and foam latex prop making, but not much. My soldering skills are non-existent.

Oh, you can call me Zed.

Last time around, we discussed the importance of having a centralized theme around which your haunt is based. To explore this further, why don’t we take a quick look at two of the biggest haunts in the area, Realm of Darkness and Erebus. Both are located in Pontiac, but each approaches the idea of theme in a different way.

Realm of Darkness features the classic Quest To Defeat The Wizard. Visitors are lead through a medieval castle filled with various monsters and ghouls until they reach the Wizard at the end. All of the characters and props fits this theme.

Erebus, on the other hand, tells the story of a mad scientist who creates a rift in time and space which allows all manner of horrible things to fall into our world. Using this pretense, the owners can explain areas of science fiction technology next to dinosaurs, swamps inside of a building, and zombies and madmen inhabiting the same space.

So how do you choose your theme? The easiest way to decide is think about what scares you. If there is an idea which creeps you out, odds are it will do the same to someone else. Also, take a look at what you already have purchased. If you have already started building up a supply of props, get them out and see what they have in common. You might have your answer right there.

There are a number of staples for the haunted house which you might want to invest in. These include:

Spiders and webbing — Nothing says “old and creepy” like cobwebs, and spiders rank among snakes and heights as the things most people are afraid of. Large spider webs are also readily available at Halloween stores and are an inexpensive way to start making your house look frightening. The downside to this is that everyone else on the block will have them as well. If you do go the spider route, you might want to invest in a webspinner, a simple device that is essentially a hot glue gun with a fan attachment. This blows the hot glue wherever you point it (wind permitting) and creates gorgeous spiderwebs.

Tombstones — The cemetery is a staple backdrop, whether you are featuring zombies, ghosts, skeletons, or just something eerie. They are also inexpensive, fairly easy to make, and an efficient way to make your haunt look bigger than it is. Placing large tombstones in the front of the yard and progressively smaller ones as the boneyard continues rearward will create a forced perspective effect, and the illusion that the space is much larger.

Skulls, skeletons, and bones — We’ve all got them under our skin, but for some reason people are freaked out by bones. You can use full sized skeletons as scares, skulls as background decorations, or bones in the hands of your zombies and werewolves for an added ick factor. I recommend the 4th Rate Bucky Skeleton, available from a variety of retailers, including The Skeleton Store and the Skeleton Factory. Bucky is an anatomically correct skeleton, quite sturdy (I’ve had mine for ten years or more), and it won’t break your bank.

Fog-Machines — We will go into more detail on fog machines in a later post, but they are a great way to add atmosphere.

A number of resources will help you get ideas for your haunt and in some cases learn how to make your own props.

If you are in the Metro Detroit Area, you should check out the Motor City Haunt Club. This group of haunters and horror fans meets once a month on the campus of the University of Detroit-Mercy. They discuss prop creation, lighting, sounds, fog machines, and just about everything else related to home haunting. Meetings usually feature a how-to demonstration of a Make and Take session where attendees create a prop during the meeting.

On-line Resources:
The internet is an ever-changing landscape. A number of websites devoted to home haunting are only occasionally updated, but they are plenty of archives of useful information which has already been posted. These include the Home Haunters Association, Home Haunt News, and Halloween Show.

Several national conventions devoted to professional Haunted Attractions can be fantastic opportunities to learn. Although some of the material may be beyond the scope of the average home haunter, there are usually also panel discussions and demonstrations which can be applied on a smaller scale. Many include a sales floor that showcases all sorts of different ghoulish goodies as well. Some of the biggest and best include HauntCon, TransWorld, the Mid-West Haunters Convention, and local favorite Great Lakes Fright Fest.

Other Materials:
I recommend the following material for anyone interested in bigger, scarier Halloween material:

Boneyard Productions DVD set: Includes Horrific Haunted House Tips, Scenery Made Easy, Scares Made Frightfully Easy, and The Official guide to Haunted House Actor Training and Operations Management.

The DC Prop Builder’s Handbook: Devious Concoctions Custom Un-Earthed Creations Volumes 1 and 2. These books are excellent resources which cover everything from corpse and coffin creation to building pneumatic lifters.

Grande Illusions: Books I & II by Savini, Tom (2013) Paperback. The master of horror make-up illustrates some of the best of his cinematic creations including behind the scenes material on how they were constructed.

Stay tuned for more tips, tricks and guidance for building your best Halloween haunt yet.


(Original posting here)

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How To Haunt Your Home Part I: Planning

Zed's Hat

By Michael Cieslak

My name is Zed, and I’m a professional home haunter. I’ve been approached by the Head Nightmarian to discuss the ins and outs of turning your home and/or yard into something terrifying this October.

