Monday, September 30, 2013

My Village Backgrounds

With Halloween only a month away, haunted villages are popping up all over. If you are a Halloween village collector you should know about My Village 2-in-1 Holiday Village Backgrounds. Village makers don't often consider that the background is just as important as the foreground. A background not only adds a touch of realism, but it also adds a tremendous amount of depth, color, and bounces light back onto the dimly lit display (especially important when taking pictures).

My Village offers an easy-to-set up accessory that consists of heavy-duty cardboard (similar to board game cardboard), printed on both sides with different motifs. The entire dimension is 45 inches wide by 15 inches tall but it comes sectioned in panels so you can configure them as needed (fold a panel back or turn a corner). You can also join 2 pieces for larger villages and the design will be seamlessly continuous. These are high quality, well-designed (with grooves to run cords underneath) and very artistically rendered illustrations. I highly recommended them. 

I have quite a large village but a limited area for displaying my main village, so I often set up vignettes throughout the house on the mantle, a table, or bookshelf. These backgrounds are perfect for this use. Take a look at this village I created with the limited Department 56 series The Legends of Sleepy Hollow. The Halloween & Fall Background available for $39.95 fits perfectly with this village and sized just right.

With a little special lighting, I was able to capture some really great photos like the one below. To view the entire album visit this link:

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Halloween & Vine 2013: Acquisitions

I had a blast at the 18th Annual Halloween & Vine art show in Petaluma, CA. A full report of the wonderful art and the brilliant artists I met is coming soon (along with links to their sites), but in the meantime, here is a sampling of what I took home!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Department 56 vs. Lemax Halloween Villages

There are rivalries in every industry – even the collectible porcelain building industry! In the Halloween arena, there are two main distributors: Department 56 Halloween and Lemax Spooky Town. Below is an overview of their strengths and weaknesses. Village collectors, please submit your comments below.

1. Design. Both produce similar themed buildings but Department 56 definitely has more sophisticated designs that are scarier and feature more realistic details. This is the biggest advantage over Lemax who has a more overdone and often silly aesthetic. There are so many accents, bats, webs, colors, signs,  figures, etc. that the excess is just overwhelming.

2. Production. Department 56 has superior quality from construction to materials. Every small detail is carefully sculpted and painted (note the fingers on the reaper below). Lemax has less of an emphasis on quality with lackluster paint jobs, many plastic pieces, and often crooked decals. I've often resorted to repainting and fixing pieces.

3. Lighting - Hands down, Lemax outshines Department 56. They know these displays are meant for dark rooms and many pieces have timed lighting effects, spotlights that illuminate features, flashing lighting, and generally more interest. Department 56 generally sticks one bulb inside the building and calls it a day. The Halloween line has definitely improved but still nowhere near as dynamic as Lemax.

4. Price. Lemax again has the upper hand in pricing. Even the most intricate pieces rarely top $75. Combined with a Michaels sales & coupons (where new pieces are readily available in the fall) they're are a bargain. Most Department 56 items generally start at $75, with typical price points between $125-$150. Department 56 is also hard to find and almost impossible to see up close until after the purchase. Although shopping online offers the best selection of both lines.

5. Packaging. Okay, this may not be a deal breaker but every collector knows that they have to store these fragile things year after year, and those storage boxes take a beating. Department 56 packing is just a terrible. The buildings are packed in flimsy styrofoam and put in flimsy sleeves that always tear or slip off. Lemax really puts a lot of though into packaging with high-density foam (which rarely flakes), includes a velcro strap to easily pull out of a sturdy box, and even stamps useful things like "Top" so the contents don't accidentally spill out. Department 56 needs significant improvement in this area.

Overall, if you prefer substance over flash, Department 56 is the way to go provided you can afford it and can find it. Lemax seems more kid-oriented although their designs can be ghastlier. They've really stepped up the quality on the higher end pieces, so definitely consider those. As always choose pieces that speak to you, but consider that mixing pieces from both series many look a touch off.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Halloween & Vine 2013: Preview

Northern California readers, this weekend on September 28 is the annual Halloween & Vine arts and crafts event. Artists are selected based on their originality and craftsmanship, ranging in mediums from ceramics, jewelry, and metal work to paper mache. Their Facebook page has a preview of the art available for purchase from this year's show as well as years past. I'm excited that one of my favorite artists, Shellhawk's Creations, will debut a new patch of ceramic pumpkins, straight from the kiln. I'm also looking forward to discovering and meeting many more Halloween artists!

