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Set Up a Striking Grim Reaper Display on Your Lawn This Halloween
Even if you wanted to buy a life-sized Grim Reaper like the one in the picture above to use as one of your outdoor Halloween decorations, you might find it difficult to do so. Plus it would cost you dearly, should you be lucky enough to locate one. I know because I checked around at those specialty Halloween shops that spring up annually in October. All of the figures (ghouls, etc.) of any size cost around $250. Sure, they're animated, but that does you no good, because they can't be left outside (in case it rains).
Are you willing to settle for anything less than an imposing, fully-accessorized, genuine Grim Reaper intended for outdoor use? No, I didn't think so. That's why I'm sharing the useful tips that follow for DIYers who also:
- Wish to save money by making their own Grim Reaper figure for an inexpensive price.
- Understand the importance of creating a bright backdrop so that the viewer can behold this dark, frightening Halloween decoration to optimal effect.
Note that, if you're a bigger stickler about making everything than I am or using as many natural materials as possible, you could alter my instructions in a couple of ways:
- Substitute a white pumpkin for the mask that I used for the Grim Reaper's head.
- A scythe would be fairly easy to make if you really didn't want to buy one. Using an empty plastic bottle (gallon bottles of vinegar or windshield wiper fluid work well), simply trace out the shape for the blade, make your cut, and spray-paint it silver. Then split the top of a rounded wooden pole (for example, an old rake pole or an old sapling you had used as a garden stake) and wedge your scythe blade into it.
I had initially planned to make my own head and scythe for the Grim Reaper in just this way. But when I went into Walmart to buy some faux cobwebs for the project, I found that the Grim Reaper mask and plastic scythe stocked in the same aisle were so ridiculously cheap ($4.97 and $2.97, respectively) that it just didn't make any sense to construct them myself. I'm a cheapskate and love to talk about how you can save money landscaping, but I'm not quite that hardheaded. I know a deal when I see it.
While a Halloween ghost is one of the easiest decorations to make, since it's little more than a sheet, a Grim Reaper figure represents another level of complexity (although I show you a simpler -- but far inferior -- version in this photo of a Grim Reaper decoration). Because it has to resemble a human form reasonably well and strike an action pose (namely, wielding a scythe), it needs to:
- Stand upright, which entails providing it with support
- Possess arms made of a material supple enough to be shaped but rigid enough to hold the shape that you give them
In the following pages, I'll walk you through all steps needed to make the Grim Reaper shown above, beginning on Page 2 with a list of the supplies I used (alternatively, if scary decorations like this aren't your thing, see my ideas for fall decorations with a non-Halloween theme)....Continue to 2 of 12 below.
02 of 12
The Supplies I Used to Make a Grim Reaper Decoration
There are a number of possible ways to make the sort of Grim Reaper decoration featured in this project. Therefore, the supplies listed below are offered as a guideline, not as a definitive list. By all means improvise and work with the materials you have on hand to save money and time. But here is the list of supplies that I, myself used for the project:
- Straw bale for background and stuffing (mine measured 14"x18"x36")
- Chicken wire
- 2 cornstalks for background
- Faux cobwebs
- Grim Reaper mask (it's sold under the name of "Ghost Face")
- Plastic scythe
- Black cloak
- Polyester fiber for stuffing (it's sold under the name of "Fluffy Stuff" and cost me $1.59)
- Plastic bag from the supermarket
- Two 2x2s of an 8-foot length
- Black trash bags
- Cable for the arms (2-2-2-4 Aluminum SER Service Entrance Cable, which runs ca. $1.50/foot)
- White or so-called "ghost" pumpkin (I prefer a white pumpkin for this project because it can mimic a skull, especially if you pick one roughly shaped like someone's noggin)
- 2-foot length of chain
- Magic marker
- Drill and accessories
- Garden stakes
- Twist ties
- Duct tape, black electrical tape
- Bolt cutter
- Rope, twine
- Tape measure
- Exacto knife
- Safety pin
- Black gloves (for the Grim Reaper's hands)
The black cloak that I used to dress my Grim Reaper was a real find, and I owe it to my wife. She suggested that I check for clothing at a Goodwill store for the dummy (not me; the Halloween dummy). An aisle marked "Uniforms" luckily had just the sort of garment I was seeking. It's a graduation gown, but there's nothing wrong with having an educated Grim Reaper, right? Besides, while it was marked $3.99, when I went to the register to pay they charged me only $1.99. Can't go wrong for that!
