Growing up in The Most Haunted Town in Kansas, I've heard my share of ghost stories. Whether it's the tale of the drowned woman who calls to men from her watery grave in the Missouri River or Molly, who lets out blood-curdling screams in the park at midnight, the spooks that call Atchison home are legendary. And they scare the socks off me!
But even though I am the world's biggest chicken, I can't resist the fun of throwing a Halloween soiree at my historic home, dressing it up so it looks like a haunted Victorian mansion. Why not join in the fun and throw a sensationally sinister dinner party of your own?
SET THE STAGE: From the moment guests approach your front door, let them know they are in for a spine-tingling good time. Line your walkway and flank your door with lanterns filled with flickering, battery-operated candles. Surround the lanterns with clusters of leering jack-o-lanterns or ghoulish green pumpkins.
Hang a piece of creepy artwork on your door, like a photocopy of a cadaver from an old anatomy textbook or an old clock face ominously stuck at midnight. One year, I decorated my front door with a bull's-eye mirror that distorted the faces of guests when they looked into it. Finish with some gnarly sticks painted black and a few spiders.
FRIGHTFUL FOYER: I love to serve drinks and appetizers in my foyer so guests have a chance to congregate before being ushered into the dining room. To turn your entry into a spooky reception area, pull in a table set with crystal decanters holding spirits, or create a witches' brew in an elegant punch bowl. To shroud the room in a mysterious mist, add dry ice.
Fill tarnished silver trays with dark and sinister-looking appetizers, such as plumbs, blackberries, black grapes and figs. If you want to get really icky, put fake vermin like rubber bugs, snakes or a rat around the serving platter.
Whether or not you start your party in your foyer, make sure this all-important space reflects the spooky mood you created at your front door. For instance, work a lacy, pre-made spider web into the arms of your chandelier, then suspend little wire spiders from fishing string. Create a macabre display on an entry table: Prop a skull atop a cake plate covered with a glass cloche, then elevate the stand on a stack of classic tales of horror, like "Frankenstein." Add in a greenish gray pumpkin with a raven perched on top.
DREADFUL DINING ROOM: Bring out the silver, crystal and china, and set the most opulent table you can imagine. Then creep it up with a few terrifying touches. Cover your candelabra with webs made of cheesecloth or scrim. Roost bats in your chandelier. Fill flower vases with blackened hydrangeas and carnations. Slip wart-covered rubber toads in guests' water goblets. Put rubber bugs on dinner plates.
The goal is for your tablescape to tell the story of a beautiful dinner party that was mysteriously interrupted, and no one was left to tell the tale of unspeakable horror.
SPOOKY TREATS: You simply can't have a Halloween dinner party without giving out goodies. Fill small fabric pouches from a craft store with wire spiders that guests can use to decorate their own homes. Hunt for classic tomes of terror at a used-book store, like "Dracula" or the works of Edgar Allan Poe, then wrap the books in scrim tied up with Halloween ribbon. Fill pumpkin-shaped soup bowls with candy corn. Or give everyone a gothic picture frame they can use to hold snapshots taken during the party.
(Mary Carol Garrity is the proprietor of three successful home-furnishings stores and is the author of several best-selling books on home decorating. Write her at nellhills(at)lvnworth.com.)