Location: The show is being held at the Hermann Sons Hall, 860 Western Avenue, Petaluma, CA 94952 from 9am-3pm with a $5 admission at the door. See the map below for directions.

View Larger Map

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Stephen King's Doctor Sleep

In preparation for Stephen King's Doctor Sleep I finally read the The Shining. I'm a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick's near perfect film adaptation and never felt the need to read the book (which was a mistake). The original novel delves deeper into the the psychosis of the abusive Jack Torrance and the Overlook Hotel's history, but the real focus is little Danny Torrance and his "awakening." Kubrick's film is a true horror film, while the book is more of family drama.

The long-awaited sequel, Doctor Sleep, picks up a year after the original novel and follows Danny into middle-age where he's using the remnants of his gift at a nursing home to help comfort the dying. He meets a 12-year-old girl with the brightest shining he's ever seen and together they take on a tribe of paranormals that live off the life force of children with the shining. Thus ensues the battle good versus evil which happens to be King's strongest storytelling approach.

In an interview with the BBC (see it here), King admits to be being nervous about the comparisons between the two books. When asked whether he liked Kubrick's version of The Shinning, he bluntly says:
No. Cold. I'm not a cold guy. I think one of the things people relate to in my books is this warmth. There’s a reaching out and saying to the reader, ‘I want you to be a part of this.’ And with Kubrick’s The Shining I felt that it was very cold, very ‘We’re looking at these people, but they’re like ants in an anthill, aren’t they doing interesting things, these little insects.’  
And goes on to say, "Shelley Duvall as Wendy is really one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film, she’s basically just there to scream and be stupid and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.”
Doctor Sleep is available today in hardcover, Kindle, audiobook, and Audible download. Check back for our review later this fall.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Under The Dome: Review

The first season of Under The Dome wrapped up last week and while initially entertaining it became increasingly generic and disappointing. When it was first announced, a 13-hour adaptation of the massive book sounded like an intriguing idea for a miniseries.  But then someone decided to turn this one trick pony into an ongoing series with multiple seasons. Out went most of King's characters and plot and in came the bland, muddled stories intended to expand the scope  (in all the wrong directions). All to prove that this book never had the legs to be a series.

It's difficult not to compare the series against the book since it features the same title, basic scenario, character names and a marketing effort to remind you of the source material. Yet it's a complete departure from the book. If you are going to adapt a Stephen King book, stick to the story. It really can't be improved upon (or call it something else like Haven did).

The ending is different matter. It's a known issue that Stephen King often struggles to resolve his novels as eloquently as he starts them. The series had a chance to improve upon the original ending but unfortunately, there's no proper end to the season. It just sorts of stops and adds several pointless cliffhangers (Will Barbie be hung? What  are those pink stars? What is that nonsense with the black egg and the mini-dome? Why are the entities "protecting" Chester's Mill? Why is the dome now white?). Telling a good story means having a beginning, middle and end even with multiple seasons (did the writers learn nothing from the debacles of Lost or The Killing?). Whether there is an end remains to be seen in season 2... or 3... or 4...

Unlike the book, the series also lacks a distinct sense of urgency and plausibility. After you accept that the dome exists – a fascinating concept – you would expect a town cut-off from the world to go nuts (like they did in The Mist). In the book, it takes only a week to go from pleasant townsfolk to bat-sh?!t crazy war mongers. In the series, everyone is so calm and collected having flapjacks at the local diner (until episode 6 when panic erupts for two whole scenes) or setting up fight clubs to pass the time. It doesn't help that the characters are so underwritten that their purpose for existing evaporates the moment they leave the screen.

It's a shame the series didn't even attempt to capture the book's concepts of good versus evil, the struggle of the human sacrifice, drugs and God, the corruption of power, and the will of one man against all odds. Granted, these are not the most original concepts, but a great story nonetheless.

This image has more heart and soul that the entire first season of Under The Dome.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Spirit Halloween 2013

Happy Autumn! Celebrate the official start of the Halloween season by heading down to the neighborhood Halloween store.

Love 'em or hate 'em, Spirit Halloween is a fun place. For the home haunter that needs a jug of fog juice, special lighting, or a ready-made prop to scare their neighbors, it's a good resource. Signing up for their email newsletter assures you coupons throughout the season. And on November 1st much of their remaining stock (other than the pricy animatronics and fog machines) are on sale for 50% off.

