The Art of Darkness

Homemade Shaving Cream

February 4th, 2016 by Cobwebs

Shaving CreamOne of my favorite quick gift ideas is homemade bath products, because people are so often under the impression that they can’t be made at home and you wind up looking like some kind of miracle worker.*

Shaving cream is particularly nice to make yourself; it doesn’t dry the skin like most commercial products, and you can personalize the fragrance as desired. The ingredients are easy to find, either at health food stores or online.

Ingredients
1/3 C virgin coconut oil
1/3 C shea butter
4 Tbsp sweet almond, jojoba, grapeseed, or olive oil, OR 2 Tbsp oil and 2 Tbsp liquid castile soap
10-20 drops of your favorite essential oil*
2 tsp baking soda (optional)
3-4 drops Vitamin E oil (optional)

Directions
In a small saucepan over low heat, stir the shea butter and coconut oil until just melted. Remove from heat, transfer to a heatproof bowl, and stir in the rest of the ingredients. Stir until thoroughly blended, then place in the refrigerator until the mixture solidifies.

Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer (or to a medium bowl if you’re using an electric hand mixer). Whip until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until the cream looks like you could ice a cupcake with it.

Spoon into a jar or tin and keep covered in a cool, dry place. Makes about 8 oz.

*Be sure that the oils you use are skin-safe; some varieties can be irritating. Some nice fragrance blends are 10 drops rosemary/3 drops peppermint, 10 drops lavender/5 drops peppermint, or 5 drops lime/5 drops bergamot.

Note: The baking soda acts as a mild exfoliant, and also makes it a little easier for the razor to cut cleanly. The Vitamin E oil acts as a natural preservative, but the cream will last several months without it. The amount you need for one batch of shaving cream is more or less equal to the amount in a Vitamin E oil capsule.

*I once gave a bar of homemade soap to an acquaintance and she was astonished. She babbled something about, “I thought soap was made of…soap.” Apparently she thought it was quarried out of soap mines or something.

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The Miskatonic Railroad

December 29th, 2015 by Cobwebs

General StoreModel railroading enthusiast John Ott has spent years creating a detailed miniature version of Lovecraft’s Arkham, complete with historically-accurate train engines and cars. He’s mapped out the rail line (with stops at Dunwich, Innsmouth, and similar towns), and all of the buildings have appropriate backstories.

Across Garrison, the Bensalem Building hosts a variety of enterprises. The mesmerists, Drs. Nikola and Mabuse, have set up shop selling questionable cures and “rubber goods.” One of the shady mesmerists can be seen with a female patient in the bay window, doubtlessly trying to convince the young woman how theraputic it would be to reveal the combination to her husband’s wall safe.

Next door, Messrs. Maskull and Nightspore offer astral travel for the adept, with tours of Tormance, Leng, and Barsoom a specialty. One would think they wouldn’t have many clients, but some prominent Arkhamites, namely the Carter family— Randolph, John, and Nick— rely upon them heavily. Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet, a curio shop, occupies the last address. Is that a shining trapezohedron in the window?

Up on the roof, Professor Pickering has his private observatory. Prof. Pickering is famous for having confirmed the sighting of those flashes on Mars a few years back. These days, he’s searching for a ninth, trans-Neptunian, planet— which he calls Yuggoth, for some reason— which he’s sure is there.

There are lots of photos and project details on his site:

The Miskatonic Railroad – Project overview.
Welcome to Arkham – City details and building backstories.
Arkham Wasn’t Built in a Day (or a Night) – Information about lighting and decor.
Deconstructing Arkham Station – Build notes for the railroad station, which was based on a real one in Salem.
Train Number Nine is Missing – A fictional history of the Miskatonic Railroad.

I’m a sucker for highly-detailed miniatures, and Ott’s layout has all kinds of fun stuff (like The Sarnath Theater, with posters advertising an upcoming show: “‘The DOOM’ Comes To The Sarnath, Sept. 24-30.” There’s also a group of workmen hauling a giant squid through the streets on a flatbed). It makes me want to grab a big sheet of plywood and start putting down track.

