Haunter of the Month - Dave Lowe

August 16, 2012

It's not often that you find out that a Halloween hero of yours lives in your neighborhood, but that's exactly what happened this month when we were able to catch up with illustrator, prop/set designer and blog celebrity Dave Lowe.

Thankfully for us, he was able to take some time in between balancing his current project load and planning for Halloween 2012 to talk with us about all things Halloween.

For the uninitiated, who are you and how do you describe what you do?

I'm basically an "artistic mercenary for hire". I'll draw, paint, design, build anything for money.

Most of my career has been spent working in the art department on various TV shows. Although I usually bounce between prop work and set design, I've had many different jobs and titles depending on the work needed over the years. I also illustrate and cartoon when I can for books, and magazines, etc.

Beyond that, I live in a cozy house in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley with my fiancee, dog, and two cats. All of whom have learned to put up with the epic mess and crazy projects that get churned out from my backyard Hobbit hole of a workshop.

I've been very lucky to earn a living in the arts. Especially because, as early as elementary school, my grades made it pretty obvious I wasn't going to have a career in higher intellectual pursuits.

Your blog (davelowe.blogspot.com) has been an inspiration for haunters since 2005, but how long would you say you've been a "Haunter"?

Nice to hear my blog inspires; that was my hope when I started it. I began "haunting" , long before I even knew the term way back in 1994, when I first started decorating a house I was living in then. But I'd say I became a truly committed and dedicated haunter (spending too much of my free time thinking about my display) back in 2005 when my fiancee and I moved into the house we live in now (and, coincidentally, first started blogging)

For a lot of haunters there's a special something that piqued their interest in all things "Halloween" . What was it about Halloween that drew you in and how did it grow to the obsession it is today?

I've loved Halloween as far back as I can remember. I was a true "monster kid", loving horror movies, comics, building Aurora model kits, and hearing good family ghost stories. When the other kids just saw Oct. 31st as a fun night to get candy and wear a costume, I recall feeling a unique magic in the air that was similar to Christmas Eve when you believed in Santa Claus. Halloween was the night monsters came to life. And like Santa Claus and his reindeer, although you never saw them, you knew they were out there, somewhere.

I got into haunting about the same time I was working more and more as a prop person and set designer. Back in '94, I was living in my own first real house in Burbank. Since I had the lawn space, I borrowed a few set pieces and props I had made for a show called Sci Fi Buzz (on the Sy-Fy Channel back then) and set them out front. To my happy surprise the neighborhood kids went nuts for it. But what made me really feel bitten by the "haunt bug" was that year was the first time I ever dressed in costume (as "Jason") and scared the kids coming up to the door. It was an amazingly fun Halloween night.

A whole new world opened and Halloween suddenly had that magic I felt as a kid again. Only this time, I was helping to create that magic and myth for kids. Not to mention it became a good excuse to build props I normally would never have reason to.

And we all need excuses to build props! Do you remember what that first Halloween display looked like?

Man oh man, it was pretty sparse, with only a couple of main props, but they were fairly large so they helped the display look bigger than it really was. I had an electric chair (which is still the one I have in my display today) and a coffin with a mannequin wrapped to look like a mummy in it. I filled up a lot of the empty space with countless bags of cheap cobwebs stretched everywhere. That was really it that first year.

It's kind of funny looking back now. I thought it was so extreme and over the top.

I think we've all felt the same. Haunting seems to be one of those hobbies that forces you to improve your abilities every year, if for no other reason then to give the Trick or Treaters something new to look at and to keep them from saying "we saw that last year!".

That being said, do you remember the first prop you ever built?

Now that I think about it, the first true Halloween prop I ever made was a very, very long time ago, when I still lived at my parents' house. It was a silly giant ghost/phantom looking thing literally created on a whim, one hour before Trick or Treaters started arriving. I pulled an old bookshelf from the garage and stood it up in the driveway by the walk. I draped a bed sheet over it and taped a giant skull face on it that I had painted and cut out of cardboard.