Unlike the last few years, the stores are PACKED with products this year including a new category of Lawn Screams (gnomes, fountains and other decrepit decor for your garden), an expanded lighting section (including some fantastic LED spotlights) and a wide selection of creepy dolls (a ragdoll that sews her mouth shut and a teddy bear that sticks a knife into himself). Take a look at a few pictures from this year's batch of products.

Walking Dead pint glasses

Friday, September 20, 2013

The History of Hard Cider

The Autumnal Equinox is this weekend and with it arrives bushels of apples. Sure you can bake those into a pie, but let them rot in barrel for a year and you get pure apple cider pleasure. Cider is one of the best ways enjoy fruit while building Halloween props in your hot garage, but how much do you know about cider? Is it better than beer? Are there any health benefits? The infographic below from will answer all questions about this sometimes sweet elixir.

Cider Infographic
Created by:

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bath and Body Works Halloween 2013

While every other national retailer is getting into the spooky business, Bath and Body Works has officially given up on Halloween. They usually offer a variety of Halloween soaps, candles, and accessories but this year they put out one soap pump (in their signature Sweet Cinnamon Pumpkin scent): Keep Calm, Carve On. At least it's creepy instead of cutesy, but I wish they'd brought back their Vampire Blood soap pump from last year. (There's also some hand sanitizers available online because that's what every kid wants in their candy bag.)

However, if pumpkin scents are your thing, they are offering a wide collection of bizarre pumpkin scented candles including some very specific food scents (Pumpkin Caramel Latte, Pumpkin Cupcake, Pumpkin Pecan Waffles), two Halloweenie scents (Pumpkin Carving, Pumpkin Hayride), and some fruity blends (the odoriferous Blueberry Pumpkin and the really smooth Pumpkin Apple). Plus they have a cool porcelain owl to shove your candle inside and make your guests wonder where that waffle stench is coming from.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sleepy Hollow: TV Pilot Review

Fox premiered their new version of Sleepy Hollow last night and I had sincere reservations about the modern twist on the Headless Horseman. But it is smartly written, well-produced, funny, scary,  and has two incredibly likable lead actors. The story is a mashup of Washington Irving's tale, an Illuminati-like conspiracy with symbols and people sworn to protect secrets, witches, demons, and a Biblical apocalypse meant to come in seven years (seven seasons?). Created by the same guy who created Fringe, Sleepy Hollow will get a lot of geek love but it's much more accessible and fun. It feels like a blend of The X-Files and Supernatural with an undercurrent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer thrown in for good measure.

English theatre actor and writer Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane brings such a definitive, well-rounded life to Ichabod Crane. Unlike the buffoonish fop that Johnny Depp made of Ichabod in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, Mison plays his Ichabod as dedicated soldier, neurotically focused of tasks, pragmatic, yet genuinely warm, subtly charming, and even insightful given the circumstances. The obvious schtick of being introduced to the world of cars, flashlights, and power windows is low-key, fleeting, and ultimately funny.

The pilot was thrilling and it could develop a following if the quality, tone and storytelling remain consistent (and if FOX doesn't hastily cancel it). Only a couple of moments felt like a misstep (the massive Horsemen playing hide-and-seek in an apartment then dropping his axe in favor of an arsenal of automatic weapons). It will be difficult to give the Horseman much character without a head, so he'll be more of a token of evil for the show. They showed the real villain here and it was chilling. I'm also guessing IT will be responsible for what looks like a "monster-of-the-week" scenario (judging by the series preview) with the horseman as the season-(series?) spanning arc.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Spirit Halloween 25% Off Coupon

If you haven't signed up for Spirit Halloween's newsletter, you should do so immediately. Their early season coupons are fantastic. This weekend only (September 13 & 14) they are offering 25% off your ENTIRE purchase. That's a crazy good promotion.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Insidious Chapter 2: Review

It's rare for a sequel match the quality of its predecessor and Insidious: Chapter 2 has lofty ambitions that don't quite reach maximum potential. The structure and plot outweigh the other elements of the film (including the scares) but it's still entertaining, thrilling and an admirable experiment in what sequels should be.

The first Insidious worked on several levels: it was a family drama, a haunted house creepfest, and a swan dive into the obscure with "The Further"(courtesy of some bumbling paranormal experts). The sequel picks up moments after the first film and quickly free falls into complete absurdity. It's ambitious storytelling wastes no time with character development, and jumps around time periods which is both interesting and convoluted. There's also no breathing room for the audience to catch up, or quiet moments to reflect on the previous scene. It's just barrels through non-stop.

