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The Newsroom: Articles

ACCENT: The Witching Hour --

How to stir up a cauldron of thrills and chills for a frightful Halloween party

October 22, 2000
The Star Ledger (Newark, NJ)
By Beth D'Addono For the Star-Ledger

Some people go for the cutesy approach when it comes to planning a Halloween party. Sweet little ghosties, cunning little witches, wacky rubber bats. Not you. You want your guests to be afraid…to be very afraid. You want a spine-tingling, hair-raising, heart-stopping kind of a party. A party not for crybabies.

"Halloween isn't just for kids," said Cliff Witmyer, proprietor of Fun Ghoul Costume Company in Rutherford. "It's really become an adult holiday in the last 10 years."

Witmyer said one of his customers last year spend $75,000 on a Halloween party - complete with spooky catering and wait staff dressed as cast members of the "Rocky Horror Picture Show".

If you're throwing a Halloween bash, make sure your guests get the idea as soon as they open their invitation.

Phyllis Cambria, co-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Throwing a Party" (Alpha Books, $18.95), offers one creative invitation idea. "Create an obituary or newspaper story in The Tombstone Gazette describing the death of an unnamed guest to take place at the party. Ask your friends if they're brave enough to come find out who the victim might be," said Cambria, an award-winning event planner. Once you've got your victims lined up, it's time to create the experience.

Before you go to town inside the house, don't forget about making a spooky first impression outside.

Dorice Dionne, senior vice-president of merchandising for, an on-line party store that has 33 retails outlets in New England and Florida, said that sales of exterior decorations for Halloween are the fastest-growing area of the business, "I wouldn't be surprised if Halloween surpassed Christmas as far as decorations in the near future," she said. "People create tableaus, entire scenes that their guests have to pass through before they even get to the front door."

Witmyer said theme parties are big. "The '70s are hot right now," Witmyer said. "I can't keep those John Travolta ("Saturday Night Fever") suits in stock. The whole Austin Powers-Felicity Shagwell thing is big. The '80s are coming up. People are doing dead '80s rock-star parties or dear Hollywood people. They're getting kind of creative."

There are other transformations afoot, too. Your car can become a monster mobile, complete with skeleton passengers and a headless driver. Transform your front yard into a graveyard, populated with zombies and the odd amputated hand. If one carved pumpkin is spooky, multiply that by 10. Stencil kits that transform innocent pumpkin into a screaming mask of horror are sold everywhere. A tree in the front yard can become home to realistic bats, crows and even a few hanging monsters. Uplights can be fitted with orange bulbs to cast spooky shadows on trees and walkways. There are all kinds of remote-controlled and motion-activated decorations that can jump out at your guests as they walk up to the house - just to get their blood pumping. A soundtrack of rattling chains and screaming ghosts is another crowd pleaser.

When it comes to decorating the inside of your house, the first thing you have to do is change your style of interior design. We're not talking about major renovations, or the kind of Martha Stewart set-building that will mean giving up your day job. But if you're going to scare your friends, they have to forget that they're in your house. That sweet family photo taken at Christmas - it's gotta go. Ditto your antique doll collections and country kitchen accessories. What you want to do is create a haunted house atmosphere, a dark and dreary cave, and a spooky Halloween café.

Wendy Moyle, president of Shindigz, an on-line party superstore that carries some 15,000 mood-setting items, offers these tips. "Blacken everything," said Moyle. "You want the house to be as black as possible. The idea is to disorient your guests, to make them feel uneasy." Black gossamer, available at most party supply stores. Is wispy black fabric about the texture of a dryer sheet, that can be hung from clotheslines suspended from the ceiling. Candles and a black light, or a strobe light, add to the effect. A black light, which will set you back about $25.00, can be used along with creepy glow-in-the-dark skulls, monster faces and spiders.

"For our parties, we make each room a different theme," Moyle said, who throws two parties every Halloween, one for her three kids and their friends, the other for hapless grown-ups. "One room can be a tunnel and maze, the other a graveyard, complete with stuffed mummies and zombies. Use the element of surprise as often as you can." Spider webs should be everywhere - that feeling of something brushing against your guests skin, getting in their hair, is most effective. One effective scare tactic is to place "disgusting body parts" around for your guests to touch. Thick bologna can become a monster tongue, cooked spaghetti makes great guts, pickles are hacked off toes, hard-boiled eggs are good eyeballs and a bowl of quivering gelatin makes a perfect brain.

Now that they're in the mood for food, what's on your Halloween party menu? A cardboard coffin splattered with red paint makes an excellent buffet centerpiece. Dry iced placed around an unassuming punch bowl turns it into a bubbling cauldron. Monster hands - latex gloves filled with juice and frozen, can float in the punch or be used in the cooler. Gourds, squash and pumpkins can be hollowed out and used to serve everything from dips and salsa to guacamole - another potentially gross looking food.

"You're only limited by your imagination, "said Moyle. "Halloween is my favorite holiday - because you can really act out fantasies, and be someone else." What does she do about the occasional bashful guest who didn't don a costume for the party? "We always have extra hats, masks and makeup around. Once they see how much fun everyone else is having, before you know it, they're inspired.

"Superheroes are especially popular with the guys - I guess every guy has a fantasy about being Superman." There are some perennial costume favorites, according to Witmyer. "Elvis is a staple. We never have a problem renting him", Witmyer said. "Marilyn Monroe will always be hot." Witmyer said people also will do costumes tied to current event like the O.J. Simpson trial and Monica Lewinsky's notoriety.

The hottest figure in the news for costumes this year: Hillary Clinton. "She's the President's wife and she's running for office," Witmyer said. "Usually the presidential candidates sell better, but unfortunately, the candidates this time around are a little on the boring side. Nixon still outsells everybody. He's our No. 1 president."

Witmyer said that, unlike "Titanic," there hadn't been a big movie that inspired people to dress up. "There was no movie this year that took the world by storm," Witmyer said. "Titanic' is still hot. We do a lot of frozen people from "Titanic.' At this time of year, I have five makeup artists working. It takes a while to do the ice chips on the faces."

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