For those unfamiliar with the term, the home haunter dwells in the middle ground between person who puts up some decorations at Halloween and the Haunted Attractions which spring up around the end of September. The typical home haunt has detailed props, some of which may use light, sound, and pneumatics to achieve their scares. Some home haunts are large enough that they rival the professionals, drawing hundreds or even thousands of people a night.

If you are thinking “this guy is talking about Halloween already?” then this post might not be for you. Everyone else, read on.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to decorating for Halloween. One type of person puts up a whole lot of scary stuff and hopes that something will give passersby the willies. I prefer an approach centered around a theme. This allows each prop to build on the one before. Having a theme also prevents you from breaking the bank by purchasing everything you think looks frightening. If you are going to be creating a terrifying circus, you have an excuse not to buy that wonderful alien prop. If you are creating a zombie-infested cemetery, you don’t need to drop any money on werewolf masks.

The first thing to do, then, is start to plan your haunt. Decide what space you are going to use. Will you be covering your entire front yard? What about the backyard? Will you be inviting people into your home? Each of these has different issues which you should address. Keep in mind that you will still need access to your domicile while the spooky decorations are up. This means that your spouse will want to get the car into the driveway, the postal carrier will need reach your mailbox, and you will probably have to leave to get groceries and go to work.

Or you could just take the last two weeks of October as your vacation.

Set up properly, your decorations can tell a story, even for people who don’t go through it. Passersby can “read” the story you have created as they walk by. When most people think about reading, they picture eyes moving left to right on the page. This may not always be the best set up. Spend a little time examining the traffic patterns, both automotive and pedestrian.

For example, there is a streetlight at the end of my block. Most of the drivers in my subdivision use it as an access point for the major roadway. This means that most of the traffic moving down my street is going north to south, or right to left in the case of my yard. For 2014’s haunt, I decided to tell the story of an alien invasion that raises the dead. The spacecraft I employed was set up to the extreme right, as far as traffic is concerned. The next section featured the aliens themselves, moving towards a cemetery to the left with the reanimated corpses.

Regardless of how big your haunt, your primary concern should be safety. We will be coming back to this topic again and again. Nothing ruins your Halloween fun like a lawsuit.

Here are some things to consider while planning your haunt:

The walking path
If you are going to have people walking on your property, make sure that the path they will be taking is well marked, even, and free of trip hazards. I have invested in outdoor Rope Lighting 100v available on-line and in just about any hardware store. These provide a clear, unbroken pathway for where you would like people to go.

The safety of your props
Another benefit of clearly marking the walking path is that it will keep people from wandering around where you don’t want them. Direct their motions, and they will never see the behind-the-scenes set-up. It will also keep anyone from damaging your props (either accidentally or through malicious vandalism).

Public thoroughfares
If you live in any well-populated residential area, the odds are there are ordinances requiring streets and sidewalks to be free of obstructions. It may look cool to have something hanging from the tree over the sidewalk, but if someone walks into it, there will be problems. A good rule of thumb is if you are required to clear it of snow, you probably can’t block it with a prop. Now is a good time to check with the local gendarme.

Safe Access
This includes making sure that people can get to your haunt without putting themselves in danger. Make sure that there is no chance that someone could get so scared that his or her only option is to run out into the street.

Additional Insurance
If you are going to have people actually enter your home, you might want to consider adding additional insurance for the nights that the haunt will be open. This is a fairly easy process, and most home owners’ insurance companies are happy to help. Hopefully you will never need to use it, but it is always better to err on the side of caution.

Next time we will explore theme further as well as detail some resources to get ideas and information on building your haunt.

(Original posting here)

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Nightmare #369 – Full of Transformation

Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium LXXI by Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717)

Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium LXXI by Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717)

(Female, California) When I was pregnant, I had a series of bad dreams about what was going on inside me. First, I gave birth to a little stone that was only shaped like a baby, brittle and fossilized and everything a baby is not. In the next, I realized that my unborn child had somehow migrated to the outside of my body to continue its growth and was, in fact, a potato wrapped for the grocery store. I was attached to it through my navel by a tuber. I was afraid to move because I didn’t know what would happen if the tuber broke. It might kill the “baby,” or perhaps I might bleed to death. Finally, I dreamt that my baby rolled up against the outside of my belly, stretching the skin and revealing its form: it had two heads. When it was born, one head was upright on the neck, but it was defective, mostly brainless. The other head had curly blond hair and was gurgling musically with a sharp, smart look in its eye. But it erupted from the baby’s back, rooted between the shoulder blades. I was told I had to choose which head to amputate. I could keep the one that “looked right” or choose the smart head but condemn the child to a grotesquely misshapen body. What a decision I had to make.