Ott has also done a couple of other non-spooky layouts, the Salem & Cripple Creek R.R. (inspired by Citizen Kane), and the San Diego and South Coast R.R., depicting San Diego’s gaslamp district circa 1908.

(via BoingBoing)

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Spiderweb Quilt

December 22nd, 2015 by Cobwebs

Spiderweb QuiltPatchwork quilts are a great way to use up leftover scraps of fabric that fall in that awkward area between “too small to use for a project by themselves” and “too big to throw out without feeling guilty.” If you happen to have some scraps of Halloween-print fabric stashed away, this spiderweb-themed lap quilt by Life in the Scrapatch is a brilliant way to use them up.

She made a small version in 2013, detailed here, and then followed up with a larger version the following year. Her instructions are easy to follow, and there are lots of helpful photos.

She uses a couple of tools that you may not have lying around if you aren’t a dedicated quilter, but it’s possible to improvise substitutes (such as using the edge of a plate instead of a curved ruler). I do wonder, though, how a construction method which differs from hers would work out. Her method involves sewing square patches into a pyramid shape, trimming the edges into a triangle that represents a whole “wedge” of the quilt, and then cutting the triangle into pieces width-wise to sew in the black borders. This allows the same fabric to appear on both sides of the border, which is pretty, but if you don’t care about that I’m thinking that it might be easier to work outward from the middle: Cut a small triangle, sew a black strip to its wide end, cut a trapezoid and sew its narrower end to that strip then sew another strip to its wide end, and so on until you’ve built up a full wedge. (This will also give you straighter black borders instead of her curved design but if, like me, you loathe and fear sewing curves it’ll also make your life easier. The spiderwebby vibe should still be clear enough.)

Be sure to check out the rest of the site as well; there are some other great ideas for using up scraps, like this trick-or-treat bag (which would also make a nice tote bag) and this September quilt which features pretty autumnal fabric.

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Creature Comforts

December 15th, 2015 by Cobwebs

Bug SoapHere’s an easy, mildly creepy, stocking stuffer idea that’s a particularly big hit with kids: Soap with a big icky insect embedded inside.

The project uses melt-and-pour soap base, which is easy to work with and doesn’t require any specialized equipment. You can make lots of these in a single afternoon and they’re ready for giving the next day.

The soap base is available at many craft stores and can also be found online at soap supply retailers (I like Bramble Berry) or Amazon. You’ll want to choose a transparent base (instead of something like goat’s milk) to be sure that the bug is visible.*

For nice, uniform bars you might also wish to purchase a silicon soap mold (which should be available at the same suppliers which carry the base); you’ll probably want just a plain bar mold for this project, but they also come in all kinds of fancy styles. You can also use margarine tubs, plastic food-storage containers, or similar items; just make sure that your molds will “give” slightly when twisted, to make it easier to remove the solid bars.

Then all you need are some novelty plastic bugs. You can find these in toy stores, party-supply places, or online. Choose ones that are fairly flat–you don’t want to displace most of the soap–and which don’t have legs or other bits that extend to the edges of the mold.

The soap base will probably have instructions on the package, but the basic method is simply to cut it into chunks and then melt it; either stir the chunks in a saucepan on low heat, or heat them in bursts in the microwave, stirring occasionally. The Dummies site has detailed instructions.

Place the molds on a flat surface. If desired, spray them lightly with vegetable oil to help the bars slip out easily. Pour a thin layer of melted soap into the bottom of the molds and let it sit for a few seconds, then carefully position an insect belly-up in each mold. Slowly pour in soap until it reaches the top of the mold. If bubbles rise to the top, carefully scrape them off using the edge of a knife or spatula.

Let the soap sit undisturbed overnight, then pop the bars out of the molds. They’re ready to use immediately. If you plan to store them for a while, wrap them in plastic wrap and store in a cool dry place. To give as gifts, put them in cellophane bags and tie a plastic magnifying glass to each bag with a bit of ribbon.

You can vary the basic project by coloring the soap and using different inclusions: Embed a spider in a bar of radioactive green, or a set of plastic vampire fangs in blood-red. You could also color the bars to resemble amber and add “fossil” insects for a more Jurassic Park-like vibe.


