So Long Halloween 2017

It’s over for another year and most of the decorations are packed away. It was a great year and we had a fair number of Trick-or-Treaters on Halloween considering that it was a school night. The 8th Annual Nightmare before Halloween Party was also well attended and as far as I could tell everyone enjoyed the food, refreshments, and activities.

The theme for this year’s party and yard display was Welcome to the CarnEvil. It included clowns and clowns are very scary to some people. At least one person messaged me to tell me that her Coulrophobia (fear of clowns) was preventing her from coming to the party. She wasn’t kidding either. I promised to have “clown free” areas and still she didn’t attend.

In the past our themes were: Pirates, Witches, and Zombies. I suspect that the main reason that most people that didn’t attend was that it was on a Monday, a school or work night. The original reason for the party back in 2010 was to show off a bit and test out all of the Halloween mechanical decorations. It had to be on the night before Halloween due to the fact that decorations in the neighborhood are at risk of being vandalized. However this year I had an alarm, a fence, and a video camera leading me to believe that I may be able to separate the party/dry run a couple of days from Halloween.

Every year I add a new prop. My last blog entry was on October 8th (Finishing—Building IT Part VII) describes the final chapter in building this year’s newest prop. The theme for last year was Zombies and the new prop was a Zombie pit in the front yard. I used it again this year but raised it up on its end and included a prisoner clown hanging from his wrists. When anyone walked by the clown would talk and kick his feet.

The Arduino controlled witch that appeared in 2015 also returned. 2015 was the year of computer control just as 2009 was the first time that I employed pneumatics.

Preparations this year were intense. I started spending time in the workshop when the Spirit popup stores started appearing in mid-August. Building and repairing continued throughout the time right up to the night of the party and during Halloween day. I lost almost 10 pounds and went to bed sore and tired every night. On the other hand, I had more fun this year than in previous years. Money was not a problem and I got started early enough to enjoy the build. At times I felt that there was an evil gremlin hanging out in the workshop. Things that shouldn’t fail failed. “Aha solutions” turned out not to be so spiffy and everything took longer than it should but I stayed with it and learned important lessons through the failures and bad ideas.

Ultimately the goal of having an impressive, scary, reliable Halloween display was achieved and now most of it is packed up.

I’m still a bit sore though…

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Finishing—Building IT Part VII

Yes! “It” is done. Please check out the video on YouTube. It was finished on October 3rd leaving plenty of time to work on the other props before the dry run and party on the 30th. The grand finale is between the hours of 6 PM and 9 PM on Halloween night. Primarily, I do this for the kids on Halloween but I have to admit that I love showing off my skills and to gain some recognition and perhaps admiration from my friends. (If I’m to be a nerd, at least I’m a high functioning one.)

The night before party is also a celebration that I look forward to every year and it has become a tradition. Unfortunately, the party often occurs on a “school night.” By tradition and by necessity, the party has to happen on the night BEFORE Halloween. There are vandals in the neighborhood and having the displays up a few days early is a bad idea. Life would be much better without the vandals. I could set up things over a week and have the party on a weekend day. The current situation makes it necessary for me to set up most everything on one day. Some things that are high up can be placed ahead of time because the vandals don’t usually travel with ladders. This year there will be a few things placed higher up not because of the vandals but because I’m running out of real estate. The old grave yard is getting quite crowded. This year will also require some reorganizing to get everything to fit. Last year’s “new thing” the Zombie Pit won’t be displayed. Instead the bars that covered the pit will be placed vertically and there will be a clown hanging from his wrists within the make-shift jail.

Here are some pictures from the final stages of the build:

Skinning the prop involved cutting repurposed political signs, attaching the pieces to the framework, and painting them black. The “culvert” is made out of silver colored insulation material laid over bent fiberglass rods. The fiberglass rods are perfect in all ways but one. They are light and easy to bend into a smooth pipe-like shape. What is less than ideal is the fact that they must be handled with gloves. Fiberglass splinters are sharp, painful, and difficult to find and remove.

I’ve only received one tongue-in-cheek negative comment, “Aren’t you just a creative guy. If only all that talent could have been used for the good of mankind.” To which I replied, “Well…it’s part of an effort to get people to my house to donate to EMERGE a group that stands against domestic abuse…does that count?” He admitted that it did.

Most people who have viewed the video so far ask the same question, “Did you build that?” They never ask the harder question, “Why?”

Why? The short answer is that I enjoy it. It’s a pleasurable challenge and a chance to do something new. When I’m in the workshop concentrating on the latest build, the outside world goes away—I’m in the “zone.”