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Nightmare #367: Millipedes

 (Male, West Virginia)  Millipedes disgust me.  They should disgust everyone.  The name comes from the root for million. I know they don’t have millions of legs, but who could ever be comfortable with something so ambulatory and unpredictable?

People keep telling me they are slow creatures, harmless creatures, that they eat only dead and decaying plants, not living and breathing humans. But it isn’t a fear of being eaten by millipedes I have. No. It is the fear of those legs. Segments upon segments of legs, crawling ad infinitum along my face and arms. Slick exoskeletons sliding into my mouth, my nose, my ears.  No orifice is safe.



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Nightmare #366: Hunting

(Male, Massachusetts) In the dream, I’m on a hunting trip with three friends: Roy, Liam, and Paul. In waking life, I’ve never actually been hunting, unless plinking a squirrel’s hindquarters with my slingshot as a kid counts. But in the dream, it feels vaguely familiar..?

Roy has brought us to a decommissioned quarry deep in the woods. We’re staying in an old cabin that seems to have served as an office for the mining company that was based here. Out of the way.

Maybe the second morning of the trip, Liam and Paul head out early. Roy and I are gearing up to head out in a different direction when Paul comes running back, out of breath and screaming that something came up out of the quarry and grabbed Liam. Something big, he says.

Roy insists that Paul take us to where he last saw Liam, but Paul flat-out refuses. “I’m not going back! We have to leave!”

Just then, we hear a cracking noise, like rocks smashing. Paul looks over his shoulder, then at us, and says something that rhymes with “no fit.”

It comes up the side of the quarry, and freezes when it sees us. It’s insectile in a way that makes me think of scorpions, spiders, and maybe crabs…with the key difference being that this thing is at least 10 feet high and half as long as a city bus. It reminds me of some creature-double-feature horror movie monster I saw as a kid – something warped by radiation or a toxic spill.

Roy stands his ground and fires while Paul and I start backpedaling. Roy’s hunting rifle is no use, though – bullets ricochet off the thing’s armor with the kind of twang I’ve previously only heard in movies. He might as well be shooting at solid rock. When it starts moving toward us, and we all turn and run.

Paul and I make it to the cabin only to realize we lost Roy: he’s gone for the Jeep instead. He’s already inside and backing down the overgrown path. Paul and I are cursing him for leaving us…but then the creature lands on the Jeep and starts peeling the sheet metal apart with giant lobster-like claws. It tears the roof off with roughly the effort it would take to open a can of Pringles. Once you pop, you just can’t—

Never mind.

The creature can’t pull wedged Roy out. So it pulls out parts of him instead. He screams and screams, and it eats him in mincing, tidy bites.

Paul and I hunker down and fortify the cabin as best we can. We take stock of our supplies. We push furniture against the windows and doors when the roof groans. The creature is finally done with Roy and has moved on for us. We keep as quiet as possible, hoping it will leave. The creaking and groaning noises eventually stop, but we’re convinced it’s still up there, waiting.

We pass a restless night, whispering escape plans back and forth. None of our ideas are very good. For every idea either of us has, the other quickly points out how it’ll get us killed. We quickly remember it was Roy who brought us here, and Roy who got the Jeep destroyed. Having someone else to blame settles us down.

Stupid, selfish, eaten Roy.

Early the next morning, I feel Paul shaking me. It’s gone, he’s saying. It has to be. It hasn’t made a noise in hours.

He wants to make a run for it. He thinks if we can make it down the trail as far as the tree-line, the creature won’t be able to follow. I think this is a stupid idea, but Paul doesn’t listen. As I’m still disentangling myself from my sleeping bag, he cracks the door, and I realize he’s not waiting around. He turns one last time, urges “Come on!”, and then he’s gone.

I expect the thing on the roof to leap down and grab him, but nothing moves up there, and I realize Paul was right. It’s gone. I’m on the threshold, about to follow, when the creature appears out of the quarry. Paul never gets to test his theory about the tree-line. He doesn’t get nearly that far.

As I slam the door, the roof groans and there is a rumble as something enormous leaps down from it: the first creature never left.

I’m numbed by the realization that there are two of these things. I understand that I’m never going to make it out of here alive. I start searching the cabin frantically, upending furniture, prying at floorboards, convinced there has to be some sort of hidden access point, an underground tunnel leading to safety. Unrealistic, but I keep looking anyway, and I’m still looking when the alarm pulls me out of that cabin.

