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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Halloween PropsEVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT HALLOWEEN PROPS
- by Jenna Maxwell

Graphically Realistic. Almost Life-Like! Today's Props are Designed to Scare.

Halloween Props. They sit there quietly enough on your porch--until suddenly they mysteriously, almost magically come to ghoulish life--exactly at the moment when unsuspecting trick-or-treater’s happen by. When stumbled upon in the darkest corners of a Halloween haunted house, these sometimes morbidly grotesque creations will begin to groan and move; forcing you to look at their disgusting faces, which are of course, purposefully meant to send shivers down your spine. Today’s Halloween props are designed to scare--and they can do it quite well--all in the name of good Halloween fun, of course. These graphically realistic, almost life-like Halloween prop characters are popping up everywhere during the Halloween season, having become in many cases, the truly macabre focal point of today’s Halloween decorating. Amazing technology made affordable to nearly every man has made the popularity of these epic Halloween props take on a frightening life of its own. On those cold, dark and spooky Halloween nights, we may soon be asking ourselves, “Is it real?” “Or is it… (gulp)…just a prop?”

Halloween has become one of the most beloved holidays in our nation and it’s no longer just the younger set that is having all the fun. More and more adults are getting into the Halloween spirit each year, and a big part of that tradition is getting really scared…and doing it on purpose! Today’s Halloween props are a great way to set up a truly spooky scene that is perfect for your home Halloween display or to use as a spine-chilling part of a Halloween haunted house or spook alley.

You may be curious as to where all this dark and scary imagery came from in the first place. During the Halloween season, why are we almost celebrating the most frightful aspects of our human existence? Why is it so much fun to celebrate a holiday that focuses so much on the truly dark side of life as well as on being scared? To get the answers to these questions, you have to go way back into history and pay a little bit of homage to the traditions of some of our ancient forefathers.

Samhain: Festival Marking the End of the Harvest Seaason

Over 3000 years ago, in ancient Ireland, pagan people known as Celts had all sorts of rituals, festivals and superstitions that revolved around harvest time and the seasons. A good harvest meant life and survival; a poor harvest combined with a harsh winter could spell disaster, sickness and even death. Because these ancient people relied so heavily on these factors of nature in order to thrive, various customs were put into place in order to properly thank and show appreciation to the gods and goddesses that they felt were primarily responsible for their bounty--or their lack of it. One of these celebrations was Samhain, a large festival marking the end of the harvest season and the onset of winter. During Samhain, there was great feasting, dancing and revelry, which included the lighting of large bonfires. Sacrifices of animals including cattle and horses were made as offerings to the gods that were honored during Samhain; the local people paying the deepest respect to the mysterious powers of nature and acquiescing to their subservience to these powers. In addition to honoring and revering the gods of the harvest, there was also a tradition during Samhain of honoring the dead who had already passed on. These darker and more mysterious parts of the Samhain tradition and practice made the very superstitious general population feel somewhat apprehensive and at times even afraid.

Because these Celtic people of old were a combination of both uneducated and also highly superstitious, they had a lot of very mystical and spiritual explanations and beliefs about the things that they did not understand. For example, during Samhain, these people believed that the spirits of the newly deceased could return to life for the night in order to roam the earth as they wished, comingling amongst the living. This notion might give any of us living in today’s world reason to pause, but keeping in mind the fact that these people had no real science or education to disprove or assuage their somewhat bizarre ideas, these beliefs were instead perpetuated and passed on for many generations, whether there was any actual truth involved or not.

Getting ready for an evening of Samhain festivities that may also be attended by the spirits of the newly deceased was no minor undertaking, and these folks of yesteryear had quite a few interesting traditions that helped them to cope with any fear and/or misgivings that they had about the mystical time surrounding Samhain. With the spirits of the dead sure to be out and about, Samhain celebrating required some necessary precautions on the part of the average villager in order to protect themselves from any spirits that may have malevolent intentions. Food offerings and sweets were often left out for the spirits to eat. Turnips were carved into makeshift lanterns that were fashioned with frightful faces and images cut into them, in order to create a scary deterrent to any evil spirits that may be lurking about. Villagers wore ghoulish-looking masks in order to make it appear as if they were already dead. Villagers surmised that wearing a frightening mask might be enough to scare an evil spirit away. Painting faces and gourds with scary images was another method used to scare off anything remotely evil. Generally speaking, these ancient people would do whatever they felt was necessary to placate the spirits of the dead in order to keep them safely in their graves; this way they could get about their Samhain festivities without as much worry or fear.