Remember, making the Grim Reaper figure is only half of the project. The other half consists of displaying it so that is shows up to best effect. And for that, you need the right background. That's why I instruct you on how to build a wonderful, bright, autumn-themed backdrop for your dark, ghoulish figure on Page 3 ....Continue to 3 of 12 below.
03 of 12
Create a Bright, Autumn-Themed Backdrop With a Faux Haycock
Before creating the ideal backdrop for a display, you have to decide on its ideal location in your landscaping. For example, what about orientation? Will the display be oriented so as to be viewed by passersby on the road? Or would you rather position it so as to be able to appreciate it most fully from a vantage point in your own yard or home?
My wife and I have no interest in keeping up with Joneses or in showing off, so we oriented our decoration with our own viewing pleasure in mind (specifically, from the kitchen window). Besides, it's difficult in our yard to orient a display toward the street due to the fact that our property is hemmed in by an American sweetgum tree, a star magnolia tree, a golden chain tree, an Eastern white pine, and numerous shrubs such as forsythia, hydrangeas, Miss Kim lilac, Kerria, and pagoda dogwood.
Sunlight is also a consideration when deciding on an ideal location for this display. Remember, the Grim Reaper is a black-cloaked figure. If you set up your figure in a shadowy spot, it won't show up very well (unless you're gearing your decoration to nighttime viewing, in which case you'll be shining spotlights on it). So I chose a location that's bathed in sunshine most of the day for my display.
How to Build a Faux Haycock for Background
Location is important, but the pièce de résistance in preparing the way for a great display is an effective backdrop. Two considerations were paramount in designing a background for my Grim Reaper:
- This is a Halloween decoration, so the backdrop should be fall-themed.
- The Grim Reaper is a dark figure, so to set him off effectively I needed a light-colored background.
Since it suggests the harvest (and therefore meets the requirement for a fall theme), a haycock makes for an ideal backdrop for this Halloween display. To meet the second requirement (namely, a light color), what I bought is technically considered straw rather than hay. Straw remains a lighter color than does hay -- perfect for the background I have in mind. Incidentally, this background could also work well to show off a garden scarecrow to best effect. Moreover, you could keep it in place to serve as the backdrop for a Thanksgiving Pilgrim figure (in case you're tired of more conventional outdoor Thanksgiving decorations).
A haycock is defined as a hay pile left in a field to dry before the hay is transported to a barn. For example, in my area, I often encounter a pile of salt marsh hay drying in the salty marshes in Newburyport, MA. But I didn't want to buy the amount of hay (straw) that would be required to create a true haycock, nor was it necessary to have the real thing (i.e., a solid pile of hay or straw). My display is one-sided, so my task was to create the illusion that I had a haycock. That's why I'm calling my background a "faux haycock."
My faux haycock measured 5 feet high by 6 feet wide by 3 feet deep when I was done constructing it. I achieved those impressive dimensions with just one bale of straw. What's the secret? The secret is to stretch out that one bale by distributing it across a framework.
What did I use for a framework? Chicken wire. There are various ways in which one could use chicken wire to create such a framework, but here's how I did it:
- Purchase the type of chicken wire that is about 4 feet high.
- Begin unwinding the roll (you can stabilize it by weighting it down at both ends) and cut off four 7-foot lengths.
- Form a tube with each of these lengths of chicken wire, binding the wire end-to-end with twist ties. A 7-foot length yields a tube with a diameter of approximately 3 feet.