My sister, watching me from the living room window, came outside wondering what the heck I was doing. After she saw it, she got into the decorating spirit and found a bag of fake cobwebs and started covering the front porch.

It was more decorating than we had ever done before, beyond a pumpkin, and was a lot of fun.

To anyone that's ever read your blog or seen your work, it's pretty obvious that you're an extremely creative person. Where does your inspiration come from?

Almost everything. My biggest fault is being an idea guy. I'm way too easily inspired. It's hard for me to pinpoint certain things in particular. I've always been fond of repurposing objects, so even garbage can inspire me. I can see an empty tape spool and I start thinking about what I could make out of it.

Sometimes I've found that inspiration for a cool prop can come out of a basic need and then I just push it a bit further. As an example, at our house, Frankenstein's Monster usually sits on my front porch waiting to greet the Trick or Treaters. Last year, when I forgot I needed something tall to put the candy cauldron on, I stacked up a few wood boxes. They worked, being rustic and old looking, but then it hit me, it would be fun if the boxes were labeled containing body parts, as if Dr. Frankenstein had mail-ordered supplies to create his monster. It added more to the story and fit the setting. Now this year, I hope to push that concept further and re-do the boxed body parts with more attention to detail.

Was it because of that creativity that you wanted to be a prop/set designer or was it something you fell into?

I did fall into it. I studied at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) with the intent to become a professional illustrator for children's books and comics for the rest of my life. After graduation, illustration jobs were very scarce, so I found myself working as a television Production Assistant (PA) to fund the lean times and those jobs ended up becoming more frequent.

Once the producers on those shows discovered my artistic background, they started throwing a variety of more creative tasks at me. As shows ended and new shows began, those same producers would remember me and bring me onto their next project.

My reputation as someone who could handle the artistic elements of a show grew and it led to my becoming a prop master, set designer, etc.

Being that your days are spent building props and dressing sets, do you find that your job has the tendency of getting in the way of working on your home haunt?

Good question, because it can. If you spend all day at work smelling hot glue and spray paint, sometimes the last thing you want to do is to spend your free time smelling hot glue and spray paint.

For me though, location is key. If I am working from home, I can easily transition from building stuff all day for work straight into my own personal projects while the creativity is flowing. However, if I am commuting from work to home, by the time I get home I've lost the momentum and energy, which is hard to get back.

But even then I try to find the energy to work on my own projects after hours, no matter how tired, or burned out I am. Creating something for myself, even if it's just a 1/2 hour or so doodling in my sketchbook, is good for my artistic soul after creating for others all day.

With Halloween quickly approaching, a lot of Haunters are planning how to decorate for 2012. How long does it take you to setup your display?

The "Next year, I'm going to…" thoughts and planning begin at midnight Nov. 1st every year as Halloween comes to an end. Sketching new ideas has become addictive to me, year round.

Actual prop building usually gets into high gear in late August, but the true setup time is tough to answer. It would only take me one or two days to set up all up. But, I draw the time out adding to the yard throughout the month, starting around Oct. 1st. It's become a bit of a tradition for the neighborhood kids to stop by the house everyday to look for something new. So, my display is never really done until the first Trick or Treater shows up.

That's a great approach, especially since most Haunters setup their displays for the enjoyment of neighborhood kids.

With that being said, there are very different types of Halloween displays. Some like the traditional and some like to be over the top. How would you classify your display?

Visually, it's fairly kid-friendly, but I try to appeal to the older kids and adults, as well. I use the Disney Haunted Mansion approach - everything's very spooky and creepy but also has fun characters and dark humor.

There's no extreme gore or anything really bloody in my haunt. I don't mind implying it though and let the viewer's imagination take over.

My fiancee describes it as a Halloween theme park, in that it has a little something in it for everyone. I kind of see my display as the ultimate shoebox diorama I always wanted to make as a kid, and now I have, but life-sized.

