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Homespun Halloween

It doesn't take a giant inflatable spider to make your home into a kid-friendly haunted house

By Heidi Stevens, Tribune Newspapers

October 11, 2011

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Costumes or not, parents are often unrecognizable at Halloween — dishing out unseemly amounts of candy, encouraging their kids to ring strangers' doorbells, paying good money for cobwebs. (Cobwebs!)

Nothing wrong with that. Spirit of the season and all. Still, we decided to go in search of ideas for folks who want to celebrate Halloween in all its creepy, crawly glory without completely taking leave of their senses.

"There's a fine line between scary and creepy," says Kelly Ladd-Sanchez, lifestyle editor for Parenting magazine. "We've got a couple of haunted houses in my neighborhood that terrify kids and their whole night is ruined. You want fun creepy, not scary creepy."

At the Children's Museum of Indianapolis' Haunted House — ranked among the top 10 haunted houses in the U.S. by Rand McNally and routinely pulling in upward of 60,000 visitors in a season — the organizers plan "lights on" hours, so younger patrons aren't, literally, haunted by the experience. That's just one of their clever twists on the traditional haunted house.

"The biggest thing is to be creative and think outside the box," says Alli Stitle, Indianapolis Children's Museum Guild member and one of the haunted house's lead organizers. "We have a theme that changes every year, so it's fun to create costumes around that, decorate in those colors, have activities, games and crafts and food choices all around the theme."

Three ideas:

Vamp it up: Take a cue from pop culture — and the folks in Indy — and turn your home into a vampire villa. "Our theme is vampire vacation, so each room is a different dead-stination," says Stitle. "Dead-tona Beach, Count Rushmore, New Gore-leans."

Think lots and lots of hanging black bats, giant rats, plastic spiders, gray drop cloths and, yep, cobwebs.

"We do place settings to look like a haunted dinner table with bugs and dirty plates, and we fill the glasses so they look like they're filled with blood," says Stitle. "You don't have to make it expensive. Lots of black paint and household props like old clothes turn it into a really spooky environment."

Get mummified: "We always think black and orange for Halloween, but an all-white party throws in a modern twist and adds something a little unexpected," says Ladd-Sanchez. "You can focus the whole party around mummies, which are a traditional Halloween symbol."

White gauze will take you far, allowing for pumpkins, dolls and just about anything your heart desires to be made into a mummy. Throw in a few other touches of white: white pumpkins, paper ghosts, white bowls filled with yogurt-covered raisins, white M&Ms, white mints and, Ladd-Sanchez's personal fave, a chandelier made of bones.

A show of hands: If you're catering mostly to younger kids, you may want to skip the whole "haunted" thing and just make your house a Halloween haven with festive food and a few gross-out activities thrown in for good measure.

"Kids are very tactile," says Ladd-Sanchez. "They love to be involved in that old school kind of fun where you blindfold them and have them stick their hands in bowls full of cold spaghetti (aka brains) and peeled grapes (eyeballs). You see them going 'eww, eww, eww,' but they're having fun."

Deviled eggs can be made to look like bloodshot eyeballs with a black olive slice and a dash of paprika, and bat, witch and ghost-shaped cookie cutters can turn blah sandwiches into edible decor.

"I also like the carvable, foam jack-o'-lanterns you can find at craft stores," says Ladd-Sanchez. "You can paint them fun colors or paint faces on them or use razor blades to cut designs on them."

Easy upgrades

Oddball jack-o'-lanterns: If you're buying pumpkins anyway, look beyond the typical round, orange varieties and try your hand carving green, white, striped and oddly shaped pumpkins.

Old school games: Kids have nearly forgotten what it's like to try to capture a caramel apple hung by a string. Give it a try, and while you're at it, split into pairs and see who can "mummify" their partner first using rolls of toilet paper.

Luminarias: Not just for Christmas, brown paper bags with sand and a battery-operated candle inside can be spooky fun along the front walk. Crumple the bags a little first. Or give your kids a bat stencil to decorate them first.

Minimal costumes: Not one to don Cinderella's swishy gown? Opt for a wig, and play everything else straight. Or go for a crazy hat or makeup — just a touch of lunacy is enough to delight trick-or-treaters at the door.

A grown-up treat: The best trick-or-treat destinations? The houses where friends and neighbors offer up a little grown-up treat at the door (usually just for parents they know well). Mulled cider (spiked or not) is always a hit and a perfect taste of fall.

hstevens@tribune.com