It's obvious this movie was made for the fans of the original who will love the continuation of the story and seeing the entire cast return for a second go round. Casual moviegoers may be put off by the more eccentric elements, and it's innate geekiness – and those comparing it to this summer's The Conjuring will also be disappointed. I loved it, warts and all.

Sadly, director James Wan brazenly announced that he is "finished with horror" citing that he has devoted the last 10 years of his career to the genre. Sure, it's a slap in the face to his fans, but maybe that's a good thing. Many moments here felt like blatant rehashes of Insidious, The Shining, and Dead Silence (his quirky second horror film that's worth a look). Maybe some distance from the genre will give him a clearer perspective and some new ideas. So many directors start in horror and later abandon it to pursue a "real" film career. Only a rare few (Steven Spielberg, David Cronenberg) succeed, so good lucky buddy.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Catching up with... The Queen of Halloween

Throughout the holiday season, we'll be featuring interviews with our favorite Halloween haunters and bloggers. The Queen of Halloween is a former radio host turned Halloween homemaker. Starting in 2009, she began The Queen of Halloween blog and sharing her many fun projects like Blood Jars, Mummy Candles, and Halloween Candy Wreaths.

Why do you like Halloween?
I do get asked that one a lot. (And if I practice witchcraft or Wicca! The answer is no... I don't!) But it really goes back to mom and dad. Not only was it on our first trip to Walt Disney World that I fell in love with the Haunted Mansion, but I actually wanted to live the Haunted Mansion! Also, my parents always hosted the big Halloween party in our neighborhood. My dad would make big, scary props for inside and outside the house, and my mom would decorate, and make all the party food.

Why did you start The Queen of Halloween blog? 
It actually started a few years ago, my husband (The Count) and I worked in radio for quite a long time, and we did a morning show together for several years. We talked on the air a lot about crazy things, and my husband would tell stories about my weird Halloween obsessions and creepy, craft projects. One day, some one called in and said, "You should put all your ideas on a blog, so we can make some of these projects for Halloween!" Well, that was all it took. I had so much fun doing it, and had such a great response from people. That was 4 years ago.

Where do you find inspiration for own projects, and what appeals to you about the projects you feature?
I think the www is really the bloggers best buddy, as far as researching ideas. I'm also addicted to magazines. Recipes, crafts, and home decorating projects galore! What appeals to me is something that's not expected. Something creepy, that in it's own way, looks really beautiful. And I'm always a sucker for anything that can make me laugh. I try to feature projects that aren't too complicated or intimidating. I always want my readers to feel like they can do this... and I know they can do this. I think that everyone needs a creative outlet, of some sort. If you paint or sew, play music, cook or write poetry... you need to have some way to express yourself. Mine just happens to involve witches, ghosts and graveyards.

The Queen of Halloween's organized workshop,
an ideal workspace for creativity and imagination!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Buzzkill

It's that time of year: the return of Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice Latte! If you're over 35 or need to watch your health, prepare yourself for some serious buzzkill. Each grande serving as prepared has 380 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 49 grams of sugar (equivalent to 12 1/2 teaspoons of sugar!!!) according to LiveStrong. That's a really sweet trick that might be best limited to an occasional treat.

As an alternative, try the Starbucks Via Pumpkin Spice instant coffee and make it home with almond milk. Without the milk you are looking at 60 calories, 0 grams of fat, and the sugar is reduced to 13 grams (or about 3 1/2 teaspoons). Not great, but better if you want that Starbucks flavor.

Or you can make it at home – from scratch! – and cut down on the calories and sugar. posted a great method using natural ingredients (pumpkin puree, spices, vanilla, milk) instead of artificially flavored syrups. A few people who posted comments said that the texture (and settling) was an issue for them. So I made one slight adjustment: I steeped the pumpkin and spices in 2% milk for a while (letting the flavor infuse into the milk) and strained before serving. It wasn't the overpowering Starbucks version but it was really good – and now my heart won't explode over the new kitchen tile.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Lords of Salem: Review

Rob Zombie has done it again. He's taken great concept and turned it into a pointless music video with stunning visuals that are desperately seeking a plot. The perplexingly named The Lords of Salem (because its about female witches) starts well enough with a grainy film look that reminds one of the classic if schlocky 70s horror film. It's clearly an ode to the devil/witch movies like The Omen, Susperia, The Wicker Man and especially Rosemary's Baby, but here, all bets are placed on Sheri Moon, Zombie's muse and wife. Unfortunately both are overconfident in her abilities as an actress and an anchor for a film.