*If you’re feeling evil, you can use an opaque base instead and not mention the bug. They’ll find it when the soap wears down far enough to expose it.

(Image from Country Living)

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Reindeer Poop and Angel Farts

December 8th, 2015 by Cobwebs

Angel FartsYou can hark to the herald angels, but that isn’t singing.

Homemade candy is a great holiday gift: People appreciate receiving something hand-made, it’s easy to make in large batches, and for relatively little money and effort you can turn out something that looks downright artisanal. Chocolate truffles and divinity are easy candies to master, and if you can give them names that will horrify elderly aunts, so much the better. I’ve even made spiffy downloadable labels for you.

Reindeer Poop

These are chocolate-peppermint truffles since it stands to reason that, just as unicorn poop tastes of cotton candy, the poop of Santa’s reindeer would taste Christmasy. Duh.

10 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped or broken into small pieces
3 T unsalted butter
1/2 C heavy cream
1 T light corn syrup
1 tsp peppermint extract, or 1 T creme de menthe

8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
Festive sprinkles (optional): I used these, but you could use these or these or any of the other zillion search results for “Christmas sprinkles.”
OR
1/2 C Dutch process cocoa powder

Place the 10 oz of chocolate and butter in a medium saucepan and melt together over a double boiler full of simmering water. I sometimes live dangerously and melt directly over very low heat, stirring constantly, but you have to be careful not to let it scorch. Set aside.

Place the cream and corn syrup in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Pour over the chocolate mixture and let stand for 2 minutes. Using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir gently until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Stir in the mint extract or creme de menthe. Pour into an 8″x8″ glass dish and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Use a tablespoon, melon baller, or cookie scoop to scoop the truffle mixture onto the parchment. (If the mixture is too stiff to scoop easily, let it sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes.) Return the sheet to the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

If finishing with cocoa powder, put it into a bowl or pie pan.

If finishing with a chocolate coating, you’ll need to melt and temper the remaining 8 oz of chocolate.* Finely chop it and place two-thirds of it in the top of a double boiler or a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely-simmering water. Place a candy thermometer in the chocolate and stir frequently as it melts. Be careful not to let the temperature exceed 120°F for dark chocolate or 105°F for milk or white chocolate.

As soon as the chocolate is fully melted, remove it from the heat and wipe the bottom of the bowl to remove any condensation (water will cause the chocolate to “seize,” so it’s important to not let any drip into the melted chocolate). Stir in the remaining third of the chocolate a little at a time, letting it melt before adding more.

Once the chocolate is at or below 82°F, place it back over simmering water. For dark chocolate, reheat to 88°F – 91°F. For milk and white chocolate, reheat to 85°F – 87°F.

Try to keep the chocolate at that temperature when working with it; if it begins to thicken too much but is still fairly liquid, it can be gently reheated; if it solidifies you’ll need to re-temper it.

There’s apparently an alternate method, which I haven’t tried, which involves putting a heating pad in a bowl, setting it to medium, and then putting a metal bowl holding the chocolate on top of that. Melt, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate reaches 88°F – 91°F (or 85°F – 87°F for milk/white). Adjust the setting of the heating pad to maintain that temperature.

Remove the truffles from the refrigerator and shape them into balls by rolling them between your palms. The cooler your hands are, the better; using latex gloves helps with that a bit, plus it keeps your hands cleaner. Return the rolled truffles to the refrigerator for 15 minutes to firm back up.

TrufflesIf finishing with cocoa powder, roll each truffle in the cocoa until coated. Return to the baking sheet.

If finishing with chocolate, dip each truffle into the chocolate using a fork. There’s a photo tutorial here that explains how to do that cleanly.

Place the dipped truffle back on the parchment paper. If decorating with sprinkles, sprinkle them over the chocolate before it hardens so they’ll stick.

Let the truffles sit in a cool, dry place for at least one hour. Store airtight in the refrigerator. The truffles taste best at room temperature.

For a different festive flavor, omit the mint extract in the recipe above and instead stir in 1 C chopped dried cranberries and 3 T thawed orange juice concentrate.