- Stand up two of these tubes vertically side-by-side to comprise the front of your background.
- Stand up another tube in back of those two to complete the base.
- Drive garden stakes into the ground as needed to stabilize each of these three tubes of chicken wire.
- Unite these three tubes using twist ties. You now have a stable base with which to work.
- Set the remaining tube of chicken wire horizontally across the top of this base and anchor it down as needed with twist ties.
Now it's time to use the straw. I proceeded cautiously in applying straw (that's my nature) to make sure that I would have enough to work with, but, as it turned out, I had plenty. In fact, I had enough left over to stuff the torso of my Grim Reaper and to strew on the ground to give more depth to my display. But if you're cautious like me, you can begin by taking small bunches of straw (i.e., five or six strands at a time) and weaving them between the holes of the chicken wire (specifically, those first two tubes you stood up).
The idea is to create a facade of straw, as shown in the picture above. You may not be able to ascertain this from the picture (in fact, that's the whole idea: you should not be able to tell), but what you're looking at here is not a straw pile, but rather a facade of straw that is only about 1-inch thick. You can see the uppermost tube of chicken wire above (that will be covered in straw later).
With the hard work done on the background, on Page 4 we'll move on to the next major task in this project....Continue to 4 of 12 below.
04 of 12
Determining How Tall the Grim Reaper Will Be
In the picture above, you'll see I've added some elements to the display. I finished the backdrop by spreading the straw in handfuls over the uppermost tube of chicken wire. That's why my faux haycock looks so much bigger now. To complete the background, I've installed bundles of cornstalks at either end to anchor the display. To fix them in place, I've tied them to two of the same garden stakes I used to stabilize my chicken-wire base.
Most importantly, you'll see that I've inserted a pole (after digging a hole in the ground), with the Grim Reaper mask attached at the top. Before I explain what I'm doing here, let me call to your attention the fact that, prior to doing any digging for such a project, you should call the Before You Dig phone number. That's how you can ensure that you won't be severing any electrical lines, etc. when you dig. Failure to take this precaution could lead to the Grim Reaper taking a chunk out of your wallet!
Furnishing Structure for the Grim Reaper
The pole you see in the photo is the basic supporting structure for my Grim Reaper decoration. This pole is an 8-foot 2x2. I wanted to insert as much of it into the ground as possible to gain stability. But I also needed to ensure that I was leaving enough pole above-ground to which to attach the Grim Reaper's cloak and head.
Here's how you can accomplish this:
- Dig down a decent amount, insert the pole, then wedge plant pots (or bricks, plastic bottles, etc. -- whatever is available) around the pole at the bottom of the hole to stabilize it.
- Place the mask atop the pole just temporarily to find out how much room it will take up. With a pencil, mark on the pole how far down the hood part of the mask comes. This is where you'll attach the crosspieces that will support the arms (covered in the next step).
- Hold the top of the cloak up against the mark on the pole you made in #2 above. Check to see where the bottom of the cloak falls on the pole and make another mark there. Since you want the bottom of the cloak to rest just above ground level, dig the hole deep enough so that most of the pole under that mark is underground by the time you're done.
In the case of my own Grim Reaper, the cloak is 50 inches long. The mask took up 10 inches of space at the top of the pole. That meant that I would bury the pole about 3 feet down into the ground.
But before digging any more and inserting the pole permanently (Step 6), I'll show you how I attached the crosspieces first, in Step 5....Continue to 5 of 12 below.
05 of 12
Giving the Grim Reaper His Shoulders
I listed two wooden poles in my supplies list (Page 2) because you'll need to cut up another one to fashion the crosspieces. Think of the crosspieces as defining the "shoulders" of the Grim Reaper. The electrical cable serving as the arms will later be wrapped around one of these crosspieces.
As you can see from my image, I made beveled cuts. As a result, the tops of the crosspieces are 18 inches long, the bottoms 20 inches. This will allow the fabric of the cloak (when you dress your Grim Reaper) to cascade down more gently.
