Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Going Medieval

I think I've mentioned before my dilemma with Halloween decorating: where I prefer a darker, moodier, atmospheric tableau my wife tends towards lighter, cuter designs. Where I like rot and death, she prefers quaint and kitsch.

So far I've given her the run of the inside of the house while I've been allowed to take over most of the front yard. Some of our yard props are still too lighthearted for my taste, but we have an uneasy truce that allows me to have control over most props (probably because I'm the one making them!).

This year I want to take my display to a higher plane, and I've been musing about how best to achieve the effect I'm looking for. I've previously said I was looking at various ideas, such as a Grand Guignol theme along with a medieval one. I've decided now against the former because I think that would rely too much upon blood and guts. One of the charms of the Grand Guignol theater was the level of torture and gore they brought to the stage. Since I'm looking for something creepier than just oozing blood, I've decided I will go with a macabre medieval set. For some reason, the period encompassing the rise of the Black Plague in medieval England seems appropriately atmospheric enough.

"The plague, I hear, encreases in the towne much, and exceedingly in the country everywhere." -- Samuel Pepys

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that death was literally at everyone's door. The village of Eyam in Derbyshire is perhaps best known as the "plague village" because of its willingness to seal itself off from the outside world when the plague arrived there. Of the 350 villagers that lived there prior to the Black Death's arrival, only 83 survived.

"How many noble men, how many beautiful ladies, how many light-hearted youth, who were such that Galen, Hippocrates, or Asclepius would declare them the healthiest of all humans, had breakfast in the morning with their relatives, companions, or friends, and had dinner that evening in another world with their ancestors!" -- Boccaccio

Death and ruins seem to be an appropriate feeling for Halloween, decay and decrepitude. Thus I've decided to expand my Halloween haunt to include my side yard where I'll be able to channel trick-or-treaters to venture to get their candy. So I've begun sketching out ideas for how I'd like the side yard to look.

Passing beneath an arbor, you travel along a narrow stone path that opens up into a wide patio area. An elevated, wrap-around porch is on your left while a tall picket fence runs along the right. I'm envisioning a stone arcade of ivy and moss-covered gothic arches lining the lower wall of the porch. Above will be the tattered remnants of aged banners.

Since I also want to try my hand at using some of the new papier mache methods I've discovered to build larger, human-like props I think I'll be able to incorporate one or two back here as well. The picture above shows my sketch of a plague doctor, the poor souls whose duty it was to visit the houses of the ill to see who had the plague and who did not. From what I've read, they weren't real doctors at all (the real ones had fled the cities), but merely brave individuals who were appointed the task of sealing up a house with any infected individuals inside.

The creep factor comes from their outfits. Dressed in long robes to protect their skin from exposure, they wore great beaked masks that were filled with aromatic herbs to fend off the foul smell of the dead and dying. Their eyes were protected as well with goggles and their broad-rimmed hats protected their heads from any airborne attack. One or two of them standing around the patio (or peering back over their shoulders at you while they tend to the dying) might be creepy indeed. Plague-bearing rats climbing over everything would be part of the scene.

These two sketches are the start of my ruminations as to how I'd like the haunt to develop. As more ideas arise and as the prop building develops, I'll post more thoughts here.



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