You could also vary the flavoring and decoration for these and pass them off as the droppings of other mythical animals. Instead of mint extract, try:

  • Nightmare Poop: Add 1 tsp vanilla extract, 1 tsp cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp cayenne. Decorate with Halloween sprinkles or little edible bones.
  • Unicorn Poop: Add 2 T rose water and 1 T Amaretto. Instead of dipping in chocolate, finish them with a marbled rainbow coating. (Note: I know that I said up above that unicorn poop tastes of cotton candy, but the only cotton candy-flavored truffle recipe I could find are those misbegotten crushed-up-Oreo things and those can die in a fire. I’m sure you could argue convincingly that unicorn poop tastes of roses; if anybody challenges you, ask them exactly how they know.)


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A Wand for an Artistic Witch

October 13th, 2015 by Cobwebs

Wand DetailA few years ago there was a rather excellent blog called “Seeing Things” which was a trove of Halloween projects. And then, one day…there wasn’t. The entire site was deleted without explanation and the whole wonderful archive of ideas was gone without a trace. This was particularly galling to me since I’d had my eye on one of the projects, a wand for an “Art Witch,” because my sister happens to be both an Art History professor and a Wiccan.

Fortunately, the googles are your friend. I was able to dig up enough of the details to take my own crack at the wand, and my notes are below.

Materials

  • Wooden bobbin, for the body of the wand. Vintage hardwood bobbins used in textile mills from the 1890s – 1940s are a common shabby chic/primitive decorative item and are available on eBay, Etsy, or at flea markets and antique stores. I got mine from Stampington. The original post noted that there was probably all kinds of creative energy already stored up in the wood, so…sure, let’s go with that. (If you don’t want to use a bobbin, a largish wooden dowel should work although you’ll have to drill the ends.)
  • Wooden dowel, small enough in diameter to fit snugly into the hole in the center of the bobbin (optional).
  • Cabinet knob, for the back of the wand. The type used for kitchen and bathroom cabinets is about the right size. I used a faceted crystal knob that I picked up at the hardware store, but I really like these crystal balls too. You can use a metal or ceramic one if you prefer. (You could also use plastic but it seems kind of a shame to get a cool wooden bobbin and then stick a cheap plastic doohickey on the end.)
  • Hanger bolt of the correct size to fit the cabinet knob. This is optional, depending upon how you decide to secure the knob to the wand (see instructions below).
  • Crystal bead, for the front of the wand. I hit the beading section of my local craft store and picked up some natural quartz beads (similar to these, although nowhere near as expensive; the strand cost about $3). Any other small pointy thing should work.
  • Wire, for wrapping the wand. I used 20-gauge wrapping wire. It’s available in all sorts of colors.
  • Wire cutters. Additional wire tools like needlenose pliers are not strictly necessary but are really helpful.
  • Decorative elements, to personalize the wand. I used some metal-rimmed tags from Stampington, some vintage Halloween images (see below), a glass capsule bead from the craft store, some wire connectors, charms, and thin copper chain. Most of the items were found on clearance, so choose whatever appeals to you.


    The little round tags were for “inchies,” which is apparently a scrapbooking term, so I looked for round “inchie” images on Etsy. I finally settled on this set, but these and these were close seconds. If you’re feeling intrepid you can create your own set of images using clipart and your favorite graphic software, but I figured it was worth the four bucks to have all of that done for me. (I did use Photoshop to add the words “Art Witch” to one image before printing, but that’s completely optional.)

  • Hot glue and/or wood glue, depending on how you secure the cabinet knob (see instructions).
  • White glue or Mod Podge (optional, depending on your decorative choices).

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Unquiet Books

September 24th, 2015 by Cobwebs

Okay, this thing has been knocking around in my Drafts folder for nearly five years(!), it’s clearly never going to get out of the planning stages and I’m tired of looking at it, so I’m going to dump the half-formed mess on you guys and let you deal with it. (This is why you read this blog; for quality posts like this one.)