After the sawing is done, attach the crosspieces to the main pole using screws. I pre-drilled in preparation, making pilot holes to prevent the lumber from splitting. In terms of screw length, the ideal screw here would go through the top crosspiece, then through the main pole, and then part of the way through the bottom crosspiece.
On Page 6 we'll put the crosspieces to work right away....Continue to 6 of 12 below.
06 of 12
Use a Black Plastic Bag for the Grim Reaper's Torso
With the crosspieces attached (Step 5), your work on the wooden support is done. You've also determined the depth of your hole already (Step 4). Therefore, it's time to finish digging down to that depth and inserting the pole.
Before you stick the pole in the hole, however, make an incision in the bottom of the black plastic bag you'll be using as the Grim Reaper's torso. Slip the pole through this incision. Once you've done that, place the pole in the hole, slide the bag up the pole, and hang it from a crosspiece temporarily (just to get it out of the way). Now fill in the dirt around its base, checking for plumb with your level as you go.
Why did I have you incorporate the bag at this time? Simple. The crosspieces would be in the way if you waited and tried to slip the bag down the pole afterward, from the top. Incorporating it from the bottom is easier.
Now that you've situated the pole permanently and have the black plastic bag in place, you can begin securing it, which is the task in Step 7....Continue to 7 of 12 below.
07 of 12
Attach the Black Plastic Bag to the Front Crosspiece With Duct Tape
Fans of The Red Green Show will appreciate Step 7. Old Red could fix or build anything -- provided that he had a roll of duct tape handy. This Canadian actor may have pushed the use of duct tape to an absurd degree for comic effect, but, all kidding aside, this product is as effective and as versatile as they come. Simply put, duct tape is a wonder product for the DIYer. Our own DIY Fashion Expert, Rain Blanken even shows how you can make a whole dummy out of this stuff.
While no Red Green, I made liberal use of duct tape in this project. I kept some black electrical tape around, too for those areas where I didn't want the gray duct tape showing up and contrasting with the black cloak of my Grim Reaper figure. But most of the taping work is done on the inside (and therefore obscured by the cloak), and I took full advantage of this fact, using duct tape wherever needed to secure an element of my creation. It was a no-brainer to attach the black plastic bag to the crosspieces with duct tape.
First attach it to just the front crosspiece. Bring the edge of the bag up over the back crosspiece, but don't affix it yet. You'll need clearance later on the back crosspiece in order to wrap the cable (which serves as the arms) around it.
After taping the bag to the front crosspiece, stuff the bag to fill it out so that it resembles a torso in shape. Feed the stuffing down through the gap between the two crosspieces. I removed some excess straw from the faux haycock to use as stuffing. Before applying the finishing touches to my stuffing, I tied a piece of twine around the middle to form a waist. Doing so helped me gauge where I needed more stuffing, and where I could do with less.
On Page 8, I'll show you how I worked with the electrical cable to create arms for my Grim Reaper...Continue to 8 of 12 below.
08 of 12
Electrical Cable Just Right for the Grim Reaper's Arms
The most difficult parts of my Grim Reaper project to figure out were the torso and the arms. The latter, in particular, presented a great challenge. Since my Grim Reaper holds a scythe in one arm and a chain in the other, the arms must be able to support a certain amount of weight without collapsing. But the material out of which they are made must also be malleable, so that one can bend the arms into the kinds of positions that human arms might assume.
2-2-2-4 Aluminum SER Service Entrance Cable is your savior here. If you're not convinced, go to a home improvement store. Electrical cables will probably be located near the lighting section. Once you find the aisle with the electrical cables, look for the heavier gauges, which are sold off of rolls. Because they aren't wrapped up in packaging, you can get a good feel for them by manipulating them. Go from gauge to gauge in search of the one that offers just the right balance between rigidity and flexibility.