Do you find yourself adding new props to your display each year?

Absolutely! I enjoy seeing my display grow bigger each Halloween. Over the years I've been working to create a backstory for my haunt and it's fun creating new characters and props to illustrate that.

And as you said earlier, adding something new every year keeps the Trick or Treaters from saying "we saw that last year!".

Every year I have a new favorite prop, which usually happens to be the one I spent the most time or money on, is there a favorite prop that you've built for your haunt?

I don't have an all-time favorite yet. It always changes every year. Believe it or not, I've found that it's not always the newest one I've made either. Sometimes I rediscover the appeal of an older prop, especially when I've given it new life by displaying it in a different place or adding new details around it.

The majority of your display is made up of beautifully detailed static props. One would assume that with so many resources and what I would imagine is an arsenal of tools, you would be an animated prop sort of haunter. Is there a reason you haven't moved into more animated props?

I used to think about adding animatronics one day. Who hasn't? But it was my brother who pointed out something I never considered before.

Because my props were static, it really sets the kids up to believe that when they meet Frankenstein sitting on the front porch (often me in costume), that he's a dummy. Then, when he does move and give them a "BOO" scare, it has a greater impact. Then the scare is compounded, because when they walk away, they become worried that the other static props will suddenly come to life, so they run past them.

So now, I'm very content and happy with static props. And I try to put as much character into them as I can, that gives them a sense of life and movement. There's certain charm to a static prop, and nothing more creepy then when the wind hits a prop just right and makes something subtly move on it. Even when I made the darn thing, that can startle me.

As for resources and tools, yeah I guess I've got a lot, but I've found more often it's just basic things you need to create stuff. And always more budget friendly.

As I mentioned earlier, your props have a ton of great details. Is there one tool you can't live without?

I wish I had a more unique or interesting one to share as a favorite, but hands down, it's my cordless power drill. There are not many props I've made without it. It's so versatile - from screwing things together, to mixing paint. I've even used it to carve foam, and in too many other ways to list.

It's a must have in any prop makers tool kit.

Last question. Can you share any words of advice for other yard haunters?

Uh –oh, you shouldn't have asked that, because I'm going to write too much.

Never forget you're creating lasting memories for kids on Halloween night. That's a big responsibility. I try to make the experience at my haunt one that will instill a life long love of Halloween in them.

I think striking a good balance between your personal horrifying vision of Halloween and remembering it's a public display is the key to a popular haunt. Know your audience.You might think 101 bloody corpses impaled on pikes lining the walk, followed by a live show ripping the heart from a victim in a satanic sacrifice is freaking amazing and cool, but you have to ask yourself… is that something everyone's going to enjoy? Try to make it something your neighbors and kids want to stop by everyday to look at. But if you happen to live in a neighborhood of satan worshippers, forget what I said, add more impaled corpses.

Also don't stress yourself out and go broke buying or making props. Don't feel you have to compete with anyone in town or with others you see on forums and blogs. Make it as best you can for yourself and the fun of creating something. Your real audience, the kids, are just going to see a cool zombie they want to show their friends. They're not going to notice if you spent $1000 dollars and 8 sleepless months building it. Nor are they going to critique it, noting the eyes are two different shades of yellow or there's an accidental drop of glue here or there.

Your haunt does not have to be different or changed every October either. I've learned over the years that for some families, visiting my house as is, has become a big part of their Halloween tradition.

Last September, just when I was thinking everything was old and boring and I wanted to start from scratch, an older teen on my street mentioned to me that he couldn't wait for Halloween at my house. His little brother had decided he was finally brave enough this year to walk up and meet Frankenstein. That made me smile.

Sometimes, if it ain't broke. Don't fix it.

You can follow Dave Lowe on his blog at davelowe.blogspot.com and be sure to check out his online comic ParaAbnormal at www.paraabnormalthecomic.com