Way back in 2011 I mentioned the awesome quiet books made by Julie of Julie’s Blog (at the time she had Star Wars and Star Trek versions; she’s since added Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings). In that post I joked that somebody needed to do an “unquiet book” featuring spooky creatures, and the more I thought about it the more I liked the notion. I jotted down a bunch of possible ideas and then sat on them for five years and here we are today.

So if somebody with more unquiet-book ambition than I feels like taking any of these ideas and running with them, knock yourselves out. Send me pictures.

(The purpose of a quiet book, for anyone still puzzled, is right there in the name: It’s a book containing a series of simple activities meant to encourage small children to shut their piehole play quietly by themselves for a few minutes. The activities usually have the added benefit of helping younger kids learn to perform simple tasks like buttoning a button or tying a shoelace.)

Help the spider finish his web – Lace a ribbon through grommets to complete a spider’s web.

Put Dracula in his coffin – Unzip the coffin and place a felt-figure vampire inside.

Help the ghost find his grave – Follow a stitched line across a graveyard.

Rewrap the mummy’s face – Weaving with ribbons.

Put the pumpkins into their patch – Attach half of a snap closure to the backs of felt pumpkins and place the other halves in a patch of leaves so the pumpkins can be snapped into place.

Turn into a werewolf – Felted glove with claws and fake fur that the child can slip their hand into.

Reassemble the skeleton – Velcro-backed pieces of a skeleton (skull, ribcage, arms and legs) which can be placed in proper order along a fixed-in-place spine.

Dress the witch – Dress-up doll with a few different dresses, hats, and stockings.

Carve a Jack-o’-lantern – Arrange felt eyes, nose, and mouth on a plain pumpkin.

What’s hiding under the bed? – Lift the flap to find simple finger puppets.

Put eyes on the Voodoo doll – Buttons attached to the page, and a felt face with buttonholes that can be buttoned in place.

Help the witch finish her brew – Cauldron with felt shapes like snakes, toads, and bats to tuck into the top.

A couple more ideas that would probably be a little too dark in practice but amuse me in theory:

Help the Aztec priest tear out his victim’s heart – Zippered chest cavity with a removable felt heart inside.

Arrange the skulls of Kali’s victims – Pile up little felt skulls at her feet.

Help the Washer at the Ford do her laundry – Tuck little bloodstained shirts into a pool of water.

Have any other ideas? Share ’em in the comments!

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Unicorn Tears Liqueur

September 23rd, 2015 by Cobwebs

Unicorn TearsThe intarwebs were abuzz recently with the announcement of Firebox’s new Unicorn Tears Liqueur. It’s a cute gimmick: A gin-based liqueur with silver flakes suspended in it, a tear-shaped label with a unicorn design, and a product page which assures you that “Many, many unicorns were harmed in the making of this beverage.”

Unfortunately it’s $62 a bottle, and I don’t know if it’s that cute of a gimmick.

This is doubly true because silver (and gold) flakes are widely available and homemade liqueur is a snap to make. The flakes are used to prettify food and can be found at gourmet shops, stores that sell cake-decorating supplies, or at Amazon. Make sure you get actual metal flakes instead of edible “metallic glitter,” because that type may dissolve in liquid.

Homemade liqueur involves little more than infusing an ingredient(s) of your choice in a neutral spirit like vodka, then adding sugar syrup. There’s a discussion of the general method here, and if you google “homemade liqueur recipes” you’ll find zillions of different ideas: This and this are good jumping-off points. You’ll probably want to choose a recipe that results in something fairly colorless to show off the metal flakes, so coffee-based mixtures are probably out; unicorns don’t strike me as the kind of creature to have caffeine jitters anyway.

You’ll also want to choose a clear bottle to show off the pretty metallic liquid; I like bottles with swing-type lids, but if you want to wax-dip the tops for extra fanciness you’ll probably want to choose something with cork stopper more similar to this type so the wax seal will be nice and smooth.

You can buy wax meant for sealing beer and wine bottles at brewery-supply stores or online; Kings Wax and Blended Waxes have nice selections. However, a lot of home brewers use a DIY mixture of melted crayons and hot glue for a cheap, good-looking result. Bertus Brewery and Brew on a Budget have instructions for that.