In the photo above, you see how I began winding my cable around the wooden support -- mainly the back crosspiece, to which I had not taped the black plastic bag as of yet (precisely so that it wouldn't be in the way here), meaning it was easy simply to slip the bag off of this crosspiece temporarily and weave the cable around it. Warning: this step does take some brute strength. The cable, while reasonably flexible, does offer some resistance when you try to bend it.
I used 10 feet of cable; you may need/want less (this is an art, not a science). I had bought 12 feet of cable and applied all 12 feet initially, preferring to cut off excess with a bolt cutter later. If you make your cut first, you risk coming up short by the time you're through winding the cable around the support.
Pull the black plastic bag up over the back crosspiece and the cable, step back, and survey your handiwork, rejoicing that the hard part of the construction is now over. At this point the creation may look totally unimpressive, being little more than a bag and a cable attached to a pole, but on Page 9 more of a humanoid form will start to emerge out of the chaos....Continue to 9 of 12 below.
09 of 12
Grim Reaper Figure Starts to Take Shape
Now you're ready to make small slits in the black plastic bag (torso) where you want the cable (arms) to come through. Next, work the left-side cable inside the bag and feed it through the slit in the bag. Repeat on the right side.
You'll begin now to appreciate the importance of the cable's flexibility. In spite of that flexibility, however, the work in this step is not easy, since you're working in a tight space. You may rip the plastic some, but that's all right: duct tape will come to your rescue. In fact, even if you manage to avoid ripping, I suggest applying duct tape around the slits for the arms in order to stabilize these areas.
Take another black plastic bag and cut it in half. Tape one half to the left arm, then the other half to the right. I decided to leave these "sleeves" a bit loose for a ragged look, because monsters look better with a ragged look. The sleeves won't actually show up much, anyhow, once you dress this Angel of Death in his ominous black cloak.
If you're not happy with the way you've stuffed the torso, now's the time to make adjustments by adding to, subtracting from, or shifting the stuffing. If the gap between the crosspieces doesn't offer sufficient access, you can reach in from behind, since the black plastic bag hasn't been affixed to the back crosspiece yet. Once you're satisfied, tape down the top of the black plastic bag in the back to the back crosspiece.
The glove you see to suggest a right hand was applied only temporarily, just to see how it would look. I'll now attach it permanently after dressing the Grim Reaper in his trademark cloak and giving him a head in Step 10 ....Continue to 10 of 12 below.
10 of 12
Grim Reaper Assuming His Classic Form
Don't you think it's about time we gave our Halloween figure a head? After all, he's the Grim Reaper, not the Headless Horseman. Fortunately, making the head is one of the easiest components of this project.
If you're anything like me, you have an excess of white plastics bags from the supermarket hanging around, perhaps jammed into a remote corner of your kitchen cupboard. Don't you wish they could be put to use? Well, one of them can, at least. Grab one and stuff it with polyester fiber (I used "Fluffy Stuff") or a similar material. A bag's worth is just the right amount to fill out a white plastic bag and form the head.
Slip the mask (to serve as the face) over the head you've made. Wearing a glove and long sleeves (in case you're allergic to polyester), poke a hole with your hand up through the center of the stuffing. Line up the hole with the top of your pole and slide the head down over the pole. Use the handles of the white plastic bag to tie it off around the pole.
Dress Your Grim Reaper
Bring the cloak around to the back and drape it over the crosspieces. Now work first one arm, then the other through a sleeve in the cloak -- just as you would to dress a person, except you'll get no cooperation from this grim figure (not that children always cooperate when being dressed, either).
There will perhaps be a tiny gap left between the top of the cloak and the bottom of the mask's hood. Wrap a piece of black plastic bag around the neck to bridge the gap. This "scarf" will blend in with the cloak.
Form the Hands
With the arms now established, you can begin manipulating them into the positions you want them to assume. But first, form the hands. The composition of the electrical cable facilitates this. When you slice through the cable's plastic outer coating (with an Exacto knife or similar tool), you'll see that it is comprised of four metal wires. These will serve as fingers.