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Sometimes You Don’t Plan on the Hardest Thing—Building IT Part VI

Greetings Halloween Geeks and Geeks adjacent! Here is a picture of the IT prop “in-the-bones.” In other words, there is no skin. When I last reported I had everything working on the bench—separately. Turns out that is an important distinction. Everything worked and when assembled, it didn’t. It’s like reverse synergism. I anticipated a problem with mating the store bought jumping spider with the homemade portion. I did encounter that problem and found a solution quickly (and elegantly). Elegantly in that the finished prop will no longer require a set of AA batteries be installed in the spider. The solution was to split power from the main supply, regulate it, and provide it to the spider only when required. It took a bit of fiddling but now works fine. However, I didn’t anticipate that the noisy auto antenna motor would interfere with the audio amplifier.

As I said, each element worked independently. The voice sounded great from the reclaimed PA speaker horn when it said “Beep beep Kiddie. They ALL float down here. When you’re down here with us, you’ll float too! They all float down here.” The clown descended creepily down into the toilet. The spider looked scary as it slid forward. After a very slight slide backwards, the spider jumps and makes noise that seems to fit the situation. Once the spider backs down, the tray moves the spider back and the clown rises once again from the toilet. Beautiful! Except, the voice only worked once and was silent in subsequent cycles. WTF?

What follows is some “deep geek” discussion.

I tried everything to isolate the problem. Remember that the only time there was a problem is when everything was connected together. I didn’t have a clue about how to fix the problem.

I replaced the 12V power supply with a deep cycle 12V marine battery—no improvement. I powered the FX and sound board with a separate power supply and that didn’t fix the problem. Frustration started to be the order of the day. Nothing I tried made any difference. The problem got worse with each cycle and that made the problem harder to troubleshoot.

Before I became an electrical engineer, I was an experienced technician. It knew it would take every skill I had to find what was causing this situation. Isolating the audio board power supply didn’t work. Isolating the triggering connection to the audio board also didn’t work. I reasoned that there must be radio frequency interference from the auto antenna actuators.

A quick Google query gave me website on “Dealing with Motor Noise.” I followed the instructions half believing that I was wasting my time. Fortunately, the problem went away—completely!

The next installment will include a video of the completed IT prop in action. Today is the 1st of October and I feel great that my 2017 new prop is nearing completion. There are dozens of small projects that must be completed before the end of the month and I may not get to everyone but at least the IT prop will be there for the kids on Halloween.

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What’s Next? Building IT Part V

I finished the last installment of “Building IT” with “what’s next?” What was next was to wire the circuit boards and test their functions. The picture here doesn’t look very different from yesterday but that’s the nature of projects. In the beginning, change is obvious. First there is nothing then there is something. In the middle of the project very little seems to change. It’s like the project absorbs work.

In spite of that apparent effect, I accomplished a lot today. Notice that the two boards are now joined and there are wires connecting all the components. The small board on the workbench is simply for testing. Lights on the board indicate what is happening. The lights will be replaced with other components such as linear actuators and a motion sensor. One of the wires will activate a store purchased jumping spider. I’m hoping that that will be easy but I’m not holding my breath.

Everything works and the next step is to place the circuitry in a weather proof container and mount it to the prop. Then the prop components can be connected to the terminal strip on the outside of the container. With the exception of one last remaining hard
thing to do, the rest of the build should be easy. The hard thing is mating the homemade portion of the prop with the store bought jumping spider. I expect challenges. The linear actuator motors sometimes interfere with the Chinese circuitry in Halloween decorations. I may have to apply power to the spider only when I want it to be active. I’m hoping that that won’t be necessary but I’m prepared to if needed.


  • Mount the circuit boards
  • Connect the actuators, lights, motion sensor, and spider
  • Decorate
  • Fine adjust and play

Stay tuned!

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Do the Hard Stuff First: Building IT IV

Greetings! In the 11 days since the last installment of “Building IT” a lot has happened but that doesn’t mean that the work has stopped. Building IT is quite a project. almost to the same level as the first pneumatic clown prop that I built. In some ways IT is a step back. When I retired in 2008, I thought that Halloween was going to be great but it wasn’t. I had “Jack” but the clown prop that I built was a horrible failure. For one thing, I started too late. The clown was supposed to come out of a box. It used and electric actuator that didn’t work well. He was slow and boring. Even so, the Halloween was still fun. I still had my trustworthy “Jack.”

I would put “Jack” the talking pumpkin out every year.

Jack was easy to set up and store. He consisted of foam and plastic pumpkin, a speaker, a microphone, and a 100 Watt voice modulated light bulb. On Halloween day I would pull out a single cardboard box and find my PA amp. I covered a tall speaker with an old moth eaten tablecloth so it could double as Jack’s stand. Jack would sit on his speaker by the door and I would talk to the trick-or-treaters thought he PA system. I could see them through a darkened window and a microphone placed near Jack allowed me to hear them. Some kids would come back after Trick-or-treating just to talk. Jack has been with us since the seventies. We moved to Tucson in 2000 and Jack came with us. The kids that used to talk with Jack on Halloween night in the early 2000’s are now bringing their kids but it’s not just Jack anymore. Jack has friends now!