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Nightmare #365: Spider

(Male, 30’s) On a normal night, one where you wouldn’t expect anything out of the ordinary to happen, I am sitting in my living room, in my favorite spot on the faded couch, when I notice a large spider in the corner. Not only does its appearance frighten me — it has markings unlike a natural spider, with bright red rings around its body and fangs that seem to drip with venom, although I dare not draw nearer to make sure — but I can sense a malevolent aura coming from it. Its strange eyes transfix my own, and I feel myself trying to discern its desire. For it is clear that this spider wants something from me, something bad, but I wake up before I can find out what.

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Nightmare #364: Ruined Vacation

isolated island

(Female, 40s) I was spending Christmas vacation on a tropical island, maybe Hawaii or Tahiti. It was really lovely.But I wandered off to another island and came upon some criminals who were holding 2 people hostage. And so they kept me hostage too.

But I had tickets home for a high school reunion, and rather than expose their plot, the criminals let me go to the reunion. They made me promise to come back or they would kill the other hostages.

The reunion was a a big university library. I saw friends I hadn’t see in years. But I was torn about what I should do about the island hostage situation. Was I supposed to keep it a secret or should I get help?

I decided to tell some of the teachers in charge. At first they were not that interested. They thought I was making up the story or that I was crazy. They didn’t really seem to care at all– until I mentioned the stolen property that the criminals had: some maker-bot 3-d printers and a big yellow robot — 6 feet wide and 6 feet tall. The teachers had only the empty boxes the stuff came in. Seems those things had gone missing so my story might be true after all.

Then I was back as a hostage in the house on the island. The criminals came and they had me hold their gun on one of the other hostages while they tied them back up again. They wanted to make us afraid of each other too. I pointed the gun at the other criminal however and pulled the trigger. I was going to shoot him, but there were no bullets in the gun.

So we hostages decided to escape. Trying to get out of the house, I ran into a man I knew. I asked for help, but it became apparent that he was on the other side. His eyes glowed like LEDs. He’d been brainwashed or taken over; he was going to hurt me, strangle me. So I had to kill him. We fought and wrestled. I was sitting on top of him, finally, and I had to drive a chisel through his neck. It was hard work and bloody, but he was dead. Then there were more people I ran into as I tried to flee the house– a lawyer, an actor, my husband. They all had to be killed in specific ways– with knifes or saws or chisels — through their necks or cutting off their heads. They were possessed and would kill me if I didn’t kill them. I didn’t want to fight them but I had no choice. I just wanted to go home.

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1xRun.com offers classy affordable art

Hail Zombo

Hail Zombo

It’s time to take down that ratty Sisters of Mercy poster, the one you taped to your dorm room wall, the one that’s followed you into this so-called adult life that you’re leading. I understand why you cling to this relic. It reminds you of when you were with-it, when you were relevant. I agree. You need better things to hang on your walls than the soul-less, mass market crap from Kmart. But face it, there’s not a lot left of the paycheck for home decorating. Let me tell you about 1xrun.com.

Every single day, 1xrun.com features a different hip, reasonably priced art print. For a few bucks more, they’ll frame it using archival materials and ship it to you so well packaged and cradled it’s almost like they are home delivering babies or something. The runs are limited editions, signed and numbered and the images are from some of the freshest contemporary artists. I have a whole wall full of pieces by John Dunivant, the crazy genius behind Theatre Bizarre and they’re all from 1xrun. Other folks of interest to DailyNightmare readers are Glen Barr, Mimi Yoon, Chet Zar, Sarah Joncas… seriously, lots of great images. From time to time, 1xrun.com also offers the original art associated with the print run for more serious collectors with deeper pockets. Subscribe to the mailing list at least to slap something interesting in your face on a daily basis.

"The Twins" by John Dunivant from 1xrun.com

“The Twins” by John Dunivant from 1xrun.com

From time to time, 1xrun.com has “Archive Sales” where they sell the final few pieces from some of their recent runs. This is the gold mine, the last-train-to-Clarkesville chance for missed opportunity. For instace, I was able to pick up Dunivant’s “The Twins” from a run printed long before I was hip to 1xrun. If you can keep a secret, there’s another Archive Sale happening this weekend and when I just checked, one of Dunivant’s “Illusionist’s Ball” prints was available, that cool poster from the last Theatre Bizarre but printed on metal.

"The Illusionist's Ball" by John Dunivant from 1xrun.com

“The Illusionist’s Ball” by John Dunivant from 1xrun.com

You took an art history class, didn’t you? You have a taste for the better things, cooler things. 1xrun will hook you up.

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