This Halloween was almost in danger of just being yet another talking skeleton. We were short on time, so building-out a new theme didn’t seem achievable. We purchased a couple more skeletons (you can never have enough skeletons) and built a couple new props including a treasure chest. The Jolly Roger and Pirates of the Caribbean samples we had from the last time we did pirates.
It’s difficult to beat a pirate theme. The story elements are universal. If we had put more effort in it we would not have gotten a better response. The goal is to set the mood with props and then hit all the emotional buttons with lighting and music. There’s no big scare which is good and bad. It’s good that people get the theme. It’s bad that there’s no gag to scare them. The gag is a challenge to achieve and not really something we have ever gotten right.
The talking skeleton was run as a stand-alone prop with its own audio and control system based on an Adafruit Audio FX Mini sound board triggered by a retro-reflective light sensor. The rest of the system ran on the VenueMagic show controller triggered by a light beam sensor. As usual, the audio system was pushing enough power to make you think there were real canons being fired.
We have been wanting to improve on our 2007 Tiki theme. That year we made a giant African mask. The mask spoke and rolled its eyes and we planned on using those features to create a circus barker-like character in a somewhat elaborate interactive display.
The show didn’t make it as far as we wanted. They never do, but this year we scrapped the interactive elements and the production became an exercise in set decoration. The porch was clad with reed fencing and jungle vines. Shrunken heads on bamboo pikes. Two Maori warrior shields. Or at least our interpretation of what a vaguely Polynesian warrior’s shield should look like.
There is some debate as to how far tiki should stray from Polynesian culture. To be authentically tiki, the environment must be:
Our take on tiki is that in addition to the above it must be comfortable or romantic and include anything that might wash up on a tropical beach. Over all it must be a form of escapism. Start with a South Pacific island, imagine what floats in from South America, Japan, India and Africa. Then light a torch and pour a drink. That’s tiki.
Our incorporation of tiki into Halloween was only half intuitive. The dark and mysterious aspects are well suited, but the exotic parts not so much. We decided that defining the story to be about headhunters would make the theme more palatable to kids.
For the music, we went straight to exotica. Les Baxter, Martin Denney, The Left Arm of Buddha, and The Tikiyaki Orchestra. Is this what a headhunter listens to? Doesn’t matter. Slower tempo songs added to the feeling of mystery and suspense. The genre speaks the language of adventure and – somewhat surprisingly – it is decipherable by people of any age.
When adding detail, shadow is as important as light. With vines covering the doorway, the darkened space behind added as much to the suspense as the foreground elements. We tried to make the body of the house as dark as possible to put focus on the themed elements. The most detailed element being the jack-o-lantern pineapple tucked into the corner of the porch. It was the kind of Easter egg that makes tiki great.
We did make a couple contributions to technology. The first were musical warrior shields. Each shield make a sound when hit. This was a subtle feature that no one picked up on unless shown, but it was fun for little kids. Each shield had a piezo trigger connected to an electronic percussion controller. The controller triggered the “Tiki Threat” patch on an E-mu Proteus sound module. Good old 90’s music technology made even better for having an obviously named sound choice.
The other new feature were the self-flaring tiki torches. There is nothing that a little propane can’t fix. Just add a solenoid valve, a regulator, and some copper tubing and you’re off to the races. They were connected to the VenueMagic show control system that gave all the lighting a soft, flame flicker. The occasional burst of flame kept people ready for the unexpected.
Out of the 258 kids to come up our stairs, about half correctly identified the theme as “tiki.” That’s impressive. Tiki is most often identified with adult diversions, but it creeps into pop culture everywhere. It wouldn’t be a surprise if children picked it up from a trip to Disney World or an old episode of Scooby Doo. Wherever they got it, the theme was much better received than we planned.
Choosing a theme for Halloween is an annual challenge. Time constraints in recent years have tempted us into punting; at least to the extent that our theme becomes diluted into “do something scary.”
Technology is often the catalyst. We started off decidedly low-tech with the purchase of a sharkstooth scrim remnant. We had enough material to cover the doorway or a large prop, but using the scrim requires control over lighting near the house.
Scrim can be made opaque by shining a light on it at an oblique angle. By changing the lighting, the scrim can be made transparent; thus, revealing the area behind. To get the lighting right, you pretty much need to start out with complete darkness. Streetlights near out house make that difficult.
The solution (as if this were a problem requiring a solution) was to stretch the scrim vertically. We were then free to hide something scary above the heads of the unsuspecting trick-or-treaters. That scary thing would be a talking skeleton.
We already owned a skeleton with a servo controlled jaw, but it is heavy and advancements in skeleton technology using space-age lightweight materials made the purchase of a new skeleton an imperative. This made hanging the skeleton easier. Hanging the scrim required building a steel frame around the porch. That took way too much time.
The lighting could have been controlled in a number of kludgy, hacked-up ways, but it seemed like an investment was in order. Since we try to make the display as interactive as possible, we decided to buy VenueMagic, a software show controller. VenueMagic makes it very easy to add lighting and music cues that can be triggered by pressure mats and light beam sensors.
The triggers were attached to the 90’s era Maris hardware show controller we got off eBay a few years ago. The Maris is a pain in the butt to program, but it is easy enough to make it send a MIDI message when a trigger is tripped. VenueMagic uses the MIDI message to cue lighting on the stairs, sound effects and ultimately, the skeleton gag.
We also got additional amplification providing four 200 watt channels of audio. The dialog, music and sound effects were mixed into three channels. The dialog starts at the center channel then is spread to the side channels after a thunder and lightning cue. The thunder was set to “maximum impact” volume and that took out the small speakers in the yard. The speakers were replaced just before the witching hour.
We still had one channel left. At the last second we decided to add a cat screech next to the stairs. The cat, which took less than an hour to setup, would become the big scare of the display.
We had about 220 kids this year – a little less than last year. The display ended up being more fun than scary and the entire experience was less than a minute long. But we had fans – a pack of little girls who visited so many times that they ultimately tried to scare us. That made it worthwhile.