Building IT is quite a project and projects need to be divided into individual tasks. Some tasks are easy or familiar because I’ve done them before. Some tasks are unfamiliar and challenging. These are the “hard stuff.” On the other hand, there are familiar tasks that must be accomplished first. For example, I’ve built props in the past and building a box is something that might be considered easy or familiar. However I can’t mount the linear actuator which is rather challenging without the box to mount it to.

Today’s hard stuff is adding a voice to IT which involves using a couple of circuit modules that I’ve never used before. ***work***work***…I’m back and it wasn’t as tough as it could have been. The Adafruit Audio FX sound board and the audio amplifier worked just as advertised. What’s next?

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Building IT Halloween Prop III

The IT build continues. I spent some quality time in my workshop today and got to fiddle a bit with my newest Halloween prop. It is usual for these types of projects to break things first and I had to tear up my new clown decoration. It was necessary to remove his “bones” so that the arms would collapse when sinking into the toilet. It took a bit of work but I got it to function. It’s going to take some finishing work but at least now I know that what I’m trying to do is at least possible.

I had to counter balance the toilet lid. The automotive power antenna that I’m using to raise the clown isn’t very strong. The clown’s head will push the lid open. A cord attached to the clown’s neck will make the lid close down when the antenna retracts. It would have been easy to use the clown decoration as it came out of the store if I didn’t require it to pass through a toilet seat but the seat was available and my builds are more fun if I upcycle or at least save material from going to the landfill. Besides, I think the toilet seat adds to the idea that the clown resides in the sewers.

The normal (starting) position of the clown will be standing in the toilet. Once triggered, the clown will drop down and make room for the jumping spider to slide over the toilet seat. It will then jump at the observer. You can see a video of the clown sinking and rising HERE.

In 2015, I did a similar rework on a jumping dog prop from the Spirit store. It also used an automotive power antenna, motion sensor, and an Arduino program to make it all work. You can see it in action HERE.

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Building It Halloween Prop (Part II)

It looks a bit like I’m building an outhouse. I had a good building day. It started with drawing up plans—the best laid plans of mice and men…as they say.

The first priority was to get an overall size for the box. The prop will contain a clown that ducks down in a toilet seat. It will also include a jumping spider that I bought from the Spirit store. The front of the prop will have the toilet seat and clown. The rear will have the jumping spider. The height of the box was determined by the dimensions of the linear actuator that will lift the clown and toilet lid. The width is determined by the size of the jumping spider’s base and the length is determined by the distance that the spider will move forward before it jumps at the viewer.

The next step was a trip to the hardware store for the 2×2 lumber. I bought four 8 foot lengths, brought them home and commenced to cutting. The compound miter saw I bought for previous Halloween builds sure came in handy. The build was easy using simple butt joints along with 3 inch dry wall screws, and glue.

I had enough 1×4 lumber on hand to build the frame like structure that will hold the toilet seat. Once again the compound miter saw came in handy along with the biscuit joiner. I applied glue and went out to do other things.

Everything was going so well up to this point but it was time to prove out the old adage about “best laid plans.” Adjustments will have to be made. Originally, I was going to have the spider come out of the rear of the prop at an angle but trial fitting the remaining components and considering the strength of the automotive radio aerial that I’m using as a linear actuator, caused me to revisit the plan. It’s not unusual, of course. Also, I know with confidence that I can make a Spirit prop move horizontally since I built a doghouse for a jumping dog prop that I bought from the Spirit store in 2015. Besides, it will make the build simpler.

I have to wait for the drawer rails to arrive before I build the moving tray for the spider. However, I’m ready. I’m going to skin the project with the political signs that I picked up after the last election. The culvert structure on the back of the prop will be covered with silver insulation material that I happen to have on hand from another project. The tracking data says I won’t have to wait long.

The final steps will involve automating the prop after all the parts are assembled and manually tested.

*Spoiler Alert* the way the prop will function:

A small clown holding a red balloon will be standing up in the toilet seat. The clown will say “They all float down here” and start to descend when someone approaches. A bright light will come from the inside of the culvert on the back of the prop when the clown finishes sinking into toilet and the seat closes over the top. Next, the spider will slide over the top of the toilet seat and pop up when it reaches the end.

Finally, the spider will retract, slide back into the culvert, the light goes off, and the clown will once again rise out of the toilet and wait for the next activation.

Stay tuned!

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