For the label, you can create something appropriately unicorn-y on the computer and print it out. You could also stencil (or freehand, if you’re ambitious) the bottle using glass paint, or get really fancy and etch the bottle.

For added decoration you could twist a bit of polymer clay into a miniature unicorn horn, poke a hole in the bottom end, and tie it to the neck of the bottle with ribbon.

You can also branch out into liqueurs “made” from other mythical creatures: Do a reddish cherry liqueur mixed with gold flakes and give the Twilight fan on your gift list a bottle of Vampire Squeezin’s. Caraway-flavored Troll Tears or rose-infused Elf Sweat might be amusing as well.

For about the same price as a single bottle of the retail stuff, you could make a whole lot of pint-sized homemade versions as gifts. And it’s way easier than finding a unicorn and making it cry.

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Quick Gift Idea: Scented Hot Pads

September 16th, 2015 by Cobwebs

Hot PadHere’s a fast, easy gift idea that has the added advantage of letting you use up leftover scraps of fabric: Hot pads and mug mats which give off a spicy autumnal scent when something hot is placed on top.

The fabric you use should be closely woven so bits of spice don’t fall out, and made of some material that won’t melt or discolor when exposed to heat (100% cotton is best).

For the spice mixture:

  • 1 C small cinnamon chips (if you can’t obtain these, put cinnamon sticks in a bag and whack them with a rolling pin or other heavy object to break them up)
  • 1 C anise seed
  • 1 C whole cloves
  • 1 C nutmeg pieces (these can be broken up the same way as the cinnamon, but nutmegs are pretty hard so you may need to use a hammer)
  • 1 C allspice berries
  • 1 C rosemary needles

For each mug mat you will need two squares of 5″x5″ fabric. Place right sides together and stitch sides with a 1/4″ seam, leaving an open space in the middle of one side for turning. Turn right-side out and press. Fill with spice mixture to about 1/2″ thick. Turn in the raw edges and top-stitch the opening. Package four mats together, tied with pretty ribbon, and tuck a cinnamon stick under the ribbon.

(For a fancier version of the mug mats, try The Road to Crazy’s reverse applique tutorial, which produced the cute little Frankenstein cupcake in the photo above.)

For a hot pad, you will need two squares of 8″x8″ fabric. Place right sides together and stitch three sides with a 1/2″ seam, then stitch the corners of the fourth side but leave the rest of the edge open. Turn right-side out and press. Turn in the raw edges on the fourth side 1/2″ and press. Stitch three parallel lines down the square, creating four tunnels of equal width. Fill the tunnels with the spice mixture to at least 1″ thick. Top-stitch the opening.

You can vary the spice mixture as desired, omitting some and adding others. Bits of dried citrus peel are nice, as are lavender flowers or strong-scented herbs. It’s easy to make up a large batch of the mixture and sew lots of hot pads as stocking stuffers or last-minute hostess gifts. If you plan to make the pads well in advance, store them in a plastic bag to keep their scent strong.

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Dollar-Store Grandfather Clock

September 3rd, 2015 by Cobwebs

Clock FrontHoly wow, you guys. Would you ever guess that this grandfather clock is made from cardboard and glued-on props from the Dollar Store?

theundeadofnight shared this project on Halloween Forum, along with a few photos of the build. There are more detailed instructions on his website, but it’s all done in Flash so I can’t link directly. It’s an almost startlingly easy build: The clock case is made from cardboard boxes, the skulls and bat are cut from a styrofoam tombstone, and the clock face is just a cheap plastic wall clock (attached with velcro so the batteries can be changed).

This would be a great prop for a Halloween party, either simply for decoration or to block the entrance to an off-limits part of the house. If you used a cheap single-door cabinet for the tall part of the case (which probably has an official name but I don’t know it; let’s go with Pendulum Containment Unit), you could use the interior space: Stick a bucket with dry ice inside so ominous fog emerges from the cracks, or put in a motion sensor that screams at anyone nosy enough to open the door. You could even keep it up year-’round and use it for storage.

It’s a great-looking prop that doesn’t require a lot of specialized skills to build, so it’s perfect for the amateur home haunter.


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