Christianity and Halloween: The Night Before All Hallows Eve

The Night Before All Hallows Eve
The festivities, folklore and traditions that surrounded Samhain continued in Europe for many years. When Christianity came to Europe, many of the old Samhain traditions were adapted to suit the church traditions rather than force these beloved annual events to be abandoned altogether. The celebration of “All Saints Day” or “All Hallows Day” assimilated many of the original Samhain traditions into its festivities. The night before “All Hallows Eve” eventually became known as “Halloween.”

The rapid growth of Christianity created some issues, however, for some of the old pagan ways that now clearly conflicted with some of the basic tenets of the church, particularly its old school male clergy members. For example, pagan people of old had wise women in their villages, which were quite familiar with the use of herbs, plants and other natural methods to promote healing and wellness amongst the people. Catholic clergymen were very nervous about any female person that was considered powerful or had any degree of advanced knowledge or wisdom. These female healers were maliciously labeled witches by the church and a great deal of misinformation was subsequently perpetuated about these women who had once been revered. Instead of being touted as women of medicine and healing as they had been previously, the church now called these women the “devil’s handmaids” and insinuated that their powers came from an evil source. These “witches” were often tracked down and severely punished, often to the death for what they were doing, which really hadn’t been anything evil at all. Even still, any woman that was considered to be even remotely powerful during this time period was considered very troublesome to the church. Even women who weren’t acting as healers sometimes were accused of practicing witchcraft, simply because of some other minor infraction or act of bravado that made these early male clergy members very uncomfortable.

Many of the most traditional and classic Halloween props used for Halloween decorating today are based on these very ancient ideas and folklore. The classic Halloween witch, for example, is a concept that actually has little basis in reality but because of the church’s feelings towards potential witches during that time period, her reputation and persona became very tarnished by vicious rumors. Not only were witches accused of actually hobnobbing with the devil, but the witch herself was also reputed as being an old and hideously ugly hag that cackled evilly while she whipped up her devilish brew while casting evil spells on unwilling victims. Her notorious sidekick, the black cat, was also purported to be all sorts of evil things, as well--including being the embodiment of the devil himself. With negative notoriety like this, no wonder villagers became utterly terrified of any potential witches!

Blood, Sickness and Death

Based on the fact that witches or anyone suspected of anything even remotely connected with witchcraft were being hung from the gallows or being burned at the stake, its probably very safe to assume that these were crazy times to be living in as the hysteria in many communities had to be quite palpable.

With most known female herbalists or sensible medical practitioners being accused of being witches and devil worshippers, it’s likely that the church clergy members (who had taken over a great deal of the supposedly more legitimate medical functions in the community) went back to their ancient practices of medicine and treatments that had been practiced for centuries. One of the more common medical treatments that had survived the test of time was what was known as bloodletting.

The practice of bloodletting as a medical treatment goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptians and perhaps even beyond. This basically useless treatment was founded on the false premise that all bodily maladies and ailments in the body are caused by a build up of too much blood. Got a migraine? Well perhaps if a pint of blood is removed from your body you will feel better. Bloodletting was accomplished by using a sharp instrument to nick a vein, after which a significant amount of blood was released from the body. Most common sites for the incision included the forearm or the neck, which as you might imagine would create quite a large amount of blood loss. Suffice it to say, ancient man was no weenie when it came to the sight of blood and bleeding in general. Blood and bleeding were a part of every day life, so when you combine these harsh realities with the general violence of society at the time, you can bet that these folks were fairly hearty when it came to seeing and dealing with any level of blood and guts.

For literally thousands of years, when an individual got sick, the go-to treatment continued to be bloodletting. If you were lucky, you might get to have some blood sucking leeches placed on your body to suction out the blood instead of getting cut in order to bleed it out, but up until the late 1800’s, bloodletting as a medical treatment was still very much a part of every day life. Sickness and death thus went hand in hand with bleeding--even if you weren’t violently injured, if you were ill, you likely were made to bleed to a certain degree before it was over. The true miracle is probably that many people survived all this nonsense, although countless people were not so lucky.

George Washington was said to have woken up one day with a severe sore throat. Being an advocate of bloodletting himself, George Washington called to have this procedure done to him, in hopes that he would feel better as he had begun to decline rapidly. Six or seven pints of blood were removed from our first president that day in less than a sixteen-hour span of time. It is speculated that George Washington died of excessive blood loss that day, his death probably having nothing to do with the illness he had been suffering from.

For thousands of years, blood and bleeding was not only a part of daily life, but it also became associated oddly enough with healing. Because of how common the practice of bloodletting was throughout the ages, even those who had not died a violent or gruesome death probably experienced a certain degree of blood loss before they eventually passed on, as medical practitioners likely caused them to bleed out in an attempt to heal them. Because of such practices and the general violence of life/society at the time, extreme blood loss and death thus became irrevocably linked.

Immigrants, Tradition and Halloween

When the Irish Immigrants came to America in droves during the potato famine that occurred between 1845 and 1852, they brought with them many of their ancient traditions from the old country that had been passed on to them for thousands of years. Although America was a budding new country, many of the celebrations we have currently in our modern day began as traditional customs that came to America with new immigrant people. Many of our modern day Halloween props have their roots in the folklore and practices of old.

Pumpkins, for example, were found to be in relative abundance in the new land and were quickly assimilated into Halloween practices. In the old country, turnips had been used to create the scary faced lanterns that were used to scare off evil spirits. Now with pumpkins being far easier to come by than turnips, these brightly colored gourds were a practical substitute for the turnip and at the same time, the tradition of the Jack-o-Lantern was born.

Because all types of fall foliage were ever present during the celebration of Halloween, these autumn elements of nature were also quickly adapted into Halloween decorating and are still a major source of inspiration for today’s favorite Halloween props. Fall leaves, scarecrows, crows, and of course, pumpkins were often used to celebrate and decorate for Halloween in addition to the very dark and frightful images that had been used to mark the festivities since the days of Samhain.

Literary Influences

Long before there were movies and television, there were literary works that laid the groundwork for future Halloween scares, creating monsters that would become a critical part of all future Halloween traditions. These frightful characters would not only forever change the world, but would also become associated with Halloween from that time forward as they contained some of the most classic Halloween monsters out there. Some of the most common works of literature to bring us some of our most favored Halloween monsters include Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, Jane C. Loudon’s “The Mummy”, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and Guy Endore’s “The Werewolf of Paris.”

Hollywood Influences

Prior to 1968, beginning some time in the 1930’s, a motion-picture production code had been in place that strictly dictated the level of obscene or graphic content that could be used as part of any movie. This rigid production code was also responsible for ensuring that any extreme levels of brutality and gruesomeness in a film would be censored out. In 1968, this production code was set aside so that movies could offer viewers something they could not get at home, because by this point in time, nearly every home in America had their own television
set in their living room. The production code that had been enforced for nearly forty years was now virtually impossible to keep in effect, and it was eventually abandoned, opening the door for more violent, frightening and scary movies than there had ever been before. The MPAA rating system now dictated what groups of viewers could see various movies, and movie consumers who wanted to see something created for more mature audiences could now do so if they met the MPAA’s criteria.

With the absence of this very restrictive production code, movie directors quickly learned that the population at large actually enjoyed scaring themselves and there were plenty of audiences that weren’t put off by violent images. The more horrific and frightening the movies were, the more people seemed to enjoy them. The 1974 movie, “Black Christmas” followed by 1978’s “Halloween” introduced to audiences a new genre of film that would become known as the “slasher” film. Slasher films became notorious for their extreme levels of violence, often involving a mysterious stalker/murderer, an evil force at play, as well as very extreme levels of graphic violence. Through the years, many slasher films would be made, but the most notorious forerunners of this violent movie genre were “Friday the 13th”, “The Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream”.

When it comes to the scariest, not to mention the most hideous of all of today’s modern Halloween props, you can see an obvious and very clear correlation between the images that have been seen in your favorite Hollywood horror movies and those that are now being depicted and reenacted in your neighborhood’s most frightening Halloween displays. The high level of sophistication found in the latest Halloween props likely owes a large degree of credit to Hollywood and the props and makeup that are used to make many of your favorite horror flicks. The best Haunted houses use a lot of horror movie-inspired themes to set up the scariest rooms and haunted displays imaginable. Gruesome, frightening as well as very life-like Halloween props are a huge part of these memorable scenes found in these made for Halloween venues. Halloween props have become so realistic and graphic that it’s often hard, if not impossible to distinguish them from a real person that is heavily made up.

Types of Halloween Props

When it comes to Halloween props, there are a few distinguishing factors that will help you to decide how to best meet your Halloween decorating needs. Do you want your Halloween prop to almost interact with people? Many of today’s most exciting (not to mention scary) Halloween props will light up, speak, move or even make fog or smoke--all special effects that are sure to create a truly eerie and creepy ambience, perfect for Halloween decorating. Other Halloween props can be scary enough just by sitting there looking truly insidious. Still other Halloween props fit into to a more fun-loving and family friendly variety, including the newest inflatable Halloween props that have taken America by storm. These inflatable props almost instantly create brightly colored, bold characters with a much more lighthearted flair.

Animated Halloween Props

The use of very realistic and sophisticated animated props is one of the fastest growing trends in Halloween decorating. These truly amazing props are created to not only look amazingly lifelike, but when activated, they will also behave in a morbidly lifelike way as well. Realistically gruesome features and large sized bodies make these props look as if they almost could have risen from the grave themselves; which in many cases is sort of the point.

Although animated Halloween props are going to vary a bit individually from prop to prop, there are many clever features built into the items in this genre that are going to add both spectacular and frightening details to your Halloween décor. Animated props will often light up, making sounds and motions. The prop’s animation is usually set into action in one of three different ways and can be set according to what best suits your needs. One setting an animated prop has is an “on” setting that turns the prop on and the prop will then run continually. Other times, a prop can be set so that a step pad will turn the prop on when it is touched or stepped on. One of the most exciting features of animated props is the infrared sensor setting. This setting will detect motion from up to about 6 ft. away and will set the prop into action when it senses motion. This particular setting is great for when you want your prop to remain still and completely inactive when no one is around, but you want it to come to life when someone comes into the prop’s proximity.

Many animated props are actually life size and once fully assembled will be close to the size of an adult human being. Props often operate off of a normal 110 v. electrical cord connection, but some also offer the flexibility of battery operation as well. When shopping for an animated prop, it’s always a good idea to keep in mind what power source is available where you want to place the prop and decide if you want to be able to plug the prop in or rely on battery power for its use.

Most animated props will require a little bit of assembly, but with just a few simple steps you can have your prop up and running quickly and easily. It’s a good idea to save the box that your prop came in as it makes a great way to store and keep your prop clean and protected when it isn’t in use. Because most animated props run off of electricity, you will definitely want to be mindful of where you are going to place the prop so that damage doesn’t occur. Props should always be kept out of the elements in a covered area.

Depending on the animated prop you choose, you are immediately going to note it makes a variety of distinctive sounds that are appropriate to its particular character. Animated props offer a wide variety of ghoulish gasps, hisses, moans, groans, screams or cackles that are uttered as your prop almost comes life. These sounds will set an eerie mood and can be heard even from a distance when your prop can’t yet be visualized. Some of these sounds are unbelievably scary. Most animated props come with a convenient volume control switch on the prop itself, so that the scary sounds can be turned up or turned down to best suit your needs.

Stationary Props

Sometimes you don’t need sound or motion in order to decorate for Halloween or to create a scary vibe. The variety and types of stationary props is vast and depending on what type of scene you are trying to set, with the right Halloween props your Halloween display can convey anything from a fun and friendly feeling to something that is far more scary and creepy--even something truly very gruesome, vile and macabre if that is your desire. The choice is yours and the selection of Halloween props available today will give you plenty to choose from as you are deciding what to buy that will best meets your Halloween needs.

When deciding what kind of specialty props to use for your Halloween display, take into consideration a few different factors. If your Halloween props are going to be visible to the general public and your home will be visited by many people at Halloween time, including very young trick or treaters, you may want to keep the level
of fright to a minimum and the Halloween scares to a level intended to be mostly fun and not go too far overboard with the gory details. If you are setting up a haunted house or spook alley that can be monitored so that young children or others aren’t going to get frightened unnecessarily or inadvertently, then you can arrange your haunt to be a lot more spooky or even quite hideous, with many cool special effects in place if you so desire.

Stationary Halloween props can range from items that are considered to be more fun and festive to those that are truly gory, bloody and gruesome--and some of these props can be shockingly realistic. If conjuring up some serious fright is what you are after, choosing the right Halloween props will quickly help you get the job done. All Halloween props can be even further enhanced by the addition of appropriate backdrops, cool lighting, sound effects, fog machines, and sometimes even a little bit of simulated blood and guts! It’s up to you how far you want to go with your display, but the right Halloween props will always be the beating heart of all that says “boo” this Halloween.