The long, slow camera pans, washed out light, and haunting music establish the creepy atmosphere, but the storytelling stalls and eventually is abandoned in favor of wild, artistic visions. Which is fine but this is still a movie and not an art exhibit. I appreciated the mature direction Zombie was going in, the many great concepts he introduced, and the unsettling moodiness but ultimately the film misses the mark and becomes obnoxiously frustrating.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Custom Carved Pumpkins

Unfortunately, the last project on Halloween day is carving the pumpkin (no one wants moldy pumpkins for the big event), so there's always a mad rush and at least one bleeding finger. Artificial pumpkins are a good way to go for the home haunter, but they are unforgiving ("Harpy Haloween!"), somewhat expensive, and you need storage space for the bulky fauxgourds.

For those who might not be good with a knife or are pressed for time, Michaels now offers custom carved pumpkins. The base price starts at $20 (small), $30 (medium) or $40 (large) for their artificial pumpkin plus an additional 30% for design and other embellishments. Sure, it's a little odd that a business that promotes craftiness is offering to do it for you. Also, the design options are limited so don't expect to walk in with your own template.

However, for a fully customizable option head over to the good folks at Stoneykins. In addition to selling some nifty downloadable pumpkin patterns, they will also custom carve an artificial pumpkin with any photo or logo you submit. The cost depends on the complexity of the design and ranges from $80-$150 (they will prepare a quote including shipping costs upfront). Their carving also features a shading technique where the skin is removed but the some of pumpkin remains intact. When illuminated, parts of the design glow in a subtler shade adding to the overall depth of the design.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Toxic Toons Halloween 2013 Merchandise

Artist Eric Pigors has launched his 2013 Halloween merchandise at Former illustrator at Walt Disney Studios (working on films like The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty & the Beast), Pigors has a self-described cartoonish style that is "edgy and not so goody-goody" with a strong influence of "rat fink". For the last 6 years he's offered a limited-edition Trick or Treat bag stuffed with all kinds of his goodies (cd, signed print, pins, books). Beyond the prints, he also sells the coolest shirts (glow-in-the-dark of course), books, and even a ouija board. If that were not enough he also has a line of masks available on his site and through Trick or Treat Studios, one of my favorite mask studios.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Martha Stewart's Halloween Issue 2013

On newsstands today is the 2013 Martha Stewart Halloween Special Issue (also available as a digital download for the iPad through the Zinio app* and the official MSL app). It features more than 125 ideas – a mix of brand new ideas and classic ideas culled from the pages of Martha Stewart Living – all in terrific layouts that embody the holiday's wicked essence.

Fans will love Martha's magical transformation into "Fairy GrandMartha" (see some behind the scenes photos at But don't let the pink cover fool you. The "Infested" chapter, featuring swarms of spiders, wasps and other creepy crawlies, is especially gruesome, and the "Intense" chapter has some great tips on using eerie black light with fluorescent paint and makeup. This is a great issue!

Martha Stewart Living celebrates Halloween like no other publication, and I'm dreadfully grateful they continue to put such a great effort into our favorite holiday. For more Halloween ideas, visit

*Note: I highly recommend the Zinio app but unlike the official MSL app, the issues are neither interactive nor laid out specifically for tablet use (they're more like "flat" PDFs). But the publications on Zinio are much smaller in size taking up less space on your tablet, quicker to download and browse through, and they are available on every device phone, tablet and even your desktop through on any browser. The best part is that Zinio is cross-compatible with a variety of formats (not just the iPad) for truly universal use.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Strange Noises from the Sky

Be prepared to freak out. A strange phenomenon is occurring around the world. Unexplained, loud sounds of trumpet-like moaning is being heard and no one knows what's causing them. The Huffington Post said that similar occurrences have also been reported in Texas, Michigan, New York, Spain, and Norway.  A physics professor at the University of Saskatchewan believes the noises are from the electromagnetic waves emitted by the auroras. Others believe that its a sign of the apocalypse according to the Bible. And yet others assume it's a hoax since there have already been copycat videos posted online. The latest incident happened on Thursday in Canada and there's a terrifying video: