Introduction: Nightmare Before Christmas Outdoor Halloween Decorations
"This is Halloween, this is Halloween..."
For Halloween 2020, I made good use of pandemic stay-at-home orders by dedicating nearly three months to making this The Nightmare Before Christmas scene for Halloween. I made each of these characters from scratch - primarily from foam wall insulation and PVC pipes. I designed the display to be up and away from the busy street - for visibility and also to make theft/vandalism a little less convenient. In the end I made 10 different elements; some highlights include: Jack Skellington stands 10 feet tall, Sally's hair is 728 yards of yarn, Oogie Boogie glows in his lair and Zero has a solar panel embedded in the back of his head to power his light-up nose. This post is really long but, even if you're not interested in making all of the elements, hopefully certain parts are helpful to your project. Overall, the project took me over 200 hours and the total cost for materials would be about $400 (I had lots of scrap foam and fabric that helped me keep my costs well below this amount).
Step 1: Materials and Tools
- Rigid foam insulation - 2" thick, 4'x8' (Foamular 150) - 3 sheets
- Rigid foam insulation - 1" thick, 4'x8' (Foamular 150) - 1 sheets
- Black foam poster board – 1 piece
- White foam poster board – 1 piece
- Foam board adhesive (Loctite PL 300) - 4 tubes
- PVC pipes – 2” interior diameter – 3 10ft pipes
- Metal clothes hangers
- Metal rod – 1/4” diameter x 6 ft.
- Hardwood – 3/4” thick
- Galvanized wire
- 2x4s – roughly 12ft
- 1/4" plywood
- Wood filler – 16 fl oz
- Latex wall paint or drywall primer - 2 quarts
- Sky blue acrylic paint – 3 2 fl oz tubes
- Black acrylic paint – 1 medium tubes
- White acrylic paint - 1 medium tubes
- Green phosphorescent black light paint – 2 6oz bottles
- Black light paint set
- White fabric paint pen – 3 pens
- Fabric marker set
- Clear matte acrylic sealer (spray paint) - 2 cans
- Burlap – 5 yards
- Black craft felt fabric (72" wide by the yard) - 8 yards
- White craft felt fabric (72" wide by the yard) - 2 yards
- Brown craft felt fabric (72" wide by the yard) - 1 yard
- Yarn – Bordeaux colored – 2 skeins
- Yarn – Black – 1 skein
- Black pipe cleaners – 1 pack
- Black string
- Hanging rotating motor – 2
- UV LED Black Light
- Solar Powered LED string lights
- LED flood lights
- Jack-o-lantern lights
- Candy corn tube with pumpkin topper
- 2” “L” brackets - 2
- Hot glue sticks
- Zip ties
- Screws - variety ranging from 3/8" to 3"
Step 2: Plan & Design
For visibility and to protect from theft, I have as much as possible on my porch and (flat) roof. I used Powerpoint to plan a layout for the display and to determine the proportion of Jacks limbs, head, etc. More specifically, I measure each part in pixels then multiply out to get the desired height in feet. Jack ended up just short of 10’ tall (plus the length of pipe that’s not seen but used to secure him). Sally is pretty tall too; if she were standing she's be over 6 feet.
Step 3: How to Make Jack Skellington
Carve and paint his head
I carved Jack’s head – and several other characters/elements – from rigid wall insulation. I glued layers of foam together with foam adhesive – be careful, many adhesives and sprays will eat through foam – and allowed the glue to set-up for 24+ hours. I decided both Jack and Sally’s heads would be about 11.5 inches in diameter so I made a C-shape (like giant calipers) from scrap wood. I roughed-in the spherical head with a hacksaw and drywall saw before I moved to an extendable blade shop knife and surform shaver. Jack’s head is much more squat than a sphere, so I carved the base of his head to be more flattened and made a slope from a short nose up his forehead. I carved his eye sockets, nostrils and mouth using a Dremel rotary tool with a drywall cutter attachment. I then sanded the foam to smooth some edges, spackled with lightweight wood filler (I like DAP premium), sanded, spackled, etc. until totally smooth. I then applied two coats of white latex wall paint I had on hand to cover all exposed foam. Black acrylic paint were used to paint the mouth and nose and a gradient of colors – black to medium grey – were used to add depth to the eye sockets. I used a hole cutter drill attachment to cut a hole in the base of the head to insert a PVC pipe “neck”. I had a snug fit but you might use some foam adhesive within the head to help anchor it if needed. I patched any rough spots around the hole and painted both the base of the head and the PVC (so it’s not shiny). Once everything was painted, I used matt clear coat to seal the paint. Be aware that spray paint – even clear coat – will eat through exposed foam so make sure all foam is covered before applying clear coat.
Build his body
I made his body from 2” PVC pipes and his joints were made from two layers of 3/4" oak. For strength, I wanted to use a hardwood and I layered the two pieces of wood with the grain running in different directions and attached them with screws and glue. I then trimmed the oak joints on my bandsaw (setting the platform at an angle) so they fit snugly inside the PVC. I made 5 wood pieces – shoulders/neck, pelvis, two elbows and one knee. I chose to have one of his legs straight to make the structure more solid once he was standing. When cutting the PVC for the legs, I included an extra two feet at the bottom to be used for securing the structure. In my case, this was behind the parapet wall on my flat roof but you could sink the PVCs in a hole in the yard or somehow hide the braces used to keep him upright. I used foam to make a triangular torso and a cylindrical midsection to add a little thickness to his body.
Make his hands
I, once again, used the foam insulation for his wrist and finger bones. To connect the bones, I wanted to run a single piece of wire clothes hanger through each bone but I would accidentally poke the wire out the side of the long, skinny finger bone whenever I tried to insert it. My final solution was to use 6-7” length of wire for each joint. I cut the wire to make sharp ends to poke in the end of the bones and, when inserting the wire, I’d coat the wire in foam adhesive. The foam wrists were trimmed so they fit snugly down into the PVC of his forearms.
Carve his bowtie
I made the bow tie out of foam which I shaped with a knife then Dremel. I used three separate pieces of foam which I then connected with adhesive. I didn’t bother with spackling and additional sanding since the black paint would obscure any roughness, especially when seen from a distance. I used adhesive to attach flaps of black felt to the back of the tie. The felt was then hot glued to Jack’s suit. Note: since hot glue often melts foam, I use this trick a lot: glue felt to foam using foam adhesive then use hot glue to attach the felt to some other surface (typically another fabric).
Sew and paint his suit
I use a lot of felt in my displays. The reasons: it’s pretty cheap, it’s thick enough to hide irregularities behind it and it doesn’t hold a lot of water (ie: it stays fairly lightweight) in the rain and snow. Before sewing the sleeves and pants, I used white fabric markets to draw pinstripes. In the movie, Jack’s pinstripes were wavy and irregular so I just freehanded them. I made the body of his suit coat by wrapping and folding the fabric around the torso. I don’t love sewing shoulders in costumes so I was in luck; I just cut holes through the coat body and pulled the sleeves through the openings (no sewing involved!). Once attached, I drew the pinstripes on the body of the suit, glued on a single button and glued on his long coat tails.
Attach and secure his limbs
I found it easiest to dress him before attaching all of his limbs. I also waited until he was in position before attaching his legs (he’s really tall and awkward!) by drilling holes in the PVC and using 3/8” screws to anchor the pipes to the wooden joints.
Step 4: How to Make Sally
Carve and paint her head
I followed the same general approach for Sally’s head as I did for Jack's. While carving the head, you’ll want to identify where her nose will be to leave a bump for that. I did a lot of rounds of spackle and sanding to make her face as smooth as possible. The top and back of her head will be covered with hair so don’t worry about smoothing those. I chose “sky blue Folk Art acrylic paint” for her skin color. Whatever you select, I recommend choosing a store-bought color as opposed to mixing your own; you’ll need to do touchups and don’t want to deal with trying to match colors. Another piece of advice, as borrowed from theater/drag queens: paint for the back row. Translation: do more highlight and shadow than you’d expect. Floodlights tend to flatten everything visually, so that nose you carefully carved will look practically nonexistent without highlight and shadow. If you’re not sure how to paint (especially Sally’s nose), watch a drag queen makeup tutorial video. Seriously. I used the same approach of highlight and shadow for her stitches. I encourage you to make them bold so they show up from a distance. Once everything was painted, I applied a couple of coats of matte clear coat (this was the same for the painted portions of her body).
Carve and paint her body
I had never carved a full body so I took it in pieces: legs to the knee, arms, neck and torso/thighs. The most important thing I learned is to locate the seams so they’ll be covered with the costume. I actually had her shoulders as part of the torso originally but disconnected them and attached them to the arms later on. The different pieces were attached with adhesive and dowel rods. The 3/8” dowels were roughly 8” long and one or two were sunk into each piece being attached.
Down the center of her back, I cut a 1” deep channel into which I laid a piece of 1”x2” lumber. I secured it with foam adhesive and several 3” screws. This will be used to secure Sally once she’s placed in position outside.
Sew her dress
I first made the general shape of the dress from white felt onto which I laid out the fabric which would be used to make the patchwork dress. I used scraps of quilting fabric my mom had from old projects. Pale pinks, greens and tans mostly. I used fabric markers to make some of the patterns on the fabric from the original movie. I sewed this patchwork to the white felt backing to ensure that you couldn't see through the thin cotton - especially in the rain. I used black yarn to make the oversized, black stitches. I, essentially, made a big smock so I could wrap her body and secure the dress in the back with hot glue.
Add her eyelashes and hair
For her eyelashes, I poked holes with toothpicks and shoved in black pipe cleaners. Once they were in place, I trimmed them for length. For hair, I first made a brown, felt base for her hair. It looked like a sort of veil or nun’s habit. I cut, folded and hot glued until it was the general shape of the hairline and length in the back. I then made “tracks” of yarn for hair. Each track was made of bundles of 50 strands of yarn which were then sewn to small pieces of brown felt. The length of the yarn on each track was about 40” and I used two full skeins (728 yards total) for the hair. I hot glued the felt of each track to the felt “veil” to ensure that the felt was totally covered when viewed from the front. My advice: make sure the yarn is long enough so you can adequately secure the ends of the hair on her back. I originally used a couple of felt loops/straps to hold the hair to her to her back. Based on high winds in Chicago, I eventually went back and added more loops and large safety pins to keep the hair in place. Since making this addition, Sally hasn’t had any fly-aways. :-)
Step 5: How to Make Zero
Carve and paint his head and body
Just like Jack and Sally, for Zero’s head: foam, foam adhesive, cut, carve, spackle, sand, paint and clear coat. For his body, I used the same approach but just cut a shallow, oval disc. I then covered the upper surface of of the disc with white felt. The blue of the adhesive could be seen through the layer of felt so I painted the felt with white acrylic paint. A larger piece of felt was cut in a rectangular sort of shape with wavy edges and longer points at the four corners. I attached it to the back with hot glue. Eventually, I discovered that the wind would flip this fabric up onto his back (not ideal) so I attached fishing line near the edges of the four corners which I attached to the pole onto which he was placed.
Make his ears
I used a single metal clothes hanger for each of the ears. I left about 2” of wire to then poke into the head once ready. I sandwiched the wire between two pieces of felt which I glued to the wire (and to the other piece of felt).
Light his nose
I wanted his nose to glow like in the movie so I found a small plastic pumpkin that was the top of a candy dispenser from Dollar Tree. I tightly coiled a strand of solar-powered LED string lights to fit inside the pumpkin and reattached the two halves of the pumpkin. I cut a recess in the back of Zero's head so I could embed the solar panel and secure it with some wires and screws. I chose this lighting to withstand the weather and, since it's solar powered, it would come on daily and be self-contained in the head (not requiring wires running down the pole onto which he was placed).
Make the structure
I chose a 1/4" thick metal rod to serve as the base for Zero. It has enough flex that it sways in the wind and is strong enough not to bend or snap. The main challenge with this approach has been preventing his body from spinning around the pole (ending up with his body underneath his head). I attached an Allen wrench to the rod – securing it with wire and tape – and cut a small channel in the underside of the body to prevent it from rotating around the pole. This helped but high winds still spun the body so I added fishing line to keep the body in the correct position once it was installed. The metal rod fit into a wooden base which held the rod vertically and prevented it from swaying too much.
Step 6: How to Make Oogie Boogie
Carve and paint his head
Foam carving but don’t worry about spackle or sanding. Otherwise, same as Jack or Sally. I painted the holes for his eyes and mouth.
Cover his head
I covered his head with black felt using foam adhesive. To the felt, I then hot glued burlap.
Sew and stuff his body
I sewed a big sack out of burlap and stuffed it with black trash bags containing foam scraps and packing peanuts. I then placed the head on top of the body (stuffed burlap sack) and secured the two parts with hot glue. From here, I draped arms with an additional piece of burlap and stuffed them with some scrap bubble wrap. I then hot glued the burlap to seal in the bubble wrap and shape the arms to their desired form – trying to minimize seams that were visible.
Paint and add the seam
I painted Oogie Boogie with black light reactive/glow-in-the-dark paint. I tried a number of approaches to application including spray bottle and air brush. In the end, I just settled on diluting the (thick) paint and painting it on with a 2-inch paintbrush. Since the paint is expensive and painting was time consuming, I focused the paint on his top half since he was going to be standing behind a railing which would block much of his lower half. I used one and a half of the 6oz bottles of Wildfire Glow Green Phosphorescent Black Light Paint (this stuff is great; I highly recommend it). I then used black acrylic paint and an airbrush to add contouring around his face, neck and side seams. I did not clear coat this character since he was being positioned on the porch and should stay out of most weather. I also stitched a side seam using black yarn.
Step 7: How to Make the Cat
Cut wood structure
I cut three pieces of 1/4” plywood which would serve as the supports since the legs, neck and tail were going to be so thin. One piece would support the front legs, one would support the back legs and one supported the neck and tail.