The Haunted House

The idea of a haunted house clearly has its roots in very early Halloween folklore that goes back for thousands and thousands of years. Even the earliest man had fears that surrounded the concepts of death and dying along with a general apprehension about the world that lay beyond the grave. Haunted houses being set up as a Halloween entertainment venue are a fairly recent invention however, and have only gained popularity and momentum in recent years.

During the early days of the twentieth century, sideshows, freak shows, circuses and carnivals were increasing in popularity amongst the masses. Crowds of people would flock to see natural oddities as well as anything considered to be bizarre or unnatural. Bearded ladies, Siamese Twins, unusually small or large people, or people with strange skin conditions that enabled them to be nicknamed cruelly with monikers such as “Leopard Lady” or “Alligator Boy,” were just some of the “freaks” that were touted by these traveling shows that would bring in crowds of people. Although hardly considered to be haunted houses, these shock-filled shows are a likely predecessor of the horror filled haunted houses that many folks enjoy today. Clearly the adrenaline rush that comes with visualizing something frightening and perhaps even a little heinous can be euphoric, enjoyable as well as thrilling.

During the 1950’s, a new kind of somewhat shocking music had cropped up and by the 1970’s, this new genre of tunes had literally roared into popularity, being fully embraced by many of the more youthful masses. This new kind of music became known as “Shock Rock.” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins can likely take credit for being the first to bring this type of rock and roll to the stage as he creepily climbed out of a makeshift coffin to croon his infamous song, “I Put a Spell on You”, while he nearly screamed the lyrics while making animalistic sounds into a skull-shaped microphone. This musical artist opened the door wide for many more who would follow with even more crude and outlandish behavior, all while crowds of screaming fans went crazy for the uproarious and sometimes horrific shenanigans. Alice Cooper, KISS, W.A.S.P., Iggy Pop, The Ramones, Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, AC/DC and Marilyn Manson are just some of the more notorious shock rock musicians who have reached infamy based on some pretty crazy behavior used in combination with rock and roll music. The crowds of fans at these concerts are evidence enough of the general acceptance of shock rock. Although not exactly a haunted house, you can bet that some of the ideas for what would follow in many ensuing haunted places may have come as inspiration from these musical forebears.

Groups such as the Jaycee’s and the Kiwanis Club set up many of the earliest haunted houses as fundraisers during the 1960’s and the early 1970’s. The popularity of Halloween was resurging beginning in the 1950’s and as time had gone on, the ways of celebrating this new American favorite holiday began to grow. Haunted houses, haunted hay rides, haunted mazes, and haunted forests began to crop up in big cities all over America and today during the Halloween season, most every community has its own version of one of these ever popular venues.

Haunted houses and other set up scary venues are based on the premise of creating fear in a controlled environment. Patrons know they are going to be scared, shocked, grossed-out, and exposed to really frightening images but because they also know on some level that not any of it is actually real, the fear then becomes almost enjoyable or even in some cases, euphoric. Because of this extreme level of excitement and the big rush that is experienced when visiting any of these frightening venues, the allure of these haunted places becomes almost irresistible.

Haunted houses are filled with a wide variety of Halloween props, both animated and stationary as well as lots of other gory and gruesome items being put effectively on display. Antiques and cobwebs are used to create an old haunted and ghostly vibe. Actors are an important part of haunted venues as well and they are trained specifically to jump out unexpectedly in order to startle the haunted house visitors while they get into their scary character. Effective lighting that is used to set a creepy mood is a critical and important part of a haunted house set up. In addition to lots of dim lighting throughout to keep things very dark, haunted venues also will use a lot of strobe lights, flickering or flashing lights as well as black lights to set a frightening mood and to also effectively scare patrons. Lighting can be a very effective way to quickly disorient a person, thus upping the fear factor substantially--especially if a way out of the scariness cannot be immediately recognized. The clever use of fog, smoke or mist machines are also other ways these haunted venues can easily create a truly eerie and spooky mood.

Halloween Props. They have their origins deep in the past but their role in the future of Halloween is quite clear. As technology progresses, our modern Halloween props will bring to life the visions of the things that our ancient forefathers feared the very most. Today, through the use of these amazing Halloween props, each of us can literally come face to face with some of the ghastliest things out there and not only survive the experience, but have some serious Halloween style fun at the same time.

Happy Haunting!
Jenna Maxwell Halloween Author+Jenna Maxwell
Halloween Author for HalloweenExpress.com
You can follow Jenna on Google+ as well as our costume blog where she's a frequent writer about all things Halloween including Halloween costumes, trends, decor, and party ideas.

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