So using the Exacto knife, remove a few inches of the plastic outer coating at each end of the cable. Once you gain access to the four wires inside, start fanning them out. Now that you've made fingers, you can get the pair of black gloves. Slide a black glove over the left hand, working four of the glove's fingers over the wires. It would be better if the cable had five wires, but it's easy enough to make do with four. I just stuffed a little straw into the pinky finger to fill it up, so it wouldn't look too limp. Repeat on the right side.
The Grim Reaper is almost completed. In the final two steps I'll walk you through the all-important finishing touches....Continue to 11 of 12 below.
11 of 12
Faux Cobwebs a Nice Halloween Touch if Properly Used
One of the finishing touches alluded to on the prior page is faux cobwebs. Here are a couple of rules of thumb to remember in applying them:
- Less is more.
- Random distribution will give you a more realistic look.
A little goes a long way with artificial spider webs, so don't overdo it. I needed to use only a portion of the package I bought; more would have been overkill.
Regarding #2, think in terms of how real spider webs would appear in the room of a haunted house. They wouldn't be distributed evenly, would they? No, the distribution would be less predictable than that. So avoid the mistake many homeowners make: don't apply the faux cobwebs in even rows or use them to cover the entire surface of an object.
A helper would come in handy when working with faux cobwebs, because the product comes tightly packed and needs to be opened up. With two people you could do this easily on a lawn: you could hold one end, while your helper walks away from you with the other, thereby stretching out the web. If working alone, attach one end to a fence, garden arbor, or other large object and pull the other end. Once the web is stretched out, you can cut off pieces with scissors and begin applying them to the display. For example, I began by anchoring one end of a cobweb strand to the left cornstalk, then pulling the other end down to the bottom of the haycock on the right side, working behind the Grim Reaper's back.
It's also time to arm your Grim Reaper with his lethal scythe. I placed the scythe in his right hand. To firm up his grasp, bend the "fingers" you created as tightly as you can over the handle of the scythe. Pliers aid greatly in this process.
There's a little more work to do on Page 12, where I show you the final version....Continue to 12 of 12 below.
12 of 12
Grim Reaper Drags Skull Along on Chain
As you can see from the picture of my final version above, I've added two more elements to the ensemble. First of all, I wasn't satisfied with the fit of the cloak on my Grim Reaper, so I tied a rope around his waist. This sash gave his figure better definition.
Secondly, I wanted my Grim Reaper to be doing something appropriately scary with his left hand. I decided to have him hold a chain in this hand, with a white pumpkin (sometimes called a "ghost pumpkin") loosely attached at the other end. The idea here was to suggest that the Grim Reaper had recently wielded that lethal scythe of his, lopping off the head of an unwitting victim and dragging it off to subterranean regions. A white pumpkin works better here than an orange one, since the color suggests a skull. Using a black magic marker, I drew a simple face onto the pumpkin, with X's for eyes to indicate death.
I placed the pumpkin on a pot rather than directly on the ground. The extra height thereby achieved makes the pumpkin more noticeable. I disguised the pot (as well as hiding the bottom of the pole and the gap between the bottom of the cloak and the ground) using excess straw. As a final touch, I closed the cloak more tightly at the bottom using a safety pin.
The whole project cost only a little over $50. Of course, if I hadn't already owned a bolt cutter, for example, the total cost would have been greater (a workaround would be to buy exactly 10 feet of electrical cable, so that you wouldn't need a bolt cutter). Nor did I have to buy the chicken wire, because, like many gardeners, I had some old pieces lying around (left over from past pest-control projects). I'm also not counting the cost of the straw ($10), since I buy some every year anyhow in the fall to mulch certain plants in my landscape (and that's exactly what I'll be doing with this straw as soon as I take down the display).
Need more ideas for fall displays? Don't forget to check out my main resource for outdoor Halloween decorations.