Carve and paint
The cat was layered with foam and wood as follows (starting from the back): wood for back legs, 1” foam for back legs and body, wood for neck and tail, 2” foam for body (not tail or neck), wood for front legs, 1” foam for front legs and body. To make the pieces fit together without gaps, I needed to cut small troughs on the foam being used to make the body (see pictures). After the body and legs were all glued together, I used separate pieces of 1” foam for the neck and tail and a piece of 2” foam for the head. I found it easiest to carve the ears separately and attach them to the head with adhesive.
Attach to structure
I used corner/L brackets to attach the rear legs to piece of 2” x 6”. To keep the brackets hidden from the front, I angled them so I needed to chisel out an angle on the 2" x 6" to accommodate the angle of the bracket. This piece of wood is low enough to not be seen from the street below but is heavy enough to keep the cat from blowing over in the wind.
Step 8: How to Make the Gravestones
Carve and paint
The gravestones are made with a combination of 2” and 1” foam. Few things in the movie have right angles so I intentionally designed them to lean and have some skewed angles. To add some texture, I mashed a broken piece of blacktop against the surface, varying the direction of the blacktop to keep the markings irregular. I also cut some cracks using a Dremel with the drywall cutting attachment. I then painted the stones with highlight and shadow and sealed them with clear coat.
Attach to the structure
To make the bases for the stones, I attached dowel rods to 2x4s (just drilled holes and hammered in the dowels). I then drilled holes in the base of the stones and inserted the dowels after squirting some adhesive in the holes.
Step 9: How to Make Bats, Dice, "Halloween Town" Sign, Jack-o-lanterns and Oogie’s Boys
The bats were made using black foam poster board, one coat of white paint and two coats of black light-reactive paint. Foam poster board can be used for this since it’ll stay dry hanging on the porch. I hot glued black felt to the bat’s feet to make hanging easy.
I reused some dice from a lawn Yahtzee game and painted them with black-light reactive paint. I hung them using fishing line and a hanging spinning motor to keep them turning.
Jack-o-lanterns were carved from pumpkins with led lights on timers.
Oogie’s Boys (Lock, Shock and Barrel) were printed on multiple 8.5”x11” sheets of paper, pieced together and attached to white foam poster board that was custom sized for the window
Step 10: Install and Light
I used a wooden box (sort of like a table structure) to be Jack’s base as it was hidden from view by the parapet wall. I cut holes in the top of the box so that the PVCs could pass through this layer and rest on the lower level of wood. I cut 8 pieces of ~1 inch thick wood with triangle/half-circles cut out of them and used these to pinch the PVC pipes to hold them tightly. These pieces were held in place with screws and the box was weighted down with extra lumber and a 25 pound plate. I also sank on long screw into the wood used to make Jack’s pelvis. To this, I attached 4 guide wires which were each anchored about 10 feet away. To tighten the wires, I used zip tie loops like turnbuckles (see picture).
I used 1/2" wood planks with screws and washers to clamp onto the gutter braces. To these anchors, I screwed the 2x4 bases of the gravestones. I wouldn’t recommend placing a lot of weight on the gutter but this wood/foam is pretty lightweight. For added stability in the wind, I attached wires to the tops of the gravestones with 3” screws and secured the other ends of the wire to the roof via other gutter braces. Just in case with wind knocks down the gravestones, these wires will keep them from blowing away.
Oogie Boogie’s lair
To contrast Oogie Boogie’s glow, I covered the porch in black felt that was stapled (using a staple gun) into place. Each piece was hot glued to the other and I cut flaps to allow wind to pass through (for the part that was not hung tight to the façade of my house). Oogie was secured to the railing with a loop of galvanized wire around his middle. His arms were kept lifted with black string stapled to the ceiling. The bats were also stapled to the ceiling and the spinning dice were hung with cup hooks. The lair was lit with an LED black light floodlight which worked very well.
Sally & cat
Sally and her cat were both secured to a wooden structure (left over from a Christmas decoration) which was hidden from view by the parapet wall. The cat was backlit by a floodlight sitting on the roof.
To discourage theft of the pumpkins, I cut a disc of 1/4" MDF (any hard material would work) to place inside the pumpkin which was then screwed, through the bottom of the pumpkin, into the wooden step below. If someone wanted to take the pumpkins, they could but this might slow them down enough to hopefully make them reconsider.
Step 11: Enjoy!
If you have any questions along the way, please ask!
Thanks for reading!
Step 12: Update for Christmas!
After all this trouble, why not do a little more work and use the display for another month!? I made a red suit for Jack, replaced Oogie Boogie with Santa, hung a man-eating wreath, lights and garland.
Runner Up in the