How-To: Achieve Total Halloween Domination!

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How-To: Achieve Total Halloween Domination!

By Shawn Thorsson

When we started thinking about makers of Halloween wonders who we could invite onto MAKE to share what they do, Shawn Thorsson leapt to mind. This guy doesn’t make costumes and props, he creates something of a reality distortion field around him and his creations. You can’t stand next to one of his, say, mind-bending HALO costumes, and not feel a little bit like you’ve stumbled through Alice’s looking glass. In this piece, Shawn gives a pep talk and invites makers to go for broke (hopefully not literally) in crafting some of that Halloween magic for themselves. “It’s way too late to make anything elaborate for this year’s costume,” you say? According to Shawn, it’s been too late all year. He starts the day after Halloween, so you’re right on track for next week! -Gareth

Shawn’s HALO costumes at Maker Faire Bay Area. Photo by Blake Maloof.

Halloween was made for makers. Let’s face it, there’s only so much fun you can have with homemade Christmas tree ornaments, Saint Patrick’s Day is pretty much limited to food-coloring your homebrew green, and on the Fourth, homemade fireworks are usually a bad idea (or at least that’s what the local police keep telling me).

Halloween is where you really get to flex those maker muscles. It allows you to turn impressing your friends and neighbors into a two-pronged attack, dressing up your home and then yourself. And you can get away with a lot more, too. On Halloween nobody…er.. bats an eye if you spatter your house with blood, cover yourself in brain matter, and leave corpses strewn about your front lawn. The rest of the year, these are considered major faux pas (or at least that’s what the local police keep telling me).

So first, let’s discuss dressing up your home. If you’re a maker, you know that it’s not just about making things, it’s about making just the right thing. Anybody can stop by their local retail outlet a week before All Hallows breaks loose and buy an anemic hoard of plug-in inflatable lawn n’ garden atrocities, but all they’ll get is a passing glance as the neighbors funnel their kids onto the front porch to panhandle candy.

All of this can be yours at Wal-Mart for $19.95. Now that’s scary.

I’m a maker, so a passing glance just isn’t good enough. I want my decor to make the neighbors complain until they get the local zoning board involved. Pro tip: It’s a good idea to make approaching your house such a traumatic experience that you won’t have to buy a ton of candy to give out all night.

Case in point: a few years ago, I decided to dress up my front lawn to look like a cemetery. Rather than buy some cheap vacu-formed cartoon-looking tombstones and tufts of cotton cobwebs, I put in some serious hours. The project hid in my garage until ready to install. Then, overnight, my unassuming suburban yard turned into this:

Nothing says “Halloween” like a seriously morbid eyesore

The fences were cobbled together from PVC conduit and insulation foam, the tombstones were carved from more insulation foam. I hung a man from a tree — no, not a real man — a pile of leftover clothes and a pair of old boots. I even added a motor with an eccentric weight to make the right foot twitch every so often, just to give the kids across the street something to think about as they went to sleep that night, jacked up on sackfuls of candy. My point is, with just a little ingenuity and effort, the same amount of cash you’d blow at the Mega Lo Mart can be turned into something that people will still be talking about years later (albeit in giving thanks for the fact that I’ve since moved).

When I was working on this particular project, I found all sorts of useful resources online. I’m always finding new ones too. For starters, there’s, a listing of how-to articles for making your own haunts more haunted, and then, of course there’s where you can find countless tutorials for making most anything you can think of.

While you’re dressing up your house to disturb the townfolk, make sure not to neglect yourself. For me, there’s nothing worse than the made-in-China PVC jumpsuit bought at the local Halloween pop-up store or Party City that has some sort of character painted on it. Nothing says “I got whatever crap was left over at the last minute” than a cheesy costume-in-a-bag. Then there’s the ever-present parade of cute girls who seem to pick whatever shows off the most skin. Why no class it up a bit and really impress people.

I have a fondness for science fiction to which my last few major costume projects can attest. For me, the goal is to step out on Halloween night looking like I just walked off the screen of a blockbuster movie or video game, or through a portal from another world. The challenge used to be for my outfit to look at least as good as the studio-produced versions, but with the prevalence of CGI in films, I now have to find ways to build things that even Hollywood couldn’t manage making in real life.

Can you guess which one of these guys stands a chance against the hot Slave Princess Leia outfit at the local bar’s costume contest?

If sci-fi’s not your thing, Halloween is equally great for showing off that steampunk mech-suit you’ve been aching to build or your homebrewed superhero or whatever other insanity has been sizzling in the bottom of your brain pan since last year.

Now, I usually recommend getting started on a costume sometime in November. If you’re going to look like you just stepped through a rip in the fabric of spacetime, you’re going to have to commit to some serious hours to cast such an illusion. Unless you have to go off to war or help avert a nuclear holocaust (not unheard of for me) that gives you twelve months worth of prep/build time. Use that time to research and brainstorm the best way to put together whatever outfit you’ve got in mind. Scour the internet and pore over books; watch movies over and over again trying to answer the “how’d they do that?” questions. Sketch out ideas, collect reference images, and read everything you can find to help you out. Then you get to sculpt, mold, cast, paint, sew, break, fix, warp, fit, and refit things to your heart’s content. In my case, I’ll find myself working right up until the last possible second and go out wearing something that still has wet paint on it.

There are a whole host of websites that can help you out with costume projects. I usually start out with, a site wholly devoted to replica props and costumes (my username there is “thorssoli”) and then start Googling from there. There’s also, a site which sells everything you need to sculpt, mold, cast, and paint your own custom latex Halloween masks. Feel like making your own Stormtrooper costume? I learned everything I needed for mine at The main thing, when taking on a major project like this, is to look around to see what everyone else has done, then do it better.

Somewhere along the way, the journey becomes more important than the destination. When I’m done with a costume project, I shudder to think of how much time and money went into it. Wherever I go, I always take top prizes in costume contests, but there’s no better prize than when someone asks “Where’d you get that?” and you get to witness their amazement when you say “I made it.” (It helps if you carry a few progress pictures with you so you have a retort when they cry “bullsh*t!”)

There’s no better time than Halloween to show off your creativity, your maker chops, and your willingness to completely go over the edge. Be warned though, this can be the beginning of an addiction. I’m currently in the planning phases for my 2014 Halloween costume.

6 thoughts on “How-To: Achieve Total Halloween Domination!

  1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    Nice piece!  Thanks Shawn! 

  2. James Patrick says:

    Hehe Morningwood Cemetery…

    1. Useless at SaskView says:

      It’s full of stiffs…

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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