House of horrors - Halloween is Irish and isn't just for kids
As the founders of Halloween, we should know how to set the scene more than anyone
Halloween is an Irish thing. It comes from the Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the onset of winter, a time when the doorways of the other-world opened to let in the souls of the dead.
Halloween is still a time to celebrate strangeness. It's also the year's best excuse to dress up your house (and yourself) in a style that would make the Addams Family proud.
"I definitely believe that Halloween is not just for kids," says Sharon Greene, designer with Queens of Neon and organiser of the Dublin Flea Market. "I grew up in a household that went nuts for Halloween, my mum decorated the whole house every year and we'd invite all the neighbours over for a fancy dress and spooky games party. It's a chance to get in touch with your inner freak, but it also resonates with our Celtic heritage on a deeper level."
Ritual and ceremony in general, and this celebration in particular, are an important part of being Irish. When we celebrate Halloween, we're honouring our ancestors.
Halloween is also an opportunity to make and do. "I'm a big advocate of not buying lots of disposable plastic things in pound stores when we have so much material at home," Greene explains. "A homemade bat decoration will look much scarier than a perfect string of commercial cutouts. You just print out the picture of a bat from the internet and trace the shape on to black card." A colony of ragged bats hanging from a bare branch is not only atmospheric, it's also very cheap.
If you want to create something really disturbing, Greene suggests you collect the heads and body parts of broken dolls and hang them from the ceiling. "We've done this at Body and Soul as part of an installation called Little House of Lost Toys. The weird thing was that it freaked the adults out, but the children didn't turn a hair. They hadn't seen the horror movies, so they had no association with a doll's dismembered leg being scary."
If you have children, collect the casualties from the toy box and save them for Halloween. If you don't, buy the dolls from a charity shop and dismember them yourself.
For Siobhan Lam of April And The Bear, Halloween is more about embracing the change in seasons than creating a Hammer House of Horrors. "There's a time and a place for bats and skull chains," she says. "But that's the American way. Irish people tend to be subtler about the way they decorate their homes. We celebrate the time of year, but we still want our houses to reflect who we are."
Mass produced Halloween decorations are a great quick fix for children's parties - if you buy nice ones and store them carefully, they'll last from year to year, but you can also use the orange and black colour scheme in a grown-up way. "Orange and black is super-traditional, but I adore the contrast," says Lam.
She suggests combining black and copper vases (from €6) with autumn leaves and small pumpkins. You can also create a Halloween wreath from thin spiky branches. "Look for fallen branches, bend the longest one into a circle and then layer it up with other branches. Spray it black and it instantly looks macabre."
In Lam's house, the Halloween decorations stay up through the autumn so she's careful to do it in a way that won't get boring after a few days. Fake cobwebs, for example, are all very well for Halloween night, but they're not something that you want to live with for any length of time.
In general, she feels that fallen leaves and branches make for more effective decorations than shop-bought disposables. "I like using nature to decorate my house. It makes sense to me. It's a natural resource - I'm doing cool fun things with it and it's not hurting anyone."
A few key pieces will help a lot. A bird of ill-omen, in the form of an artificial black crow, costs €20 from Dust, while a wall-mounted faux bull skull, complete with horns, is €305 from April And The Bear. It's an all-year-round piece that can be dressed up for Halloween with a string of function lights (€95), industrially-inspired fairy lights with bare bulbs in black sockets.
You could also go for the Jurassic style with a wall-mounted dinosaur head (€495) made by Siobhán Lam's brother, the artist Vincent Lam. "It's not specifically a Halloween piece but it's incredibly scary," she explains. "You could make it even scarier by playing with the light around it." Because the dinosaur heads are individually made, allow two to three weeks for delivery.
"I like to dress up the house for Halloween in a minimal way rather than going mad doing the American thing," says the interior designer Laura Farrell. One of her favourite tricks is to pin strips of black paper across the front window of the house so that it appears to be boarded up. "It looks really ominous! My latest thing is using the drill to decorate the pumpkin. It's better than cutting your fingers and ending up with a pumpkin with a misshapen eye."
First, hollow out the pumpkin as normal, saving the scrapings for soup, then use a small hand drill to create rows of perforated holes around it. "You still get the Halloween glow, but it looks rhythmic and smart."
The next Dublin Flea Market takes place on Sunday, October 30 in the Co-op, Newmarket Square, Dublin 8. See dublinflea.ie. See also queensofneon.com, aprilandthebear.com and dust.ie. To contact Laura Farrell, email firstname.lastname@example.org.